Book Two of Duncan Lay’s Empire of Bones trilogy opens with an emotionally devastated Rhiannon trying to deal with a series of powerful shocks. She has found that the men closest to her, Huw the Velsh bard, and Sendatsu, the elf banished from his home, have both lied to her. She has also found that she can use magic powerfully and that she has just killed her father, the manipulative Hector, in a spectacularly extreme way. As well, the use of untrained magic has depleted her energies. She feels fragile and alone:
She walked around Hector’s body till she could see his face. His last expression was agonised, his pain frozen for all time. His eyes bulged and his mouth was full of blood, his beard thick with it. She so much wanted to say something to him, but the words would not come, only tears. Rhiannon fell to her knees and sobbed for everything, starting with her lost childhood.
Sendatsu uses this moment to urge that she come back with him to the elf realm of Dokuzen. He sees that he has a chance to reunite with his children and his love, Asami, and he knows that Rhiannon needs tutoring in the wise use of magic, so in this book the focus moves from Vales to Dokuzen. Huw also insists on coming to Dokuzen, although, at present, Rhiannon will have little to do with him.
In Dokuzen there are three power centres. Sumiko, with her magic-weavers, and Jaken, Sendatsu’s arrogant scheming father, both wish to rule Dokuzen and depose the third power – Daichi the entrenched elf Elder. Lay reveals their betrayals skilfully so that the reader is always intrigued and unsure of what to expect. Unexpected liaisons and tricky alliances occur in the face of a well-planned attack from King Mark of Forland.
On one level the story is fast and pacy; there are battles and skirmishes well told, and the way Lay uses conversations between the main characters to move the tale along and reveal the deviousness of some of them is very deft and pleasing. However, there are also philosophical depths lurking in the narrative. For example, the old question of when it is OK to lie is aired; and, interestingly, Asami’s and Rhiannon’s problems raise issues to do with the gender wars; they are both struggling with the patriarchal values surrounding them. When to trust is also an extremely important aspect of the story, and in the telling of the age-old battles between elves and humans we are led to ask who owns knowledge. The chance to play with these ideas adds enormously to the quality of the narrative:
Huw had translated more words from the book found in the Velsh church. It alternately horrified and delighted him. He was horrified by what had been done to his people – and to every other human in these lands – by the so-called elves. But he was delighted to learn that there had been humans with magic, humans worshipping Aroaril, humans with the knowledge to build and farm and heal. The future was not set in stone – magic did not have to be just for elves. Knowledge did not have to be just for Elfarans.
King Ward, the ambitious Forlish leader, also has designs on the treasures and skills of Dokuzen and he aims to breach the barrier that keeps elves in and gaigin – humans – out. So a great deal is happening in the forests of Dokuzen; both magical and military events move the story along. There is also a degree of humour to be found in the talk of foot soldiers discussing their desire to see elf maidens and other aspects of their fate as soldiers.
There is no summary of the first book at the beginning of this one: I think it would have been useful; however, the main thrust of the story can be understood, although I would recommend that the reader find a copy of the first volume to enjoy the slow build up of characterisation that underlies events here. The vibrantly presented characters and the ways in which they are made to play off each other are among the main attractions of the story.
Often the second instalment of a trilogy can be a little flat, in a holding pattern and not able to resolve problems because the next volume is looming. This is not the case here: a fast-moving narrative and very clever Machiavellian developments ensure that our interest continues throughout, and bode well for Book Three.
Duncan Lay Valley of Shields: Empire of Bones Two HarperVoyager 2013 PB 560pp $29.99
Folly Gleeson is a former lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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