Warning: There are spoilers for the first two books of the "Wolfblade" trilogy in this review.
Jennifer Fallon is the most entertaining “new” fantasy writer I’ve found in a long time. Her books consistently grip me to the point that I almost have trouble savoring them; I have to race through them to see what she does with her characters. In her past two series, though, the last book has been a bit of a fall-off from the first two books. Thankfully, Warlord, the final volume of the “Wolfblade” trilogy, doesn’t have that problem. It entrances just as much as the first two books. It’s definitely not the best book of the series, but there’s no real drop-off in quality here.
Marla Wolfblade, mother to the heir to the Hytherian throne, has just lost her closest friend and confidant, Elezaar, who betrayed her under duress to the villainous Alija Eaglespike. Alija would do anything to wipe out the Wolfblade line, or at least kill Damin, the heir, and now she knows that Marla is aware of her treachery. She’s even gone so far as to release plague in Hytheria in the hopes of destroying the Wolfblades. This has weakened the country, just in time for the kingdom of Fardohnya to attack. Damin must lead what’s left of the army against this invading force. But can he do that when his mad, perverted uncle, ruler of Hytheria, is convinced by Alija that he must personally lead the army? And will Marla be able to turn the tables and prevent the rise of the Eaglespike family?
Fallon’s gift for characterization again manifests itself in Warlord. These characters, who we’ve seen go through trials and trevails in both Wolfblade and Warrior, continue their growth, especially Damin. He really comes into his own in the book, becoming the character we’re familiar with from the “Hythrun Chronicles” books. He’s intelligent and compassionate but scary when he’s angry. We don’t necessarily get to see the rage that can possess him here, but it’s definitely simmering below the surface.
Marla is once again exquisite. She’s become the master manipulator, but Fallon also allows her to grow, and to eventually realize what she has become. Her war with Alija has taken a great toll on her, both mentally and in terms of her family and friends. She’s not afraid to do something many of us would find unconscionable, but she does it out of fierce loyalty to her family, as well as her kingdom. She has to wonder whether her lust for power (in the form of her son being king) is personal or whether it’s because she knows that Alija’s family coming to the throne would be even worse. She’s fully three-dimensional, and while she’s not always likeable, she’s always interesting to read about.
The cast of characters is too large to single any others out, but Fallon does a wonderful job with all of them. Damin’s uncle, Lernan, is the closest to being boring. He’s nothing much but a perverted man who is falling into paranoia about plots against his person, but even he occasionally gets some interesting detail added to him.
As is usual, Fallon’s prose is lovely, and her plotting is excellent. The ends of her chapters leave you wanting more, and some of them hit you like a punch to the gut. The best example of this is, unfortunately, a red herring, but the ending itself left me gasping for breath and wondering where Fallon was going to go next. She does have some intriguing twists and turns as well, the only problem being that it’s a bit easier in Warlord than in past books to see the manipulative hand of the author behind what the characters do.
That’s the book’s main failing: everything works out a bit too perfectly for almost everyone involved. Yes, there is the occasional setback for the characters, but most of the time this is extremely minor and they work around it with apparent ease. There is a tragic ending or two, but those come to the tragic characters. Nothing really happens to “the good guys,” and thus the book does become a bit predictable. As an exploration of character, especially Marla and Damin’s, Warlord (and the first two books) works extremely well. It’s just too bad there are no real surprises in there. There are no serious twists, like Elezaar’s betrayal, that stop and make you say “I didn’t see that coming, I wonder where she’ll go from here.” In Fallon’s defense, she is constrained by what she had already set up in “The Hythrun Chronicles,” but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing here.
That didn’t stop me from madly rushing to the end and enjoying every minute I spent with the book. I’ve loved Damin’s character since he was introduced in the previous trilogy, and it was fascinating seeing how he became what he is. Prequels aren’t always successful, especially when we already know how everything turns out. However, it is true that the interest is often in the journey, not in the results. Fallon succeeds not only in setting up these two characters for the previous trilogy but also in examining the dangers when you become a mirror image of the person you’re trying to destroy. It’s taken Marla three books to see it, and many years of her life have passed, but she realizes that she can get no satisfaction from what she has done, and she’s missed out on a lot of her life. The only satisfaction is keeping her family safe, and being ruthless enough to do whatever it takes.
I’ve enjoyed my stay in this world, an interesting world where Fallon refuses to bow down to political correctness. These people keep slaves, and while they don’t mistreat them (even Alija’s most personal confidant is one of her slaves), they also make no apologies for them. Fallon presents the world as it is, warts and all, and doesn’t try to make the story an allegory for real-world events. Instead, she tells an enjoyable tale, for which Warlord is the finale. I like that in an author, and I’ll miss these characters when I move on. That’s the sign that an author has done her job, and done it well.