Canadian writer Sean Russell spent years purposefully and successfully avoiding the Tolkien-type of grand fantasy that has ongoing characters and plot elements. He had two persistent ideas, however, that eventually led him to attempt a fantasy on a large scale. The first idea derived from Huckleberry Finn was of a group of characters traveling down a river by raft. The second was of two families fighting for power, somewhat akin to the Montagues and the Capulets. When Russell realized these two ideas could be linked, he found himself with the basis for a traditional fantasy, one that would have a motley group of characters traveling through strange and distant lands on a quest to save their homeland. The Swans' War series was launched last year with The One Kingdom. The second entry, newly released, is The Isle of Battle, and it includes a dense four-page section, "What Went Before," to help new readers to catch up.
As befits the mid-book in a trilogy, The Isle of Battle is a dark book. The land between the mountains is on the brink of war as the two ruling families (the Rennes and the Wills) use politics, games and marriage to try to take the throne. At the start, Elise Wills has thrown herself in the River Wynnd rather than give herself up to a political marriage. But she has not died, as her broken-hearted father and friends suppose; she has made a deal with Sianon, a nagar or dark river spirit, to live on and share her body and mind.
The Isle of Battle is mostly questing and chasing, as various groups of warriors hunt the three nagar: Sianon; Hafydd, Sianon's murderous brother; and Sainth, their half-brother, who inhabits the body of a wanderer named Alaan. The chase leads into lands that exist side by side with the land between the mountains, where the only hope of exit is Sainth and Sainth is very much in danger from Hafydd and his men.
Russell keeps the characters moving, the tension high and the quest arduous. The politics are complicated, the relationships even more so. When one young lord swears he will spy for his enemies in the hope of future peace (and familial gain), it is difficult to remember who he can safely talk to, and who he can't.
The Isle of Battle will please Russell's earlier readers and bring him many more. He has taken up the mantle of a traditional fantasy writer and is producing strong, highly readable tales. Gavin J. Grant reads, writes and publishes science fiction in Brooklyn.