Kristin Britain came on to the fantasy scene in 2001 with Green Rider. I thought that she was a talented writer, albeit one who resorted to too many fantasy cliches, and hoped that her second book (which was supposed to come out a year later) would move away from those. Alas, 2002 came and went with no book. Finally, in August 2003, First Rider's Call was released. With her first book not being the greatest, would the sophomore jinx kill Britain's writing? Thankfully, no. First Rider's Call is a rich story with vivid characterization and a surprising depth. She still uses a few too many cliches, but it's nothing like Green Rider in that respect.
Kerigan G'ladheon thought she had left the call of the Green Rider behind her after saving the king from an Eletian plot. However, returning to her merchant family's business doesn't provide the rest that she had expected. She is haunted by the ghost of the First Rider, who is endeavoring to convince Kerigan to follow her destiny and resume the King's service. Reluctantly, she does so, and just in time. Danger is threatening the kingdom of Sacoridia once again. Blackveil Forest, sequestered behind the D'Yer wall for thousands of years, is stirring once again. Evil forces from a long-ago time are threatening to get through a breach in the wall; some have already succeeded. Havoc is sweeping the countryside, people turned to stone and crops withered. Refugees from up north are flooding into other provinces, creating internal strife. King Zachary must balance all of these situations, keep his people from panicking and try to find out what's going on.
Other things are going wild as well. The magic of the Green Riders is becoming unpredictable. Captain Mapstone's magical ability attacks her, forcing her to confine herself when she's needed most. Kerigan's ability is sending her wildly into the past and future, as she learns the secret of the First Rider and what happened all those generations ago, when people from across the sea came and tried to colonize the wild land. In doing so, she discovers the haunting truth of her own heritage, as well as the secrets of the Wall. Hopefully, she'll live to tell the tale.
While this isn't the most original plot around, Britain does try to do some new things with the familiar tropes she is using. The story is deep and rich, with the prose working much better than Green Rider. Britain really seems to have honed her craft with this one. She does suffer from a few cliches (Eletians are basically elves with the pointy-ears filed down, for example), but for the most part she avoids the potential landmines in her path. She has an interesting cast of characters, as well.
Kerigan makes a vivid viewpoint character. She's matured since Green Rider, but she's still unsure of herself at times. Unfortunately, she's much too passive, with too many events occurring around her rather than her being the main cause of them. Part of this is explained by the unique relationship between Kerigan and the First Rider, but it's still not enough. While Kerigan is involved in the climax of the story, she doesn't actually figure much in the resolution. Still, despite this fault, I did grow to care about what happened to her, especially as things start to deteriorate in the kingdom.
The other characters are pretty good as well. Captain Mapstone disappears for a large portion of the book (except when she inexplicably reemerges from her seclusion only to return to it after the fire), but what there is of her almost makes me want a book that features her. She's intelligent and kind, a good leader to the Green Riders. While her disappearance is annoying, it does allow Kerigan to grow. Mara is Mapstone's second-in-command, and she is extremely competent as well. The rest of the Green Riders are given just enough character to move the plot along (unfortunately, one of these characters is a viewpoint character, making his contributions a tad boring).
Then there's King Zachary. He brings up another problem with the story. There is a lot of romantic tension between Kerigan and him, and it's completely unnecessary to the book. It doesn't add anything to the story, and the consummation of the relationship (and that *doesn't* mean that they sleep together in this case) makes it even more superfluous. At over 600 pages, the book is long enough already. This relationship just drags it out more, making the denouement of the story more tedious than it needs to be. I realize that Britain may be setting up something for the next book, but I think she should have also made it mean something in this one. Otherwise, Zachary is a fair ruler who is not above getting his hands dirty when the situation warrants it.
The plot of First Rider's Call is much more intricate than Green Rider, and Britain handles it deftly. There's so much going on that it would have been easy for her to lose her way. Instead, she is generally able to keep the flow of the story, with only the scenes in the Blackveil Forest slowing it down. The Alton sequences could have had a bit more punch to them. He isn't that interesting a character, and I kept wanting to get back to Kerigan when he was on screen. Given the business of the plot, though, this is a small problem and I didn't have any trouble getting back into the story. I found the use of diaries from the past led beautifully to the revelation of Kerigan's heritage (though I did see it coming very early, there's no way the characters would have known about it).
All in all, First Rider's Call is a good sophomore effort, and I look forward to seeing more of Britain's writing. Whether it will be the third book in this series or if she'll try something else, I plan to follow her career and see how she does.