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Review: Shadows of Insurrection – Vanessa MacLaren-Wray

Shadows of Insurrection - Vanessa MacLaren-Wray

Genre: Fantasy

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About The Book

There’s a kettle of rotten fish on the fire … and the stink’s about to get worse. – Jeskan proverb

Once in a generation, the matriarchs of Jeska choose a new king to manage the government and command the Guard — protecting Jeskans from crime, invaders, and insurgency. Corren’s been training for that job since he was six, but this is an unsettled time: rumors of strange incursions, grumbling discontent, and increasing brigandry.

Corren’s own problems are multiplying. His father, a skeptical shaman, has gone missing, His polyamorous foster-brother keeps interfering with his personal and professional business. And the king needs him to track down the conspirators behind a simmering insurrection.

When a strange woman turns up wearing a shaman’s cape, speaking a weird language, and hiding knowledge that doesn’t belong in this world, all his plans will have to change.

The Review

I was in the mood for a good epic fantasy, so I picked this book up for a read, hoping it would scratch that itch. I really enjoyed it, but it was not at all what I expected.

The story kicks off with the prequel short The True Son, which I reviewed earlier. Jeska is a fairly idealized country, set in a fertile valley between two mountain ranges on the east and west, which themselves are sandwiched by a desert and an ocean. In Jeska, people generally do the right thing, and look after the land and one another. While the country has a king, he rules at the pleasure of the elders, women from the matriarchy who have the power to approve or depose a king.

The king himself typically has a group of foster sons in addition to his own children by blood – these fosters are ready to step in if needed, in case the King’s blood children are incapacitated or, as in the case with this King, unfit for leadership.

The story follows Corren and his friend Tymon, two foster sons of the king. Corren becomes the prince in waiting when the King’s son, a bully who is entirely unsuited to becoming king, dies from a sudden illness. Corren has no particular desire to become the king. He’s only a foster child because his father gave him up to earn enough money to become a Shaman, after Corren’s mother’s untimely death. He’s content to work his way up through the guard. But he truly loves his country, and will do what he must to protect it, even giving up the love of his life to protect his son.

Instead, he marries a foreigner – just how foreign, you’ll have to read the book to find out – named Heyliannin, who has a “magic” tablet and secrets of her own.

Early on in the book, we’re shown some strange creatures who come to Jeska through a “thin patch” – apparently a portal between worlds. They are described as giant colorful bears with snake arms, shorthanded to “snake men,” and for a bit it seems like the story will be about this unusual incursion. But soon enough they fade into the background, though I am certain we will hear from them again before the end of the series.

The worldbuilding here is stellar – I have a real feel for the country and the capital city of Jeskaryn, and its history is fed to us bit by bit throughout the narrative, though there are a couple data dumps. They’re not too intrusive, and I didn’t mind them.

The entire tale is told through a first person point of view – Corren’s – which I tend to enjoy more in short stories than in novels, especially epic fantasies. It imposes a limitation on what we can see, and in fantasy I like to range far and wide with multiple characters to see what’s going on. In this case, it serves the story well, as it rachets up the tension slowly as to what might be going on out there, as the nation lurches toward war with one of its neighbors to the south. Still, there are moments where the author has to shoehorn a few other POVs in by way of “reports” that aren’t nearly as vivid as they would have been in their own points of view.

Corren is fleshed out nicely – he’s a patriot who’s not afraid to do what he has to, but draws the line at harming innocents. Tymon, his best friend, is a great foil, being everything Corren is not – vivacious, outgoing, slow to react and become angry. And Heyliannin is a fascinating character in her own right. When we first see her, she is wearing Corren’s father’s Shaman mantle, and he assumes that she has killed him. But she has secrets of her own, and it becomes obvious pretty quickly where she is from.

There is some LGBTQ+ representation here too – a brief mention that some soldiers are gay, and a nicely drawn transgender character.

I really enjoyed this book, even if it tried my patience a couple times. Heyliannin clearly knows more about the snake men than she’s telling, and yet Corren never presses her on it. This works for a bit, but I began to question it about two-thirds of the way through. I want answers!

And give me a few more POV’s, please! LOL…

Still, it’s an easy read that will keep you turning the pages, as events push Corren and his country to the precipice, and there are a number of great reveals. It’s clear there are more to come in book two, Flames of Attrition, the final book in this duology. Highly recommended.

The Reviewer

Scott is the founder of Queer Sci Fi, and a fantasy and sci fi writer in his own right, with more than 30 published short stories, novellas and novels to his credit, including two trilogies.

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