by Elizabeth Vaughan, fantasy (2010)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23467-9
Phew, what a blast. Destiny's Star, the conclusion to Elizabeth Vaughan's Epics Of Palins series, ends not just with a bang, but with a truly fantastic mother of all kaboom.
Now, the bad news first. If you are new to the series, I strongly suggest that you do not just dive into this book. You can start with Dagger-Star, because that was the book where the hero and the heroine first met. But even more ideally, you should start from the first book in Elizabeth Vaughan's Chronicles Of The Warlands trilogy, Warprize, because the author takes her main characters of this book straight into the heart of the conflict ravaging the tribes first introduced in Warprize. Speaking as someone who has read only Warprize but not the two books that followed at the time of writing, however, I don't think you need to read that whole trilogy, because I still can understand the conflicts in this book just fine.
Okay, bear with me as I give the synopsis, because this is one book that gets absolutely so much better as it progresses. The early parts of the story are easily the weakest aspects of the tale, and unfortunately, those parts comprise the bulk of my summary.
Lady Bethral first showed up in Dagger-Star as the loyal companion and sister-in-arm to Red Gloves, the heroine of that book. Also in that book, the two female mercenaries rescued a slave, Ezren Silvertongue, from the slave market, and allowed him to tag along with them as they became embroiled in the power struggle for the throne in the kingdom of Palins. By the end of the book, both women have parted ways: Red Gloves returned to Soccia with the man who loved her hot on her tail, and Bethral, now a Lady, stayed behind to serve as Warder and Protector for Queen Gloriana. Ezren Silvertongue also stayed behind in Palins, having recovered his voice. Both Ezren and Bethral have a crush on each other, but, you know, they never really get around to telling each other how they feel about the other person.
In Destiny's Star, things begin with a big kaboom. Ezren, for some reason nobody knows, contains in his body "wild magic". The magicians of Palins do not know how to help Ezren control this wild magic. During a ceremony held in the castle to celebrate High Priestess Evelyn's departure for the Black Hills with her new love (see White Star), Ezren unexpectedly loses control of his magic. The power surge could kill everyone around them unless someone acts fast. Rather than to see the man she is in love with killed out of necessity, Bethral urges the wizard Lord Marlon to open a portal that will take them as far as possible from Palins. When the portal is opened, Bethral drags Ezren into it.
They literally fall from the sky into the Plains, a territory that will be familiar to you if you have read the Chronicles Of The Warlands. Keir of the Cat and Xy are gearing up for the ultimate showdown with the forces of Antas of the Boar, but that is just the backdrop of the story. Bethral and Ezren find themselves right in the heart of a political struggle of a smaller scale.
Ezren turns out to be the Sacrifice - the wild magic in his body is supposed to be released into the land when he willingly sacrifices his blood in the mystical place called the Heart of the Plains. What happens here is the warrior-priests of the Plains are losing their magic, apparently having drained the magic from the land to such an extent that there is no longer enough magic to support them all. While the Snake tribe that stumble upon Ezren and Bethral are willing to aid them to an extent, the warrior-priests of the Plains are not so sanguine. Many of them believe that the Sacrifice should shed blood in the Heart, his willingness to do so be damned, because they want the magic to be returned to them. The current leader, Wild Winds, is against this plan, but he is very old and he is fast losing the support of his people to Hail Storm, the younger upstart who intends to usurp him as tribe leader.
Ezren is a bard, and if you are familiar with RPG fantasy games, you will understand why those folks in that scene call bards "spoony". And yes, Ezren is spoony. He cannot fight, he has problems riding a horse as well as the warriors of the Plains, and he cannot control his magic. His strengths lie mostly in his charismatic storytelling ability and his willingness to help those he care for out of the goodness of his heart.
Gender role reversal is in full glory here, as it is Bethral who is the warrior in the battlefield. Like Red Gloves, she takes on all comers with her weapon, standing proud and glorious in her full body armor, and her opponents fall one by one. She can be adorably girlish when it comes to being in love with Ezren, but when they are in danger, she easily takes charge and Ezren lets her, since they both know she's the one who knows how to extricate themselves from a problematic situation. Unlike Josiah, Red Gloves's emo and useless boyfriend, however, Ezren is a more enjoyable character to follow. He is not as capable as Bethral, but he is nonetheless a pro-active guy who does his best to help and make the best of a situation instead of sulking in the shadows. Their romance isn't too deep, as they are already in love with each other when this story begins, but they have some genuinely sweet and romantic scenes here. I especially love how they are willing to die for each other if there is no other option. And yes, I choke up a little at that penultimate moment in the Heart.
There are five young teens accompanying Ezren and Bethral, and to my surprise, these kids play the perfect balance of aide and matchmakers without being too irritating in the process. The matchmaking thing feels natural rather than contrived because they are genuinely puzzled by the reason why Ezren and Bethral are not shagging happily and decide that this must be another strange culture of city people. Their questions and curiosity lead to some necessary soul baring between Ezren and Bethral, and the whole thing makes perfect sense in this context. Those kids also turn out to be realistic types, as some choke in the heat of their first battle while others will have to grow up fast and confront the not-so-glorious aspect of a battle. This is one instance where the presence of a secondary cast of young kids lends an aspect of poignancy as well as occasional comic relief to the story. Usually such kids irritate me silly, so I have to commend Ms Vaughan for a job well done here.
The start of the book is a bit problematic as it is mostly a string of events coming together to place Bethral and Ezren in the Plains. But perhaps one can attribute these events to fate as Ezren, after all, is the ordained Sacrifice that will restore magic to the Plains. Still, once the story starts going, it never stops being good. Up to the last page, it is a thrilling story of romance, action, danger, magic, and delightful reversal of gender roles. I have a truly fabulous time soaking up the excitement present in this story. I'm even going to force myself to read the next two books in the Chronicles Of The Warlands because the author's next book is going back to that setting and I'm too hooked on the author's potent brand of romance and fantasy to stop now.
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