‘Warrior’, the second book in Jennifer Fallon’s ‘The Wolfblade Trilogy’, ended with the promise of an all-encompassing, hopelessly one-sided war. ‘Warlord’ makes good on that promise, more or less, but it’s less a thrilling conclusion to the series than a by-the-numbers checklist of plot threads that need tying off, one by one by one.
There’s nothing like the gut-punch shocker of ‘Wolfblade’ or even the far less affecting tragedy of ‘Warrior’. I wondered, as I wrote this, if maybe the first two books had left me desensitised to brutal violence, but no. Diminishing returns is a doom common to trilogies of various stripes and here it’s gone to town on the nasty, post-modern nihilism I admired in ‘Wolfblade’. Fallon seems to have become strangely fond of her generally unpleasant characters over the course of the series and it’s made her unwilling to deliver up the harsh consequences their actions, on occasion, deserve.
She also seems determined to paint them in a softer, more flattering light. Viewed objectively, there’s almost no difference between Marla, the Wolfblade matriarch and one-time series protagonist, and her arch-rival, Alija Eaglespike – a similarity Marla herself muses upon. Both women are ambitious, ruthless and expert politicians, determined to see their sons become High Prince of Hythria. What puts them at odds isn’t some philosophical or moral imperative, but the knowledge that there’s only room for one on that throne.
Marla is a staunch royalist and Alija is a member of the ‘Patriot’ faction, which appears to be shorthand for a more open and broadly meritocratic system of government, but both women’s affiliations appear to be little more than postures dictated by circumstance. Marla’s brother Lernen is High Prince and her son is the Prince’s heir, so she’s a royalist. Alija’s son, what little we see of him, is a competent leader, warrior and administrator, if thoroughly under his mother’s thumb. While Lernen Wolfblade is a feeble-minded, psychotic hedonist who would’ve run the country into the ground if it wasn’t for his sister’s advice, so the Eaglespikes advocate his overthrow ‘for the good of the nation’.
There’s the meat of a good series in here and a great examination of the price of seeking power. But ‘The Wolfblade Trilogy’ and ‘Warlord’ in particular, as its weakest component isn’t it. There’s too little introspection and too much whitewashing of the Wolfblades’ darker deeds. Marla might briefly weigh her crimes against Alija’s and find the scales disturbingly level, but she’s quick to dismiss her moment of doubt and it never seems to trouble her conscience again.
It certainly doesn’t seem to trouble the narrator. ‘Warlord’ almost reads like a family history written by some disturbingly omniscient Wolfblade descendant, determined to paint the family in the best light possible and the novel plays it disappointingly straight. What little irony there is in ‘Warlord’ is bludgeon-heavy and present only on the surface, lacking any real subversive bite. But critiquing a novel as something it’s not is like complaining a fish lacks wings, so let’s get this review back in the water.
A plot summary ought to help. So, in the wake of a plague which has decimated the population and left delicate political alliances tattered and thinly-stretched, Hythria and its ruling Wolfblade dynasty scramble to gather armies enough to repel the invading forces of neighbouring Fardohnya. At the same time, the Wolfblades are scrambling to adjust to a series of more intimate tragedies which threaten to turn them against each other and the political enemies who’d be quick to capitalise on any weakness.
Except they don’t. If there’s a word to describe what ‘Warlord’s lacking, it’s ‘urgency’. The stakes should be as high as they come, but somehow you just don’t get that sense that even the characters care all that much how it ends. In part, this is down to Fallon’s style, which is heavy-handed and lacks much artifice. The foreshadowing in particularly is jarringly explicit, practically jumping up and down waving a sign reading, ‘THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER’, but the same lack of subtlety follows through to the characters’ emotional states. Tell don’t show is the order of the day, with neither word nor deed allowed to pass without attracting a clarifying statement:
‘“Marla!” Alija gushed with vast insincerity … “Please forgive me for keeping you waiting…”
‘“We’ll see,” she replied, refusing to be drawn…’
And so on, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination.
Mostly, though, it’s the plotting which is to blame. There’s no natural sense of evolution, that what happens happens because the characters cause it to be. Instead, you can sense the relentless engine of Plot churning away, creating scenes that grate upon the mind because the Plot needs them to happen that way.
Nowhere is this more jarring than in the scene which turns the tide of the war with Fardohnya. Brak the Halfbreed – near-immortal sorcerer, tortured soul and walking deus ex machina – effectively makes the outcome of the war a foregone conclusion for absolutely no comprehensible reason. The book spends several hundred pages doing its best to impress upon the reader how grave the situation is and then, having thoroughly gutted itself of any tension or drama, it spends a couple of hundred more following the conflict to its tediously inevitable end.
This is getting a little ranty and in a way that’s a compliment. I enjoyed the first in the series, was willing to forgive the second its sins and with ‘Warlord’, I can see how close it came to being a decent read, only to misstep every single time it mattered. A novel which is just plain bad you can laugh away, but ‘Warlord’ is a catalogue of missed opportunities and it’s all the more frustrating because of that.
‘Warlord’ does still have its positives. In an overwhelmingly unprogressive setting where women are considered their husbands’ possessions, the touches of gender politics are interesting. Alija and Marla are the unquestioned powers in their respective factions, but at the same time they’re both forced to operate clandestinely in order to maintain the illusion of male dominance. Marla’s beard is her useless brother, while Alija’s is her equally hopeless husband, though unlike Marla, she also wields legitimate power as the head of the Sorcerers’ Collective. As one of a mere handful of humans actually capable of wielding real magic, Alija has an advantage over the men who are her peers. But her intelligence and ruthlessness are what allow her to capitalise on that good fortune, much as the same traits help Marla capitalise on the accident of her royal birth.
Having secured their respective positions of power, it’s interesting how both women tacitly acknowledge a common responsibility for advancing the position of women in Hythrian society so that others might have the same opportunities through merit rather than luck. Marla’s son, Damin, is only half-joking that his mother has a ‘secret list’ of injustices she wants to rectify once he claims the throne and during the climactic face-off between Alija and Marla their responsibility for their fellow women is openly acknowledged:
“You’d never support exposing the truth… Not even to bring me down. It would threaten every woman in Hythria if the men of this country had any idea how many of their sons were fathered by slaves and lovers.”
This dawning of a more progressive side to Hythrian culture is little more than the faintest glimmer, but it feels all the more natural for it. The emergence of progressive women as a force in their own right and how exposure to them affects their male family members is handled with a subtlety lacking elsewhere.
However, with all this nascent women’s lib floating around the second half of the novel, it’s curious and a little disappointing that there’s not even a casual mention that emancipation for Hythria’s appallingly mistreated slaves might be an equally noble goal. That the characters might hold double standards is perfectly sensible, but it’s a missed opportunity to add further nuance to an interesting discussion of gender.
One intriguing facet isn’t enough to redeem ‘Warlord’s many flaws, however, and there are many issues of various levels of pettiness I haven’t yet touched upon. Criticising the naming conventions in a fantasy novel may be fairly high on the pettiness spectrum, but when Hythria’s nobility appear to have randomly generated their surnames on a predator/weaponry table, ‘Warlord’ feels like its earned special attention.
There’s also the number of plot threads which simply don’t lead anywhere, other than perhaps into the series’ companion trilogy, ‘The Demon Child’, which I haven’t read, but ‘Warlord’s already looking pretty sorry for itself, so I’ll draw this review to a close. The novel doesn’t live up to the promise of its predecessors, instead disappearing down well-worn paths to a tired and inevitable climax. Unless you’re a connoisseur of disappointment, I’d give this one a miss. It’s a little unrefined.