If there’s one thing I believe, it’s that every book in a series should stand alone as a book. On one level, that’s a little unfair because some books – especially the ones that become movies – really can’t function without the others. I view that as a weakness. Like any book nerd, I think back to Tolkien in times like this, and I reflect that legitimately The Two Towers is a better book than either The Fellowship or Return. Fight me in the comments. I could go on, but this is really a windup for The Queen of Raiders by Sarah Kozloff, book two in the Nine Realms series. I, truth be told, don’t know where my copy of book one went, so I bought another. But while that ships, I’m starting with book two and we’ll move on from there.
Our heroine goes by many names — Kestrel, Finch, Skylark — but these are just aliases for her identity as heir to the throne of Weirandale which has been invaded by warriors from Oromondo. This book follows Skylark as she wanders until she meets a band of, yes, raiders (how did you know?) who divert Oronmondo military resources away from conquest with their frequent, brutal skirmishes. Their leader is Thalen, a scholar from Sutterdam whose family is either enslaved or murdered by the Oromondos. Thalen finally sparks a romance with Skylark after several raids together just in time for her to explode in a ball of flame in the cliffhanger finish, her fate left to the gods.
Gods patronize each of the Nine Realms from the title, showing up to dispense wisdom in the form of a human agent with a nondescript name/title like Gardener, Sailor, Smithy, etc. This cosmic game of chess gives the whole saga scope and provides reasonable room for the sprawling network of characters. Characters vary in time spent in their heads and importance, with long introductions preluding doom for more than a few. This “anyone can die” mentally usually keeps the reader invested, but sometimes it feels tedious. Still, it is war. Casualties are welcome, as are more heroic Oromondo villains like Sumroth, whose pragmatism has no time for the burnt offerings that his country’s fire clerics demand. You read that right, folks. The villains are indeed the fire nation oppressing all the other nations.
But that doesn’t mean Skylark is without magic herself. Skylark talks to animals who universally offer her assistance as the rightful queen on the lam as do a Rolodex full of side characters down on their luck who provide her with just enough to help the very next person she runs into. Skylark’s role as righter-of-wrongs and transitory adventurer weirdly seesaws in tone against the mortality of the Oromondo war. There’s definitely power in a story about a mysterious stranger with a gang of ponies, birds, and dogs coming to rescue refugees who’ve just seen death, maimings, and rape, but Skylark’s quest somehow doesn’t embrace it. Her mutual attraction with Thalen, 350 pages in, feels both more conventional and leads nicely into book three since Thalen’s small army has disbanded and most of the newly introduced characters have died.
Even though a lot feels familiar about the world of the Nine Realms, that familiarity caters to a crowd who love their multi-book stories. Skylark, or whatever name she picks next, will be back in book three, A Broken Queen, assuming the gods will it. As a series, book two delivers what all good book twos should: action, gore, and peril. It’s only a question of where the story will twist next.
Three stars out of five