Jennifer Fallon has become, to me, one of the premiere fantasy authors today. Her plots are always intricate, involving a mixture of politics and religion that is simply breath-taking. Interesting events occur, characters are betrayed, things go against them in unexpected ways, and the same characters solve their problems in somewhat unpredictable fashion. In this second book of the "Hythrun Chronicles," Treason Keep, Fallon continues her winning technique. The sequel to Medalon, Treason Keep ratchets up the tension, adds some new characters, transforms one, and keeps the reader riveted in the process. Her second book (published in Australia) shows a lot of improvement over Medalon, and that one was so good anyway that I was salivating for this one.
R'Shiel, the demon child who is expected to kill the evil god Xaphista, is gravely wounded and recuperating in Sanctuary, the home of the Harshini. The Harshini interact with what are known as "the Primal Gods" - gods of war, love, thievery, etc. - and these gods may either help or hinder R'Shiel's mission. She's not even sure she wants to fulfill her destiny, however. The leader of the Harshini has removed her emotional barriers, making her a much different person than she was in Medalon. Meanwhile, her lover (through a spell cast by the goddess of love), Tarja Tenragen, has led a force of Medalonian Defenders and Hythrun warriors to the northern border with Karien to prevent the army of Xaphista from swooping into Medalon. The king of Fardohnya marries his eldest daughter to the crown prince of Karien to forge an alliance that will serve both of their nations: surrounding Medalon and allowing Fardohnya to use Medalon as a gateway to Hythria. Schemes abound, however, personal alliances shatter through treachery, and allegiances shift as the entire continent may be swept up in a war of religion and politics, greed and faith. Will R'Shiel be willing to carry out her mission, or will she die in the process?
"Unexpected" is the word to use for a lot of the events in Treason Keep. Sure, there are some predictable occurrences. Whoever doesn't see one of the budding romances in the book is completely blind, but even the predictable parts come from the characters rather than being imposed by authorial fiat. Given the personalities of the two characters involved in said romance, and the circumstances of them coming together, it's very understandable how that happens. But the manner in which other predictable events happen takes you by surprise. The failure of a plan that would end the entire series if it worked is not surprising, but as the events unfurled I found myself gasping in shock, though looking at the lead-up to them and saying "so that's where she was going with that!" In fact, many of the chapters end in jaw-dropping moments, which makes the book very hard to put down.
Fallon's mastery of her characters is even better in Treason Keep than in Medalon. In the previous book, I said that Fallon's only weakness was the evil character, Joyhinia (R'Shiel's mother). This time, she doesn't even have that problem, though she comes close. While she does a wonderful job with the religious fanatic, Cratyn, who marries the princess of Fardohnya, he is not the most three-dimensional character. He is interesting to read about, though. Perhaps that is because we only see him through others' eyes and not his own. On the other hand, Loclon suffers a little bit from his single-minded need for revenge against R'Shiel. The interest in his character is saved mainly because he gets into a situation that is supposed to help him get his revenge but instead makes him a pawn in a religious and political game that he wants no part of. His thought processes are one-dimensional, but what happens to him grabs the reader and makes him more interesting than perhaps he deserves.
Other than that, Fallon has given us a host of fascinating characters on both sides of the conflict. R'Shiel is almost unrecognizable from Medalon, but there is a reason within the story for that. She still has a fiery temper, but she is much more subdued, which is a good thing. Tarja is perfectly portrayed, willing to do anything for R'Shiel but also a competent commander from his experience in the border skirmishes with Damin Wolfblade's men. Wolfblade himself is a great mixture of sarcasm and intelligence, seeing through the princess Adrina but yet finding himself attracted to her spirit. Of the new characters, Adrina is a haughty woman who can scheme with the best of them, but she finds herself mellowing as events occur around her and she realizes that she can't allow Cratyn to fulfill his god's plans. Finally, there's little Mikel, a fervent believer in Xaphista who becomes thoroughly confused as he witnesses the adult events swirling around him. He thinks Adrina is the perfect Karien woman, devout and knowing her place as a woman - until he sees the real Adrina. But then he sees the real Karien and realizes that it may not be the place for him. All of the interactions between these characters are intricate and build layer upon layer into the story. Even the minor characters are relatively three-dimensional, though Hablet, the king of Fardohnya, is a little stereotypically devious. Thankfully, he's only in the book briefly.
There are really only a couple of faults in the book (and the series), though one of them may be resolved in the next book, Harshini. The first is the fact that R'Shiel and Tarja's romance is imposed on them. Fallon treats it like any other romance, with them mating like rabbits when they're together (though thankfully there isn't a lot of that, and no graphic scenes), but the fact that it's against their will (or at least, much more than either one had planned) is disturbing. If Fallon has it revealed in the next book and there are some consequences, then I will be very happy.
The second problem is there is a battle (more like a massacre) that seems to be in there for no real reason. Ostensibly, I think it's in there to show the lack of tactical expertise on the Karien side, but I get the sense that there's something underlying to it that just doesn't come out in the book. I kept waiting for some clue as to what the purpose was, but it never came. While the Kariens are not tactical geniuses, they do appear to have some generals who know enough to keep that from happening, so there must be some other reason. This seems too minor to be "fixed" by a revelation in the third book, but if it is, great. Here, though, it just seemed really out of place and to give Adrina an excuse to get away.
Ultimately, Treason Keep improves on Medalon. It is Fallon's second book, published in Australia in 2001, and it still shows some of her growing pains. The prose isn't that polished, but it's certainly serviceable. However, the book held my interest from beginning to end and showcases her ability to keep a lot of plot threads, both religious and political, from getting tangled up into one big mess. Actually, they do become a mess, but it's a mess for the characters, not the reader. Instead, she makes us care about the characters and want desperately to see how everything turns out. It's almost enough to make me try to get the Australian copy of Harshini so I don't have to wait.