Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon
When you pitch into creating a world where magic works, there’s an immediate problem for the author. First you have you write a set of rules for the magic to work, and then you have to apply them consistently. There’s nothing more annoying than arbitrariness where, to enable a key player to achieve an objective or escape from danger, a previously unsuspected ability is revealed like a rabbit out of a hat. By this, I’m not talking about remembering a recipe for curing boils as opposed to a love filtre, or suddenly discovering a long-lost spell book. Let’s say we’ve started off with the magic based on the ability to manipulate the energy in the human body, e.g. permitting the creation of fireballs. We need to know how destructive this power is, how far the ball may be projected, whether using it tires the magician so limiting the number of uses per hour, and so on. What we don’t want is for a demon to wander into view and ask a tired magician if she needs some help with the next ball. Unless, that is, a religious or comparable framework has been established to establish the relationship between humans, demons, and any Gods that happen to be around and capable of interfering in the human realm.
Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon continues the Paladin’s Legacy trilogy which started with Oath of Fealty. Both are set in the world first described in the Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, but there’s a steady increase in the level of magic. The first trilogy to some extent underplays the practical side of magical abilities. We know the Paladins and God-touched have powers, but the primary focus is on getting things done without having to rely too much on supernatural forces. That’s all changing as the characters we are following learn more about the way magic is woven into the fabric of their world. In this, Elizabeth Moon is avoiding the trap of being authorially omniscient and infodumping to fill in any missing background as we go along. She’s maintaining the points of view, so we learn at the same pace as the characters. This is playing fair with the readers.
So where are we in story terms? Having been identified as the rightful heir by Paksenarrion, Kieri Phelan is now established as the King Lyonya, a land of humans and elves he is supposed to rule jointly with his grandmother. His personal life is complicated because everyone wants him to marry and produce an heir. Politically, the elves are in stand-off mode and there are troubles with Pargun, the southern neighbour. Dorrin Verrakai continues to make progress as a Duke working for King Mikeli in Tsaia. Having defended the country against the blood magic of her relatives, she’s now trusted to take responsibility for the army and the general defence of the land. Janderlir Arcolin is on military manoeuvres against an enemy that’s looking increasingly well-organised. This is surprising since these mercenaries are supposed to be working for Alured the Black, a mere brigand of possible piratical origin. Worse, the “enemy” seems to be diversifying into economic warfare by undermining the common Guild currency. While Arvid Semminson rather unexpectedly finds himself in the thick of things when he visits Fin Panir but, as always, is well-prepared for all emergencies.
Elizabeth Moon strikes an interesting balance between the political, the military and the magical. There’s a tough-minded practicality to the detail of how to run a kingdom, get a noble’s house and estates up and running, and train, equip and provision an army for real work and not some idle sport. The magic is also increasingly relevant with the different levels of skill on display between both the different races, and the ordinary practitioner and a mage. Finally, the land force called the taig is becoming an issue.
The writing style is pleasing, managing to pack in an amazing amount of detail without getting boring. It’s obvious that an enormous amount of time and energy has been invested in the creation of this world — a fact evidenced by the presence of four earlier novels based in it. This always presents a danger because, if the author becomes too distracted by the delight of adding in yet more facts, it can derail the pacing of the novel. There are one or two times when the action slows, as in the inconvenience to Kieri Phelan occasioned by the unexpected arrival of the two princesses. But, for the most part, the narrative is pushing forward and the factual information does turn out to be useful.
Overall, this is a nicely judged fantasy, continuing the story arcs from the earlier books seamlessly, and contriving to build to an interesting climax where Gitres is more directly involved and we get our first clear view of dragons (note that a dragon from this world also appears in the excellent “Judgment” collected in Moon Flights). This all presages more active Gods, particularly because Achrya is trying to upset the balance of power. It’s also reassuring that some of the supernaturally-talented can be fallible. Too often authors want those with superpowers to be super decision-makers as well, whereas Kings of the North has everyone’s character and motivations nicely under control. In other circumstances this would be high fantasy but, as written, it’s more a “don’t stand there like a lump, if you need to go, dig a latrine” kinda fantasy and all the better for it. I found all this highly enjoyable and recommend it for those who have read at least some of the earlier books. Starting off in the middle of long-running series is never as satisfying.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.