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July 2, 2014 / CB

Book Review: Blackveil, by Kristen Britain

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When I first picked up Green Rider years ago, I was immediately enthralled.  The book’s main character is a young woman drawn into a dangerous world by magical powers outside her control.  While this has become something of a trope, especially in YA fiction, of late, Britain handles her Karigan G’ladheon well and keeps her free of any teenage angst.  Instead, Karigan pushes on despite the external forces shoving her into dire straits.  This pattern has remained true throughout the series, and is no less visible in this the fourth book.  More to the point in Blackveil, Britain has crafted a story every bit as enjoyable as its predecessors.

I think what impresses me most about this now growing saga (Book 5, Mirror Sight, came out in May) is how tight and well-paced is the overall narrative.  Despite the length of the books, time within the created world hasn’t passed all that dramatically.  In fact, Britain’s ability here reminds me a lot of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, in which a whole novel might scarcely cover more than 24 hours.  Britain isn’t quite so compact, but her stories do move with a constant focus on character over action.  This is to be expected, I suppose, when a series takes on this sort of length.  As a reader, you expect to see depth and thoughtfulness in the characterization.  What I enjoy about the author’s work here is that she achieves just that without writing a sword-wearing soap opera.

Britain crafts characters, both male and female, who are both strong and subtle.  Her primaries show a believable range of emotion that never becomes melodramatic.  It’s easy for the reader to care about these characters regardless of whether they are battling spiritual or sorcerous monsters.  Furthermore, the political intrigues which sometimes dominate the plot add complexity and depth, while still retaining a breathless pace.  It’s important to pause and consider the gender balance with which Britain approaches her world,  So often, especially in fantasy novels, we see brave men with women who need saving, or dominant women surrounded by bumbling men.  This book does neither.  Instead, the author gives both her men and women a solid humanity which lets them all be fleshed out into strong people above all else.  In general, Britain’s characters spend little time pitying themselves, and thus the reader has little time for it either.

This might be best epitomized in Lady Estora, King Zachary’s betrothed as the book begins.  Now, I’m about discuss a few plot points, but nothing that should really spoil things. However, if you want to avoid ALL spoilers, skip this paragraph.  Let’s think about what’s on this woman’s shoulders.  She is engaged in a political marriage, and yet she is attracted to Zachary.  This is totally reasonable because he is a likable character.  Of course, those positive attributes also attract Karigan to him.  For his part, Zachary is in love with Karigan but knows his place and does not want to hurt or embarrass Estora.  After an assassination attempt, one which also kills her father, Estora learns about Zachary’s feelings for the green rider, even as Karigan must travel into the violent, cursed Blackveil forest.  With Zachary incapacitated, Estora is forced into a rushed marriage by the political machine.  Because of Zachary’s kindness and respect for her, Estora wants the marriage to happen, but not like this.  There are good reasons for such an arrangement, but the Lady knows enough of her King to realize he would not want things to happen this way.  This is a huge load, and similar characters have broken under less.  Estora, however, does not.  Oh, there are moments when her emotions get the best of her, to be sure.  Ultimately, though, she sucks it up and deals with life, as we all must.  Importantly, she does not get everything right.  This is not a shining rise under pressure.  Rather, she makes a mixture of good and bad decisions, which is usually how life works in the end.

This book is an enjoyable continuation of a series which will best appeal to those who want the time to luxuriate in a foreign place.  It’s an overnight roast, not popcorn chicken.  Blackveil moves the story forward from the end of The High King’s Tomb, and does so while deepening many of the characters.  This tale is far from over, and, given the number of questions which have yet to be answered, I find it highly unlikely that book five will be the concluding volume.

And fair warning…where Britain chooses to end the book is positively diabolical.  I screamed in frustration, but in a good way.

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