I was incredibly excited to dive back into the world of the Broken Chronicles. Where last we left off, our adventuring party had just split up: Misti (newly freed from her cursed pendant) was recovering from the trauma of confronting her sun-cultist family and had moved in with her girlfriend Dylori in the city of Rok, while sisters Arias and Orenda Silverstone returned to Marion to visit family.
Book Two, Curling Vines and Crimson Trades, shifts focus away from Misti and Dylori to the aforementioned Orenda Silverstone. Orenda is a trade broker whose wife Noss has been kidnapped by sun cultists calling themselves the Ember Elect. To ransom her wife, Orenda must carry out ten business deals on behalf of the Ember Elect: trades that bring them information, weapons, and magical artifacts to increase their power.
The structure is similar to the first book in the series: in other words, the protagonist undertakes an MMORPG-style quest chain. As with Misti, the sun cultists implant a piece of malevolent magic into Orenda: vines stitched into her shoulder to track her as she does their bidding, and a poisoned leaf just in case she gets out of line. And it gets worse. Orenda discovers early on that the Ember Elect can listen in on her conversations through these vines, placing her under constant surveillance. No wonder they knew she’d violated their orders to tell no one.
Orenda had showed Jax her vines in the tavern. Had hoped since her friend was much better with plant life, maybe Jax could help. Had never dreamed it would cause Kieve to embed the same tendrils into Jax.
After Orenda confides in Jax, the Ember Elect abduct Jax’s parents and Deaf younger brother. Jax is given a list of errands with an even tighter timeline than Orenda’s, and one of those is to kill Orenda.
This is what we in the business call a real pickle.
As Orenda travels with a pair of thieving twins to deliver a pair of magic crystals to another member of the Ember Elect, Jax tracks and attacks them repeatedly, intruding on an already tense road trip. Orenda doesn’t trust either twin, even after they explicitly ally themselves with her against the Ember Elect. Lan has used his magic on her without her consent, and Lyra is just unpleasant—which makes it all the funnier when Orenda discovers that Lyra and Jax have been keeping their relationship on the down-low. Orenda’s journey through the “my bestie is dating someone whose very existence is nails on the chalkboard of my soul” stages of grief injects a little levity into her situation, and the first time she refers to the twins and Jax collectively as “her friends” is an understated but effective emotional turning point.
The party is subject to the same environmental hazards as Misti and her friends were in Book One: suncreatures and cultists. However, Orenda faces a further problem. As an Elu, she can create magical shields, but ...
Painful cuts would open across an Elu’s skin the moment they used their crafting. Those cuts would turn into scars that would never fully heal. If the canvass [sic] of the Elu’s skin was completely covered in scars, they would never be able to craft again.
Orenda’s subplot, trying to reconcile with and learn to use her crafting, functions effectively as a metaphor for several chronic illnesses and neurodivergences. Few of the people around her understand her struggle, accusing her of having a “low pain tolerance” even when she explains that other Elu agree that magic shouldn’t hurt her so badly. It’s an infuriatingly relatable moment for anyone who’s ever had to explain why they just couldn’t get out of bed during a depressive episode or why their menstrual cramps knock them flat even though other people walk it off and work through the pain.
Doherty’s work is at its best when she engages with survivor’s guilt; in the previous book, Misti grappled with these feelings after running away from her abusive parents. As she reckons with her relationship to her crafting, Orenda struggles with her own survivor’s guilt: when she was a teenager, she and several friends ventured outside the city during the day and were attacked by suncreatures. Orenda, racked by crafting-induced pain, dropped the magical shield she’d put up to defend her party. She blames herself for the three friends who died that day, and her guilt and shame prevent her accessing her powers.
Luckily, not all the magic around her is painful. Orenda is a devout worshipper of Aluriah the moon goddess, and this spirituality is both a sustaining force and a guiding light on her quest. More than once, Orenda decides her direction based on gnosis she receives in communion with her goddess. This sets up another key moral conflict for her: although she wants to save her wife, doing the bidding of cultists worshipping Ponuriah (Aluriah’s sworn enemy) violates her own religious imperatives. She understands that every task she completes strengthens the forces of evil.
And yes, the Ember Elect are definitely evil, what with all the kidnapping and torture. But this is where, for me, the narrative falls down: I’m uncomfortable with the way-too-simple idea that everyone who follows Ponuriah is a violent fanatic who indiscriminately harms others, and that an entire religious sect is irredeemably evil. This is where my suspension of disbelief breaks. And thus, Orenda’s happy ending reads as considerably less happy to me:
There was a decree made by the high guild that Ponuriah worship would be officially forbidden in the Shey region, which included the city of Marion. The worship of the sun goddess was generally considered immoral; her followers were nearly always in the heart of conflict. There was an ongoing war with the sun goddess worshippers, after all, as some of the fiery worshippers wanted to claim more land for their goddess. They would burn villages to the ground just to spark fear. But Ponuriah worship had never been officially forbidden, since according to the high guild, not all sun goddess worshippers would do dangerous or deadly things.
When she heard about the decree, Orenda had wondered why Ponuriah worship hadn’t been banned before and why it hadn’t been done on the entire continent. Sometimes, it took something horrific to change the laws. She was grateful that her and Jax’s journey had sparked that change … that all their pain and fear had meant something bigger.
Throughout these two books, every Ponuriah worshipper has been presented as evil merely for the fact of their faith. While most of them admittedly have other sins on their list, even those who appear to be nonviolent despite their devotion (such as Zephri, who attempts to flee from the protagonists when they attack him) are treated as criminals. Ponuriah worshippers are shown to have infiltrated society at every level, including systems of law enforcement and legal courts. Although I recognize the ways in which “anyone can be the enemy so who can we trust?” adds necessary tension and urgency to the plot, the way this vast conspiracy works—and the ways in which our protagonists fight it with both physical violence and legal proceedings—draws up unfortunate images of real-world conspiracy theories and religious oppression.
None of the cultures in the Broken Chronicles is an implied analogue to any real culture or race, and this critique should not be taken as an accusation of any -isms towards the text or its author. However, I found this to be a stumble in the otherwise detailed worldbuilding. Ultimately, I’m disappointed that a series that takes such a careful and nuanced approach to processing personal trauma applies such a reductive lens to questions of religion and morality, and I hope this tendency will be corrected in future installments.