Robinson takes one of the classic tropes of fantasy, the peasant who rises to defend a kingdom, and asks what might happen next? Once the immediacy of the threat passes, how would someone with no experience of national politics or the mundane issues of leadership handle the responsibility that comes with having become a hero. And does it without losing the pace and personality of the trope that spawned it.
This novel continues the Nightblade saga, and runs parallel to some of the events of the Academy Chronicles. As such, it is likely to contain at least partial spoilers.
In recognition of Loren’s part in the battle for the King’s Seat, the High King has named her Nightblade. But gaining in truth the title she has dreamed of since she was young brings Loren a new problem: with neither predecessors nor terms of service, what does it actually mean to be the Nightblade? And what might she have to give up in return?
As with Robinson’s previous Underrealm books, this novel consists of two intertwined stories: the personal development of the protagonist, and the wider politics of the nation.
However – unlike the previous volumes – this book deals with the burden of power and authority rather than weakness and constraint. As the bearer of a direct, yet nebulous, commission from the monarch, Loren clearly outranks many people; but does she outrank everyone? And what of the chain of command? Making full use of the scenario so hated by the military mind – that of an apparent civilian given unspecified command over a unit of soldiers – Robinson grants Loren both a mission and forces to assist her, then mires her in issues of whether the forces must take her orders or merely assist within the bounds of their existing role.
Not content with the travails of formal politics, Robinson adds several companions-of-choice to the group. Even when Loren achieves a possible answer to questions of military rank, she is left with the delicate task of heeding (and herding) people who are with her from friendship, but do not share her exact interests.
Paralleling this personal balancing act between demanding compliance and lacking authority, Robinson reveals the fragility of the alliance between the kingdoms: the King’s Seat has been saved from attackers, but the High King’s position is not so clearly unassailable that the other kingdoms will do more than not actively oppose her; and a single kingdom joining the other side might be enough to lose even that stability.
Where the Loren of Nightblade and the two following volumes was a child-seeking-to-be-adult, the Loren of this novel is conscious of the downside of being an adult: duty tugs at her, the place in society that grants her authority also takes her freedom to act utterly as she wishes, and she must find a way to achieve her aims within the law rather than despite of it.
The recurring cast have similarly matured in their interests and abilities: both Gem and Annis, while still callow, have discovered both attraction and a new seriousness; and Chet has found an inner iron that makes him more than Loren’s first love.
To these existing characters, Robinson adds a diverse group of Mystics. United by their common duty, but each having specialist skills and personal interests, they provide a professional counterpoint to the casual approach of Loren’s original companions without merely being a monolithic military force.
Overall, I enjoyed this book greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a fast-paced fantasy that does not ignore the emotional cost of suddenly becoming a hero.
I received a free copy from the publisher with a request for a fair review.