It was kind of amazing reading the Wizard King’s War again after all these years. In many cases, a writer’s first book is the best, and the ones that follow are attempts to recapture the magic. But now and then there’s a writer like Susan Dexter, who gets better, and better, and better. Ring of Allaire was good, but flawed. The Sword of Callandra was good – better. And The Mountains of Channadran? Wonderful.
Once again the story is pretty simple: Nothing else has worked against the cursed winter that will not let go of Calandra, so Tristan must go and end it, once and for all – it, or himself: he heads off for Nimir’s stronghold, by way of Channadran and Royston Ambere’s tower. He tries to sneak off alone for the quest, but his wife and the magician whom he’s never trusted (with good reason) won’t have it.
Almost all of Ms. Dexter’s main characters are in some way broken. Elisena has scars I won’t Spoil, but they’re such that would have long since destroyed a lesser woman. Crewzel had a husband once, and his loss is not only a grief but a danger to her and her young son. Tristan is, superficially, all right: he had no major traumas in his youth, before this year at least, apart from the scar of having been abandoned very young (how young?) in Blais’s orchard. But the last year has been both the best and the very worst; he gained Elisena in his life, but the loss of Blais remains terrible, and the kingship is not something he expected or desired.
His confidence level is low – he’s prone to mishap (and how), and his magic seems to be wildly variable, and his greatest virtue – and it’s remarkable – is the ability to put his head down and plow ahead even when he expects disastrous failure at every moment. He has spent his entire life working through his days only able to be certain that if he tries a spell, it a) will not work; b) will work, but not in the way he intended; or c) will give every appearance of having worked beautifully, until he shortly learns of unintended disastrous results.
Polassar and Allaire are pretty much okay, but they’re not exactly deep people… Polassar thrives on battle, which is what he has had throughout his adult life at least. Allaire’s traumas have intensified what was a natural timidity – but after all, had it easy over the years up until now.
The animal characters should be used as teaching tools for fantasy writers. Thomas, Minstrel, and Valadan are beautiful. Thomas is all cat. He may be able to speak fluently with Tristan – and, later, Elisena – but that’s because he’s grown from kittenhood in a wizard’s household. Well, Tristan was always able to hear him, but the wizard’s household doesn’t hurt. He’s no soppy slavish pet, any more than most cats are – if he doesn’t want to do something, damned if he will, and he uses his claws and teeth as necessary. Minstrel is not the featherhead ( ) most writers resort to when trying to give a bird personality – not that there are so many of those – I’m actually trying, and failing, to think of any, especially any that aren’t birds of prey. So perhaps it’s better to say he’s not the featherhead one would expect of a sentient canary. (Yes, I’m using sentient in the way Star Trek taught me, and I really don’t care that that’s not the primary definition, thanks all the same – not that it’s anything pedants on TBWSRN have picked on before, no precious… It’s the word I want. Sue me.) And Valadan … He’s magnificent. I love that Ms. Dexter chose to make him smaller than might be desired – he is not what most men think of when they say “war horse”. But he is in all other ways nearly perfect. Not utterly, but nearly: he has his limits, some of them the limits of being in horse form, some the expanded limits of a magical being able to perform near-miracles: he just can’t perform actual miracles. Even with his abilities and his sire and his sentience (there it is again), he is still a horse, and is painted as one, and he’s wonderful.
And the story is simply beautiful. Through pain – heart-rending pain – and struggle – realistically portrayed as the sort of thing that, if it doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger – an ending is reached which, while not quite Happily Ever After, is Happily For the Near Future. I believed every word of it, and was sorry, very sorry, to see it end.