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This is book four of the Guardians of the Flame series by Joel Rosenberg. As this is a long, on-going and complex tale with many characters, I would recommend at least reading reviews of the first three novels before proceeding. Those titles are The Sleeping Dragon, The Sword and The Chain, and The Silver Crown. I will try to bring newcomers up to speed without going into detail as this is supposed to be a review of only book four.
Karl, Andrea (AndyAndy), Walter (Masterthief and Center of his own Universe), Lou (the Engineer), James Michael (Ahira the Dwarf), and Doria (cleric of the Healing Hand) do not belong to this world. For them, all this was once only a fantasy role-playing game. Professor Deighton sent them here without warning or true explanation for his own designs. In this world, Deighton had been Arta Myrdhyn the powerful wizard who fought with the Guildmaster of Pandathaway's Wizards once in a conflict so great it left only such things as the Waste of Elrood behind to prove it was ever more than legend. Arta Myrdhyn also left an item of power and legend behind in a hidden and protected place; a mighty sword made for killing wizards waits in Melawei held by fingers of light. It waits for Karl's son.
Karl gave up his dilettante ways and chose to free this world from slavery as his part in the curious price demanded by the Matriarch of the Healing Hand from each of these Otherworlders. In exchange for the resurrection of Ahira they gave willingly, if still puzzled by her odd choice of payment. A traumatized and catatonic Doria was gathered back into the folds of the Healing Hand society, and the Matriarch warns them all that this is the one and only time she will be able to help them. No further contact will be tolerated and no cleric of the Hand will be able to help them in the future regardless of the need. The only explanation She gives is a vague reference to Arta Myrdhyn's legendary battle. Doria has never been seen by them since...
Ahrmin, Master Slaver and son of Karl's first great enemy, lives a tortured existence with only one goal.... Karl's death. In his last attempt, Ahrmin only survived with great luck and a bottle of healing potions. This was enough for him to survive the massive burns that nearly killed him, but not enough to restore him. He is a truly gruesome figure who shuns the light of day and burns now with the fires of vengeance and obsession. Karl has made much progress in his war against the combined strength of the Slavers and Wizards Guilds of Pandathaway over the years, and nothing they have tried has brought them Karl's head. They are running scared now and refuse all of Ahrmin's further plans. Ahrmin waits patiently in his darkness...
"When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary." Thomas Paine once said, and in many ways he is right. However, what do you do when your father is a legend in his own time? Both feared and revered, Karl was seen as being wise, generous, honorable, compassionate, an embodiment of strength for those at the mercy of life's harshness and a bringer of light in a dark world to those who idolized him. To those who opposed him he was a savage, cunning, ruthless, nigh invincible being with the fearsome destructive force of a natural disaster. To those who truly knew him he was a man with unique skills, a gentle man who had chosen to wade through blood as long as he could avoid his own death if it meant bringing one more person Freedom.
Whether he was out on the road leading raids or later when he was stuck with a crown he never wanted, he always regretted and resented the time taken from his wife and children. As he said, they chased away his darkness even if only for a little while and he respected that miracle. Perhaps Karl's legendary self loomed largest for his son, who could not seem to understand him, hardly knew him.
Jason Cullinane loved his father but he felt woefully inadequate in such a large shadow. He wanted to please him, live up to all the standards his father set by example, but he also never saw the fear Karl felt every day. Karl traded in Death, continued while good friends died and lived with the very real, daily possibility of his own demise. Jason was just too youthful to understand how he could do all that he did and still feel fear or doubt. In many ways Jason was closer to Valeran, the semi-retired soldier loyal to the Cullinanes who was responsible for much of his training and home far more consistently than his own father.
When fear freezes Jason in his first battle and Valeran dies before his eyes, is it any wonder that he blames himself...or that he runs? No one condemns him, but in his own eyes he has failed everyone that he loves and betrayed all that he was raised to honor. There can be no turning back. He pushes forward through his own emotions and the dangerous road ahead searching for a means to redeem himself. Jason soon decides that only by killing Ahrmin himself can he face his loved ones again. Ah, but what would the Guilds do to gain Jason as a bargaining chip with his father? Jason naively never seems to even consider this thought.
All searches for Jason yield nothing and the news is brought to his mother and father. Karl chooses to do the one thing that will pull all the enemies attentions away from his beloved son. He removes the amulet that protects him from their sight and lets it be known that he is going for the sword of Arta Myrdhyn. Karl's farewell conversation with his faithful dragon companion Ellegon is heartwarming, compelling and ends with a smile from Karl. "Don't go maudlin on me. The last thing we need around here are ten tons of maudlin dragon." However, his last word to wife is the one that always touches me the most...he says only her name and it is enough.
Of all the people searching for Jason, the one who finds him is perhaps the only one who wasn't looking and the last we expected to see again. Doria recognizes him when he signs up as a drover with cattle drivers headed to Pandathaway. Seeing all, she befriends him and fights against all Jason's protests as well as the Matriarch's own considerable restraints to help him in his quest. She cannot use the powers given her by the Hand without breaking faith and loosing them, but insists upon using all else that she can for Jason. Together they join the force Ahrmin is amassing to await Karl in Melawei. Jason waits for the opportunity to slay his father's archenemy and consistently attempts to strengthen himself with just one thought..."This time, I will not run."
Meanwhile, Karl with a small band of trusted compatriots has reached the dangerous city of Ehvenor where he hopes to find a ship headed for Melawei. In the center of the city and visible for miles is a bizarre structure that is commonly known as The Faerie Embassy. It pulses with fae lights, an extension from the plane of the Faerie realm, and its very existence here will drive one in 500 humans inexplicably mad. No one really knows why or how it is here, but Karl is about to find out a little on the subject.
"Walk this way. Come to me." a voice calls inside his head. Despite his denial, he and his followers find themselves at the Embassy where Karl meets with a strange being who answers his question of "Who are you?' with, "My name? Oh, anything will do. Titania might be best, all things considered." She shows him the forces already laying in wait for him in Melawei and offers him a bargain. The reasons and explanations Karl stubbornly pries out of her are only appropriate to faerie kind, "Because I am bored, and you're entertaining......Don't look for deep motivations. You will find none in me. All I offer you is a little chance to escape alive, but more chance to save those you care for..."
An agreement is reached and thus does the legendary Karl Cullinane find himself safely and secretly transported to his destination with the help of Faerie magic. He arrives on the shore naked and alone with only the few knapsacks Titania allowed him to choose out of they had carried with them. Grimly, he begins a campaign of terror against the vast numbers arrayed against him, whittling their numbers down, slowly forcing them to huddle together in their fear so that he may use Lou's latest explosive innovation to even the odds..... Never knowing that his son is hidden in their midst. People will die here; we are assured of that. The real question is ...who will make it home?
Each book in this series becomes more eloquent than the last and the characters written of in these pages become dear friends as the reader progresses. As in life, we loose some of these friends all too soon, but they are never forgotten and therefore never really gone. I have tried to give you a solid look at this work, share with you as much as I can why I love this series, and yet there is much I have not told you that can only be experienced for yourself.
Only tantalizing glimpses of the true, underlying story are revealed in each novel thus far by this potent author. Rosenberg builds our tension with each of his works, draws and intricately binds us into the lives of these people as we both eagerly await and dread the final revelation. I have read each of my worn copies countless times, jump to purchase each newly printed offering, and know with great regret that someday.........the story has to end.