The return of a beloved character after a long absence is something I view with some trepidation. At the end of the Deed of Paksenarrion, Elizabeth Moon's first epic fantasy trilogy (Sheepfarmer's Daughter, 1988; Divided Allegiance, 1988; Oath of Gold, 1989), Paksenarrion had earned the personal attention of a god, becoming a paladin and a miracle-worker. Writing a compelling narrative around a character with a direct line to divine intervention is a tricky thing to do—which is why Moon's follow-up to the Paksenarrion trilogy, of which Kings of the North is the second volume, leaves her as a secondary character and picks up the threads of the people she met in the original books.
Kings of the North continues the stories of Kieri, the former mercenary commander whom Paksenarrion revealed as the lost king of Lyonya; Arcolin, one of Kieri's subordinates who found himself promoted to commander and Count when his boss took a new job in Lyonya; and Dorrin, former soldier in Kieri's company, now the new-made Duke Verrakai, whose quest to root out the evil in her family took a strange turn when she happened upon somebody's crown jewels. While the first volume in the Paladin's Legacy trilogy, Oath of Fealty (2010), was a bit of a slog, as Moon worked to introduce all the places and characters she was going to need, Kings of the North finds its feet early and actually moves.
In Oath of Fealty, Dorrin, Kieri, and Arcolin were each called to step into someone else's shoes and clean up long-neglected messes. In Kings of the North, they discover that bigger things are at stake. There is an evil warlord consolidating his power in the south, and an entire nation corrupted by an evil goddess in the north. To further complicate matters, Dorrin's magical family heirlooms have announced that they will only obey the true heir to a particular lost kingdom, and have sealed themselves into a box and are refusing to come out. All except a necklace, which became separated from the rest of the set and which becomes the focal point of some of the most interesting action in Kings of the North.
Kings of the North still struggles with the problem of creating drama in a world where the gods have a direct hand in events. The heroes in this book may occasionally doubt themselves, but never for long. The reader can hear the words of the gods as they speak directly inside the minds of our heroes, reassuring the good guys that they are on the right path. Miracles and magic serve those whom the gods have chosen, as a visible sign of divine favor.
None of the major players on either side are involved because they want to be. All were either drawn in by fate or pushed in front of it by the gods they serve. This does make it hard to sympathize with some of them, particularly the nobility. Whereas Paksenarrion was the sheepfarmer's daughter who carved out a place for herself in the world, most of the people in Kings of the North are hereditary nobility, heirs to magic, money, and power, and chosen by the gods besides.
Fortunately, while this squelched the potential for drama in Oath of Fealty, Kings of the North provides our heroes with believable external enemies. There are evil gods in Paksenarrion's world, and they also whisper in their followers' minds. The servants of evil gods can be counted on to send assassins, set fires, and generally ruin our heroes' day, much to the story's benefit.
We are also introduced to some secondary characters whose well-being is not being looked after by the gods. Of these, the new master of the Thieves' Guild is the most interesting. Arvid Semminson is one of the only people to become involved in the story of his own free will. He is neither a great lord nor an honorable man, and when we meet him he is traveling without anyone who can vouch for him. Through his eyes we see the priggish side of the god Gird's most devout followers, and meet the ones who are willing to kill a wounded man because he looks suspicious. How it rankles the knights of Gird, that they must rely on Arvid for the story of their holy paladin, Paksenarrion! And how refreshing for the reader to watch a man making his way in the world not by strength of arms, family connections, or divine favor, but only by his understanding of the world and the way people work.
On the other hand, there is Count Andressat. In a demonstration of exactly how far removed the lords in these books are from people in the real world, he sets off on a journey cross-country to warn the leaders of other nations about the evil Duke Alured the Black—and to inform them that he has commoners in his family tree. He is the most obnoxious kind of tourist, and yet he manages a sort of awkward humility in front of people he once dismissed as possessing inferior bloodlines. He only steps out of that uncanny valley when he is complaining about the cold and the food up north.
The world that Elizabeth Moon has built runs like clockwork, with each character (except Arvid) spinning down into the hole that fate and the gods have assigned to them. It is necessarily true that the people in charge must have the right bloodlines, that the Good can always be counted upon to do what is right while Evil replaces one dark lord with another as the first one falls. As I read this book, I was overwhelmed by a desire to play Dungeons and Dragons again. It is very much a world like Moon's, where magic has rules and characters develop as their class requires them to, and where the good and the brave are rewarded while the evil and craven are punished by powers that move pieces inside the world but are not, themselves, affected by it.
Kings of the North, like the books that came before it, is crammed with details about everything from running a castle to the disposition of sentries around a mercenary camp. This can be a strength or a weakness, depending on how dull the reader finds it. I am certain that the emphasis on logistics will appeal to a certain segment of the reading public—particularly the kind I used to meet for a game of D&D. The rest of us will probably find ourselves wishing that Moon would hurry up and get to the action.
Fortunately for those readers, Kings of the North has action. Dorrin's Verrakai relatives are still out causing havoc, and this time they manage to cause some lasting harm to a named character (unlike the last man the Verrakai targeted, this one is a commoner, and I suspect that is why his fate is so much worse—proper nobility being appointed and protected by the gods.) The mysterious nation of Pargun goes from merely fomenting headaches for King Kieri to presenting an existential threat to his realm, despite the magical protections provided by his elf relatives. The elves, meanwhile, are causing their own peculiar kind of arrogant elfin trouble for the new king.
Overall, Kings of the North is an improvement over the first book in this series. It lacks the elements of surprise and wonder that I look for in fantasy novels. Still, there is a certain comfort in reading a book in which the good guys win because it's part of their job description. It is paced well enough to keep my attention, and the larger story arc is intriguing enough that I am looking forward to reading the next book in the Paladin's Legacy trilogy. Kings of the North will not disappoint anyone who enjoyed Oath of Fealty. Fans of Elizabeth Moon and the Deed of Paksenarrion who were not impressed by the first book in this new trilogy might want to pick up Kings of the North anyway. The Paladin's Legacy has its goal in sight, and I for one will be interested to read how it all ends.
As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.