I’m sure you’re all tired of my griping about series books and how I get to the end and realize it’s not quite over – and turn into a whiny pissypanted pain in your ass reviewer. So what did I do when I realized that Lord of the Fading Lands was a series? I waited until I had the second book, Lady of Light and Shadows and read them back to back. Ha! Even though the series continues past book 2, I at least have a more complete story arc to reflect on.
Because Lord and Lady are really two halves of one book, the plots blend into one another in my brain. And in my brain they are resting happily, giving me plenty to stew on as I think back on the story. The two books contain fragments of a Cinderella story mixed with other legends and tales. The layering of myths, themes, and pieces of fairy tales and archtypes is both familiar and unique, and in the end, magical. The manner in which Wilson reworks some classical romance and fantasy elements serves a twofold purpose. One: it allows the fantastical world seem familiar and accessible, and two, it gives the reader a more-than-just-fairy-tale story to chew on for some time after finishing the book. At least, it does for me.
I’m going to attempt to summarize the plot, and damn is there a lot of plot. Rainier, the Tairen Soul, is the king of the Fey. The Fey and the Tairen, which are large winged cats with the power to breathe fire and who have poison in their claws (seriously, you should not mess with Tairen any more than you should mess with dragons), are tied to one another on a mystical level, and the Tairen are dying. If the Tairen die, so will the Fey. Rainer, or Rain, is desperate to figure out a way to save them, and in doing so save his own kind. He finds his answer in Celeria, a neighboring kingdom long allied with the Fey that is populated by mortals.
While entering the city in Tairen form, Rain finds his truemate, Ellie, in the crowd, and, as the Fey legend has it, her soul calls to him, and his answers. Ellie, who is the adopted daughter of a woodcarver, is completely poleaxed by the idea of a Fey king declaring himself her soul mate, and in the first of their interactions, you can tell that there is a lot going on under the surface of both characters. As they begin their courtship and navigate court politics and, of course, the Forces of Good and Evil, the larger story surrounding their relationship also builds, so by the end of book 1, there’s a lot more story to be told. By the end of book 2, there’s still more. Yet both books have smaller happy endings each, and the set of two brings a closure to Ellie and Rain’s time in Celeria so that there is some satisfaction to completing each novel.
Wilson uses Ellie as the reader’s access point and world building device: she’s an unschooled yet deeply skilled woman learning of Fey culture firsthand. Conversely, Ellie is well-versed in folklore of Fey culture and of the legend of Rain himself. Through Ellie, the reader learns the present state of the Fey, and their past as well.
But gosh darn, she’s perfect. Seriously, I don’t want to reveal how she is perfect in every way, but clearly untapped wells of massive awesome reside in Ellie, and each chapter grabs a trowel and digs the reader closer to the subterranean depths of innocent awesome that reside in Ellie. In just about every respect, she is nearly perfect, and despite making social gaffes, she does nearly everything with grace and kindness. It gets a bit old. But even then I liked her. She skirts the border of Mary Sue but I found her to be more than just the typical marvelous fairy-tale heroine.
She has a darkness to her that is dangerous to the future of the story, I think. While I can’t get into the specifics without giving too much away, Ellie’s lack of knowledge and control about her skills are doubly harmful to herself and the other Fey, particularly since her origins and the source of her gifts are a mystery. Further, because she is so freaking perfect, as high as she rises in status during books 1 and 2, she has that much farther to fall.
Some readers may be bothered by the degree of sparkly perfection that is invested in Ellie’s character, but Wilson’s skill in developing the other characters assures me that she’s not going to neglect the development and potential flaws of her heroine. She’s too smart a writer, if books 1 and 2 are any indication, to fall for such an easy characterization.
Rain is a delicious fantasy hero, all magical and powerful and shapeshifting into a big ass fire-breathing cat with wings. He’s a few thousand years old and can kick all kinds of ass, but he has some big ol’ flaws to overcome as well, both as a mate and as a king. He’s tormented by his past, and has a stubborn tendency to see things in black and white. He needs to grow up despite being thousands of years old, and his pairing with Ellie, who is so very, very young by comparison, twists the balance of power back and forth, between his magic, her innocence, her knowledge of humanity and his inability to be flexible with other’s faults.
The books build a LOT of world and a LOT of characters and sometimes the plot drags for having so many players to introduce. But each one is fascinating enough that I didn’t feel overwhelmed with people to keep track of. Wilson does an outstanding job of balancing development of character with development of the saga – I don’t get tired of any of the new characters, and even caught hints of characters to come who I anticipated. There’s a lot to keep track of but it’s worth every moment. Further, it’s another marker of the excellence in the writing: the Fey and the mortals both are flawed characters, but Wilson manages to lend humanity to the Fey and nobility to the mortals who might otherwise seem pale in comparison to the amazing magical skills of the Fey. Plus, Wilson’s portrayal of how easily those who are scared or intimidated can be manipulated by rumor and falsehood parallels the current political situation in a great many places. Like I said, there’s layers. Layers like a stack of Big Macs.
Some of the reviews elsewhere talk about the slow development of the plot – this is true. But it’s also deliberate, I think, because in every respect, the story and the characters are moving towards battle. There’s a lot of mention of the Fey’s skills in war, their weapons, and their manner of fighting, and the enemies rising against Rainier and Ellysetta and the Fey and the Celerians. The preparation for that battle, and the smaller battles that precede it in books 1 and 2, is deliberately slow because it heightens the tension and the importance of what’s going to happen. The parts I found myself skimming more were those that featured extended face time of the evil Mage, or of the idiot queen of Celeria, who really never got what was coming to her in my opinion. The malevolent hand-rubbing glee of those who plotted against Ellie and Rain grew tiresome. Instead of developing an exceptionally large Big Bad for Ellie and Rain and the rest of the Fey to battle, those who plotted against them seemed more pathetic or egomaniacally overblown to be as scary as they may have been meant to be.
However, Wilson circumvents one plot foible that irks the crap out of me most of the time: the idea that because the narrator and the story proclaim person A and person B “soul mates” and that they are Meant to Be Together, they are hereby exempt from all normal awkward process of getting to know the other person – even though they are for all intents and purposes complete freaking strangers. While the courtship between Ellie and Rain goes on awhile, and they fly off here and there to be alone during the appointed times for courting, they do navigate the process of learning about each other like any other couple might do, soul mates or not.
Within that courtship is a fascinating balance of power on which I am still ruminating: he recognizes and claims her (I keep envisioning the Jersey/Philly version of Rain’s claiming of Ellie: “Yo. Ellie. Youse’s my true mate, or what?!”) but they have to bond on many levels and establish psychic and physical links to one another to complete the pairing, or he will die from her absence. She has to accept and believe in him – and love him, of course – to create those links. He identifies her, but she has to accept him – so the stability and health of the relationship, even on a magical level, depends on both of them.
Wilson’s prose is tight, balancing action, romance, magic and simple humanity. It’s a world that’s easy to step in and out of, and despite the immense number of things going on, I didn’t lose track of the story’s multiple threads – and for a distracted person such as myself, that says a lot. I had to stop myself from reading the book more than a few times because I knew if I sat down to read a few pages, I’d end up reading dozens and lose complete track of time. When book 3 is published, I’m going to have to mark time in my agenda to read it, because the pleasure of losing one’s self in the fantasy world should be a sizable indulgence. A mere bubblebath won’t cut it. This is a book worth taking a weekend vacation solely for the purposes of reading it. You could book a room at the Holland Tunnel Motor Lodge and just sit and read.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea.