Blue Isle is placed several days sailing from the nearest port. An independent island, it has kept its nose out of international affairs for several hundred years. The Fey, a warlike race of magical beings, have just conquered the last country on the nearest landmass and are looking for a staging post to launch their attack on the next continent. The inhabitants of Blue Isle haven’t known any conflict for several generations; the Fey feel that they are in for an easy slaughter…
I first came across Ms Rusch’s work when she was the editor of The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction in the early 1990s. She’d recently taken over the reins from Ed Ferman and I liked the direction she was taking the magazine as well. It was still recognisable as the publication I’d been reading for a year or two at this point but she’d tweaked it with details that I found interesting: issues with stories linked by themes; a wider stable of book and film reviewers; more durable binding, and so forth. Anyway, I sought out her novels where I could and found that I liked quite a lot of them, too. Then, in 1995, I was gifted The Fey: Sacrifice for Christmas and I was immediately hooked. The story of how Prince Nicholas and his father managed to fight the invading Fey to an uneasy peace while dealing with uneasy alliances on their own side was a great counterpoint to the story of Prince Rugar and his daughter, Jewel, leaders of the Fey army. There was action, a wonderful sense of history, danger and politicking behind the scenes and some characters who just can’t be trusted at all.
That first volume was followed by the second, Changeling and I really enjoyed the way the story was progressing. I knew from reading Rusch’s other novels that she wasn’t afraid to take chances with her characters and she managed to come up with some surprises that stunned me. From the outset of the second volume, we learn that no character is safe, that love or protagonist-status is no guarantee for survival and that even family can betray you. It was a rollicking, breakneck second volume that ended on a bittersweet note that still managed to offer hope for the future. It also deals quite realistically with an army that is trapped behind enemy lines and how they manage to survive or at least assimilate into the local population.
Something else that I really enjoyed in this second book was the way that Rusch managed to make you care about the characters. Every character believes that they are in the right and they have their own perspectives on how other characters behave to back it up. It is quite startling to read a scene and discover that the hero of the previous chapter is the villain of this one, but it does make you view them as deeper, more complex characters with motivations that you might not wholly trust.
Of course, there soon followed a third volume, The Rival. It’s frankly superb and possibly the best novel in the series. It makes a leap fifteen years into the future, when Nicholas and Jewel’s children have grown up. This sort of leap is unusual in a series like this, but not surprising: the first two volumes made similar jumps into the future so that they took place over a period of five years. The final three volumes, however, take place over just a matter of months – with the bulk of the book taking place over just a few hours – but are no less exciting.
Anyway, in The Rival, Jewel’s grandfather Rugad, the Black King of the Fey, has finalised everything he needs to have done on the mainland to secure his kingdom and is launching a full invasion force to Blue Isle to deal with completing his son’s mission. It starts off devastatingly successfully and then begins to go a little pear-shaped for him when he reaches Nicholas’ palace. It’s an amazing siege story and battle of wits and you start to realise just what an achievement Nicholas and his family have made in holding out for as long as they have. It’s also a book that starts a new chapter of the series and many of the characters we loved – or at least respected from a healthy distance – are seen in a new light… or, at least, those that survive are…
Volume Four, The Resistance, is another strongly written novel but it is probably the weakest story of the entire series. It ostensibly deals with the aftereffects of Rugad’s invasion and how he manages to subdue and begin winning over the population of Blue Isle to his rule, but it’s largely about getting all the players into position for the final volume (It’s also the only volume of the series that the original publisher, Bantam, allowed to go out of print. I can see their reasoning, but, really, it was a stupid decision). There are some wonderful setpieces and character moments – the beginning of the rebellion against the Fey is horrific and stirring in equal measures – but, frankly, we’re all waiting for…
…Victory, the wonderful conclusion.
It doesn’t end how you might expect, and some characters do not get the fate they deserve and it is a little talky and slow in places but it is a wonderful ending (Except for two further novels and a couple of short stories, one of which is due for release later this year).
The Fey are a marvellous creation. Physically they remind the reader of elves, but classical child-stealing, mischievous elves who don’t really care about other people rather than the lofty, numinous creations imagined by Tolkien and his imitators. Their society is structured militarily, with strict rules about what your class of magic defines for you as a member of society. They are also fiercely devoted to their own race and what the world can give them. They have relentlessly slaughtered their way across the world in their own name, demolishing any number of other cultures and taking any magical traits in the populace and weaponizing them. They’re a vicious yet alluring race and Rusch portrays them realistically but also as characters with their own inner lives and doubts, rivalries and idiosyncrasies.
The inhabitants of Blue Isle are equally appealing. Nicholas and his father, Alexander, lead a stubborn, proud, but also fiercely loyal and brave people and the hurdles they must leap are particularly high. Chief among those is Matthias, leading figure – and sometime leader – of their native religion, which proves to be oddly resistant to the Fey…
But the real star of the series is Rusch’s wonderful prose. She writes simply and effectively, leading you from crisis to crisis with very little breathing room but managing to keep you at the very edge of your seat and hoping that your favourite characters are going to survive, even when they’re up against each other. She also manages to successfully pull the rug out from under the reader a few times with her setting and history: Rocaanism (for example), the religion of the Blue Isle, at first appears to be a generic rip-off of Christianity, like so many religions in fantasy, with similar messages and iconography. However, as the series progresses you discover that it is vastly different, with a very different history and philosophy. It just insinuates itself into the story and surprises you, making sure that you take nothing for granted. Likewise, the Fey utilise some quite modern technology, like clockwork, which goes against the tech we’d normally expect from an epic fantasy series from the mid-to-late-nineties, a genre that often found itself set anywhere from the fall of the Roman empire to the Wars of the Roses, often within the same book.
However, you won’t care about these details: you’ll be too busy plotting with Jewel and her forces, or defending the city with Nicholas and his father, or worrying about the state of your immortal soul with Matthias, or agonising over being thrust into situations you just aren’t ready for like Nicholas and Jewel’s children, or… honestly, I can’t really say any more without giving things away. Just give them a go!
You can find out more about Kristine Kathryn Rusch at her blog: https://kriswrites.com/