by Elizabeth Vaughan, fantasy (2009)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22701-5
White Star is Elizabeth Vaughan's follow-up to Dagger-Star. While the main characters in that book have since left the country of Palins, this story features characters that first showed up in that book and their pre-established relationships can be daunting at first for new readers to figure out. Also, there are many off-hand references to events that took place in Dagger-Star, so new readers may also feel that they are missing some significant pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that prevent them from seeing the whole image, so to speak. My advice is that people read Dagger-Star first before attempting to get into White Star.
I should also warn new readers that White Star is actually more of a fantasy romp with some romance instead of a paranormal romance. I personally find the romance befuddling, but I'll get into that later. Let's just say for now that this is a story set in a different world, and if you don't enjoy sword and sorcery type of fantasy stories, you may want to approach this one with a degree of caution.
Okay, the story. Set just shortly after the events in Dagger-Star, this book returns to Palins, where the young Queen Gloriana has finally assumed the throne, ending years of infighting. The wicked High Baroness Elanore is thought to be dead, and the heroine of the previous book, Red Gloves, has left with her boyfriend since she's a woman of action and she has no liking for a peaceful country. As Queen Gloriana capably takes on her newfound responsibilities, a new threat looms in Palins. High Baroness Elanore created undead creatures called the odium to boost her army, and now that she's dead, the odium has no one to control to them. They begin roaming Elanore's province, Black Hills, looking for victims, and will spread into neighboring lands if left to their own devices.
Our hero is Orrin Blackhart, the former lover and Lord Marshal of Elanore, and our heroine is Lady Evelyn, the High Priestess of the Lady of Laughter. Orrin first meets Evelyn when, under the orders of Elanore, he has his men capture Evelyn for the usual rape and execution thing. Because she is beautiful and she intrigues him, he feels compelled to transfer her from the dungeon cell into a more comfortable bedroom. He is spared of having to give the rape-and-execute order by the news of Elanore's death that arrives shortly after he has imprisoned Evelyn. Realizing that the war is over, he decides to return Evelyn and surrender himself in exchange for the armies of Palin sparing the lives of his people.
Later, during Queen Gloriana's coronation where one of the main events is the execution of Orrin, Evelyn believes that it is the will of the Lady that she asks for Orrin's life to be spared. Because Gloriana owes her a boon for playing a big role in helping the young queen ascend her throne, Evelyn cashes in the boon, so to speak, and asks for Orrin's life to be spared. As a result, Orrin is banished to the Black Hills, where he will eliminate the threat of the odium. Evelyn, however, will soon be a victim to her church politics, and her path will cross with Orrin's again later down the road, where the two of them will join forces to help the people of the Black Hills defeat the scourge of the odium.
Yes, the hero is a former villain. However, if you are looking for a story of reformation, you won't find a good one here as the author cheats considerably and have several key players, including Evelyn, so convinced that Orrin has some good inside him that he would still be loved even if he didn't really reform. The heroine even says at one point that she certainly doesn't approve of his past actions - which include hoarding his people for Elanore to transform into odium - she loves the man standing before him. The whole concept of love is pretty bizarre in this story - it is as if you can separate a man's integrity from his past action, which in this story is a very hard sell where I am concerned, as the man in question had voluntarily taken part in some very, very, very reprehensible activities.
I have to settle for Orrin's lip service of remorse and guilt. At least he wishes to be held accountable for his actions in the past, I guess. But the author makes it too easy for him to be forgiven by others, and as a result, his redemption rings hollow and even superficial. Worse, his angst is a plot device for him to blow hot and cold all over Evelyn, making the relationship between those two grow tedious fast.
As for Evelyn, well, on one hand, I hope you aren't expecting a kick-ass heroine like Red Gloves. She has guts and determination, but she will choke spectacularly during a pivotal moment and is soon reduced to being an observer in the bylines as the brave men (like Orrin and the male secondary characters) take care of everything. She's the cleric in the designated RPG-style party that is formed to remove the odium scourge - there are, also, an archer and the usual fighters - but the fact that she chokes and causes the rest of the party to pay for her mistake makes her a terrible cleric. She is armed with both battle and healing magic, but she only brings her romance heroine "I heal kiddies!" and "I understand the hero!" prestige class skills to the table.
Still, there are many ways in which Evelyn defies the healer girl stereotype, as long as you don't expect her to actually prove herself in the heat of battle. She is self-aware at unexpected moments and she can sometimes pull an ace card out of her sleeve when one doesn't expect it. Barring her bizarre "I don't condone his past actions but I love the man nonetheless" kind of attraction to Orrin, Evelyn isn't easily categorized as stupid. She may be naïve at times, and she certainly chokes in the heat of battle, but she is never a toxic idiot.
White Star on the whole is a very readable story if I overlook the simplistic black and white portrayal of Orrin's redemption. Despite my disappointment with Evelyn not really delivering in the climatic battle, I manage to remain entertained nonetheless by the author's well-paced narrative. It is only in the last few chapters that she loses her momentum, because these chapters drag the story on a little longer after the penultimate moment is over, serving only to set up the next book.
My personal preference of heroines who can deliver the goods makes me prefer Dagger-Star far more, but at the end of the day, White Star makes a pretty good fantasy read nonetheless. The key word here is "fantasy" - this book is a far better fantasy tale than a romance story, and you should approach this story with your expectations set accordingly.
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