* Prices may differ from that shown
Starting with the second book in a trilogy is always dangerous. Frequently it's just a holding book, between the setting up of the first book and the climax in the third and you struggle to follow what's going on, especially if there is no explanation.
That was the situation I found myself in early into reading "Emissary". There is clearly quite a lot has happened in the first book, affecting the lives of major characters and causing the deaths of others. These were referred to, but the story behind it was lost to me which was, in this case, even more of a disappointment than usual as it seemed so fascinating.
The story follows the members of the harem in Percheron, which is controlled by the Chief Eunuch and the Valide - the mother of the Zar who rules Percheron. Ana, who is an odalisque, or member of the harem, rebels against their authority as she hates what the harem stands for and what may happen to her. This rebellion has already caused the death of Spur Lazar, the head of the Zar's military.
However, all is not as it seems. Pez, the Zar's dwarf clown believes that Ana is the human incarnation of the Goddess Lyana, who appears every now and again to fight the demon Maliz. The demon has taken up residence in the body of the Grand Vizier Tariq and both he and the Valide are out to cause harm to odalisque Ana, one to maintain the power of the Gods and one to maintain her own power within the harem. Yet there is more, as the neighbouring province of Galinsea is out to declare war, as Spur Lazar was important to them for reasons that are only now becoming clear.
It is to McIntosh's credit that every time I tried to think how I could explain the story I got confused, but on reading it that never happened. Her major characters are so individual that there is never any danger of getting them confused, even though they all interact with each other on many different levels, both professionally and personally and their relationships are constantly shifting as their place in the hierarchy of the Zar's palace or the harem changes.
McIntosh surprised me in a couple of other ways. The first was in that thorny issue of what had happened in the first book; for a while, it confused me a little when an event I'd missed was referred to, but the more I read, the less it bothered me. The current story was so gripping that I completely forgot I'd come to the story part way through as a stranger and was completely entranced by it. I can't remember the last time I read a middle part of a trilogy and felt involved, rather than an outsider.
The other aspect that shocked me was that involvement. Stories where characters are jostling for position often bore me, as does politics generally. But McIntosh writes it as if politics is a game of chess. The characters never jostled for position, but skilfully laid plans that would improve their position later on. I found myself taking sides, which is something that rarely happens to me when reading this kind of story.
It's not the perfect book, although it does come pretty close to it. As events take the characters away from the harem, it stops being about the political side of things and becomes a journey, which is a far more common fantasy theme. Whilst the progress of events picks up the further they go from the harem, so the pace of the story drops and it becomes easier to break from the story. I found the ending a little disappointing as well, as I thought the book was good enough to not have to resort to a cliff hanger to persuade me to buy the final part.
These minor concerns aside, however, if you like character driven fantasy of the likes of Kate Elliott or Karen Miller, then Fiona McIntosh is someone not to be missed. Despite my early misgivings, I am already eager to know how things will continue and I know I am going to have to buy the first of the trilogy for the back story. Now I'm up to speed with events, I don't need to know the back story at this point in proceedings, but I have a deep desire to read it regardless.
Fiona McIntosh has taken me from worrying whether I would keep up with events to being caught up in the whirlwind of them. She's taken someone who didn't think they would enjoy the politics of her tale and turned me into someone who cannot wait for the next twist. I've been reading fantasy for many years, but I don't recall being quite this consumed by a tale in quite some time.
This is a series I can see me reading over and over, the way I have with the works of Eddings and Feist. There aren't really any hidden depths to be discovered upon re-reading, but it's such an entrancing story that I am sure I will want to go back to it in much the same way I want to see my friends again. Had I paid the Amazon or Play price of £5.99 for the book, I would not have cause to think I had received poor value for money and prices of £3.52 from the Amazon Marketplace or from £1.00 from eBay for second hand copies are an absolute steal. If you've ever enjoyed a fantasy novel, I have a feeling you will enjoy Fiona McIntosh.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Odalisque Ana is resigned to life in Percheron's famed harem and has little more than a blood-soaked veil to remind her that Spur Lazar, the man she loves, is dead. What's more, she is closely watched by the scheming Grand Master Eunuch, Salmeo, and the cunning and cruel Valide Herezah. The Valide, unhappy at Ana's influence over the young Zar, contrives a shrewd plan to bring about the beautiful young woman's demise. But greater forces are at work ...The demon Maliz has taken the guise of Percheron's Grand Vizier in order to stalk Iridor, the traditional accomplice of the Goddess. And a war is brewing. A long-time enemy, Galinsea, intends to exact a vicious blood price for the death of its crown prince, Luc