Here’s a little confession before I start this review post proper: I’ve always thought that Andre Norton’s a guy, and had therefore dismissed Fantasy novels penned by her as being too devoid of emotions, tensions and romance. Yeah, I know that’s a rather narrow view of male authors, but I’m slowly revising that opinion although I’m highly selective about which male author I read.
Anyway, back to the books. I’ve eschewed works by Norton because of that and the only reason I picked up The Duke’s Ballad is because Lyn McConchie collaborated on this book. This New Witch World novel is a straightforward fantasy about the power of courage and hope in the face of evil, and ultimately how love can redeem even one turned by dark influence and avarice.
A young witch who is just beginning to realize her true powers, Aisling was forced into exile years ago by her older brother, Kirion, who had chosen to use his powers for evil and tried to leech her dry to augment his own magic. Through the Duke of Kars, Shastro, Kirion worked his dark influence to subjugate the entire realm, and thus incurred the resentment of the various clans, who seek to restore justice and peace. It was at such a tumultuous time that Aisling returned in disguise to free her homeland of the despotic sorcerer and overturn the duke’s oppressive rule.
Helping her in this dangerous mission is her younger brother Keelan, and the heir of an old ally of her family’s, Hadrann. Together, the trio planned and plotted to get close to the Duke, trying to stay ahead of danger and discovery. However, as Aisling got to know Shastro better, the Duke took a liking to her, and she found herself questioning her mission until a neighbouring clan laid siege to Kars.
The siege woke her up and she realized they must act quickly before Kirion wrought more death and suffering to the land’s loyal subjects. Using all the magic, persistence and ingenuity she can summon, and with the help of Keelan and Hadrann, Aisling must somehow avoid her evil brother, save the people from his murderous schemes and return peace and prosperity to their Dukedom.
Fans of Fantasy would find this work enjoyable, but romance fans will be disappointed with the almost zero romance subplot – well, Hadrann and Aisling did end up a couple, but the entire courtship was chaste and chivalrous. So, this is strictly for Fantasy readers.
The other book, Mage Heart by Jane Routley, a new-to-me author from Australia, a place which is gaining a reputation for producing top-notch Fantasy writers, has a dark undertone, a fascination with darker desires and struggle between good and evil.
Written in the first person, this highly original romantic fantasy work follows the journey of young Dion, an innocent adrift in a world of magic, political intrigues and foul treacheries since the death of her foster father, to her rise as the most powerful mage in the realm. Hired to protect the favourite mistress of the Duke ruling the kingdom of Gallia, Dion was at first wary of the seductive courtesan who has the most disturbing ability to mesmerize and inspire fierce loyalty amongst her friends and the poor. However, as Kitten took naïve Dion under her wings, and made her realize the threat from the fearsome necromancer stalking her is very real, Dion began to slowly grow in her magical strength and an unlikely friendship sprung between them.
However, as evil approaches, Dion started to fear her own gift of magic, a great power that is balanced on the precarious blossoming of womanhood and threatens to tilt over by dangerous desires that plagued her dreams at night.
I like the way Ms Routley intertwined magic and politics, and propped the work up with well drawn backgrounds and memorable characters. The whole package was compelling and evocative. Even the secondary villain, a demon that fascinated and tempted Dion terribly with the power of knowledge before she tasted the desires of womanhood, and dark longings she couldn’t understand, turned out to be an anti hero who stood in awe of her and was simply helplessly drawn to her power and strength. Overall, this tuned out to be an exciting surprise find. Dion’s adventure continues in two other sequels but reviews for those are mediocre, so I’m undecided yet about following the series. It won’t be my priority read for certain, not before I make serious headway into my TBR pile.