Our story begins around the typical campfire of fantasy novels everywhere, with most of the party asleep (or nearly so) except for the bard and the heroine, who are discussing the epic he is writing about her.
They are obviously on a grand and final quest, that will either end in heroic death or heroic victory, and she wants to know what he has written about her past. So he begins reading, and we hear the story of Tyrissa, the carpenter’s daughter from a northern village who wanted to be a forest ranger. Sadly, since the Cleanse that rid her country of its Pactbound (people bound to a great elemental power, who gain its magics in exchange for fulfillment of that power’s goals), most of her countryfolk do not dare venture into the woods, and do not care much about them, so she is urged to take up something more practical.
However, an encounter with a party of strangers sparks Tyrissa’s curiosity, and when she follows them to explore a novel structure that has appeared in her area, she finds danger beyond anything she has known before. She emerges from the encounter Pactbound herself – but a different kind of Pact, not tied to the elements she knows. Because of her country’s laws, however, she must flee south with her trader brother to the great city of Khalenheim, where she joins a security corps and begins to dig into the mystery of what and who she has become, and what she must achieve. Tyrissa’s explorations lead her into contact with fascinating people, mysterious powers, and a growing danger that threatens her entire world, a danger that she has obviously been appointed to fight. But how?
I was not surprised at all to read in the Author’s Note that Michael Watson has been a games master, because one of the major tasks required of a GM is world-building, and Watson has that gift in spades. This is a full, brilliant, beautifully-portrayed world, with histories, cultures, real people and fascinating little details. We have big cities full of commerce, politics, and self-importance, small villages with dark histories, even magnificent, magical, and tragically-fallen empires, all with their own background stories, which are deftly revealed, bit by bit, without ever letting the book get bogged down in explication. The characters operate within worldviews shaped by their past and by the values of the cultures and communities in which they were raised, and even the use of magic has rules, logic, and consequences to it. The plot wanders a bit, but it never drags, and there is always more going on than meets the eye.
Tyrissa is a reasonably standard fantasy character – the talented young girl longing for adventure, who makes it to the big city and a lifetime quest – but she is nonetheless a substantial personality, with real human feelings and a solid sense of self. This is obviously the start of a series, and honestly, I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel.
At some points, the book feels as if it gets a bit too caught up in world-building and sight-seeing, though, fascinating though it is, and must be dragged by force back to the main plotline. We get to know some characters rather well, and are then a bit surprised to see them play no further role in the tale (Olivianna Alvedos, for one example) – but then, perhaps they will show up again in sequels? (It is difficult to judge the first book in a series in this regard, mind you, because so many events and people are waiting in the wings and we don’t know what will happen next.) There are also occasional typos and misused or omitted words (“differential” for “deferential” being the most serious), but this is not severe enough to disturb the flow of the tale, and could easily be solved by a good editor.
This is a lively and engaging story set in a magnificently detailed world, with the stage well set for further adventures to come.
Reviewed by Catherine Langrehr for IndieReader