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It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of the urban fantasy genre, preferring this to other forms of fantasy because the storylines are rooted within reality. I tend to find more accepted forms of fantasy featuring princes and wizards from alternative realities much less to my liking. (I must be the only person on the planet who absolutely loathes Tolkein's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.) However, every so often I come across a straight fantasy which totally captures my imagination and 'Warprize' was just such a book.
'Warprize' is the first book in the Chronicles of the Warlands trilogy by Elizabeth Vaughan and sits firmly in the tradition of such fantasy writers as Anne McCaffrey and Raymond E Feist, set in completely imaginary lands, and peopled by warlords, kings, mystical beings and priests.
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This book was first published in 2005, reprinted in 2007 and is scheduled for re-release in April 2011. Used copies are available on Amazon from 1p.
Elizabeth Vaughan is a Canadian living in the North West Territory. Before becoming a full time writer, she was a lawyer specialising in financial and bankruptcy law. Warprize was her first novel and established her immediately as a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre.
Xylara, otherwise known as Lara, is not only a princess of the Kingdom of Xy but also she has learned the healing arts. Her father has died and her incompetent half-brother, Xymund, has acceded to the throne and now the once great kingdom is involved in a war with the warrior nation of the Firelanders and Xy is close to losing the final battle. To save his throne, Xymund is forced to accept terms of surrender. These terms are reasonable and include no looting, rape or pillage, but the barbarian Warlord has one final request. He claims Xylara as his Warprize...
From the very first page this book captures the imagination and the reader is immediately pulled into the battle raging between the Kingdom of Xy and the barbarian Firelanders. Xylara is still learning her trade as a healer and her mentor, Eln, has to gently point out to her that she's trying to save the life of someone who should be allowed to die. He has a mortal stomach wound and there is no hope for his survival. This is a land without the medical advances of the modern world, a sort of medieval alternative reality.
Xylara, in the true tradition of healers, shows no partiality and heals all who require her skills whether they are her own people or Firelanders and it's her kindness to the wounded barbarian warrior, Simus and his comrade in arms, Joden, as well as her refusal to betray Keir, their friend who has stolen into the city to find his fellow warriors, that seals her fate. Xylara is a young woman of principle and is smart enough to recognise that her half-brother is not only weak and incompetent but corrupt also. He has no compunction in agreeing terms with the Warlord in order to retain his throne, albeit as a puppet king, and hands over Xylara as part of the bargain, to be Keir's Warprize, having informed her that this role is one of a sexual slave.
The term Warprize isn't fully explained to begin with which leads to a big misunderstanding. Xylara and indeed everyone else in Xy, with the possible exception of Xymund, believes the role of Warprize to be that of a slave and, for the sake of her country, she is prepared to sacrifice her freedom. In preparation for the ceremony in which Lara will become the Warprize, her head is covered so it isn't until the deed is done that she discovers the Warlord is none other than Keir!
Now begins the journey Lara must make with Keir and his warriors back to their homeland in the heart of the Plains and during this trek across the land, sharing a tent and their lives, both Keir and Lara learn a great deal about each other and by the time Lara learns the truth about her role as Warprize, she's come to care for these barbarian warriors and especially Keir, with whom she has fallen in love.
I absolutely loved Keir. He was a strong, alpha male with a certain amount of vulnerability which made him irresistible. He is an honourable man and a good and just leader of his people. The more he comes to know of Lara, the deeper his feelings become although, like many men, he has difficulty articulating his feelings.
The secondary characters in this book are every bit as real and well defined as Xylara and Keir. Among the Firelanders, there's Joden, the soldier who initially befriends Lara, who has ambitions to be a minstrel and Atira, a female warrior, who I suspect will one day have a book of her own. The people of Xy don't figure quite as prominently in the book, other than the servants and mentors in the palace where Lara lived. The baddies, are less evil and more of the slimy and slightly Machievellian variety and Xymund's conniving to regain his lost throne is a key element to the story.
The strength of any fantasy novel stands or falls by the quality of world building and Elizabeth Vaughan has created a wonderful world in this story, showing the people of Xy and the Warriors of the Plains as two distinctly different peoples with different traditions, beliefs and ways of life and both groups of people are totally believable.
The land of Xy is very similar to that of the European medieval period whilst the closest comparison I can make to the Warriors of the Plains would probably be that they have a similarity to Native Americans, certainly in their way of life if not their appearance. These people of the Plains are completely alien to Lara and she has to learn their ways and customs and frequently has difficulty getting used to that, as well as their food and drink. Their favourite drink, in particular, called Kavage, she finds most peculiar. It's a strong and bitter brew which the warriors seem to be addicted to, which I took to be some kind of coffee-like substance.
As time passes and Lara becomes more used to the ways of the Firelanders, she begins to suspect that the role of Warprize is not what she first thought but before she and Keir can reach any kind of understanding, her brother tries to wrest power back from Keir threatening to destroy the uneasy peace which has been brokered and destroy Lara's new found love into the bargain.
The books in the trilogy are:
Rumour has it that Elizabeth Vaughan has written a further, fourth, book in this series, 'Warcry', to be published in 2011. She has also written other standalone novels set in her wonderfully imaginative alternative reality which are also well worth reading.
'Warprize' is an excellent introduction to the main players in this wonderful fantasy series and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a tale full of adventure, romance and mythology. You won't be disappointed.