Jennifer Fallon's The Lion of Senet, the first book in her "Second Sons" trilogy, is simply a fun read. Fallon is not a new writer, but she is new to North American audiences, with this book just coming out this year. Thankfully, Bantam is publishing all three books within months of each other, so the third book is actually out. Having read the first two from the library, I am chomping at the bit to read the third.
The series takes place on the world of Ranadon, which has the rare (unless you're a Star Wars fan) quality of having two suns. The action takes place in a relatively isolated area of the world, mostly between two nations: Senet and the island kingdom of Dhevyn (made up of several uniquely-named islands). The area is plagued with scorching heat, active volcanoes and earthquakes. The dominant religion is that of the Goddess, and people believe that nature's temper is caused by Her. The High Priestess Belagren uses that belief in alliance with Senet's power-hungry ruler, the Lion of Senet, to control as much of the world as possible. But not everybody believes in the Goddess. When an outcast Dhevynian king washes ashore on the tiny island of Elcast, everything blows up. Dirk, the second son of the Duke of Elcast, has a secret that not even he is aware of, but it's one that will send him out into the world. Alliances will form and splinter as the king's people try to expose Belagren for what she is: a fraud. Dirk finds himself trapped between the two sides, desperate just to be left alone. Unfortunately for him, that's not going to happen.
The title of the series has a double meaning (the two suns that Ranadon orbits around, as well as the obvious meaning). I like that touch. First, not only is Dirk a second son, but his friend Kirsch is the Lion's second son. Both will become heavily involved in all of the schemes flying around the area. Secondly, the second sun disappearing for a time plays a large part in the series. The last time that happened, anarchy reigned and Belagren and the Lion were able to take power because Belagren was able to say when the sun would reappear (because the Goddess told her, she said). She told the Lion that he would have to sacrifice one of his children to bring it out, knowing full well that it would come naturally even without this. Now, the secret of when the next "Age of Shadows" will come is hidden from her, and she's desperate to find out.
There is an underlying tension between science and religion in the book, with Fallon coming down on the side of science (at least within the series itself). The "true" Goddess religion is rarely, if ever, mentioned, and only Belagren's perverted form is present. Her opponents are firm believers that the Age of Shadows is a scientific thing and not a religious one. And, of course, we are shown that they are right. Lip service is given to how Belagren has moved away from the real Goddess, but we aren't given much information so it appears that there is no "real" religion on Ranadon. I found that disappointing.
That is the only disappointment for me, however. Fallon does a wonderful job of both plotting and characterization. The plot is very centralized (the Lion has control of Dhevyn and wants to solidify that control, and Belagren wants to keep her own hold on power) yet it is vast. It covers at least three years in this book alone, and ranges all over the islands and into Senet itself. While there are a few too many predictable "one day I'll have power, and then you'd better watch out" proclamations, the story itself actually has a fair number of surprises. King Johan's fate truly surprised me, as the expected rescues didn't happen, and what ultimately does happen to him knocked me for a loop. In fact, that entire scene, the confrontation between the Lion, Johan, Dirk, and a few others (I won't reveal more) is riveting. And that's not even the ending of the book!
This leads into Fallon's prose. The text grabbed me and wouldn't let me go until I finished the book. I had a lot of trouble putting the book down, as Fallon's descriptions amazed me and her dialogue was almost flawless. The characterization was wonderful as well, with only Marqel feeling too forced. I did find that both Kirsch and her being instantly obsessed with each other was a bit unbelievable, but I was able to get past it very quickly because I was so entranced with everybody else. There are too many characters to name (as they're all good), but Dirk is the main one, and he is almost perfect. He's very intelligent and he just wants to become a physician. He finds himself trapped in all of the political games (especially once his secret is revealed to him) and only wants to be left alone. Since that's not going to happen, though, he has to use his wits and discovers that he's capable of playing the political game, as well. When he has to commit a final horrible but compassionate action, he's devastated but able to think on his feet.
The plot is so intricate that if the characterization failed, the book would fall apart. It's the characters who build the foundation and make the reader interested in the complicated story. And it is complicated, with scheming going on all over the place. But it's well worth the time and effort to keep things straight, and it's not really that complicated if you pay attention. There is almost no combat in the novel, but there is a torture scene that made me a bit squeamish. Unfortunately for those weak-of-heart, it's in the middle of the riveting scene mentioned above, so you may just have to put up with it. It's not that bad, though. Just grin and bear it. Believe me, it's well worth it.