I’ll keep this review short and sweet — kind of like Sarah Addison Allen’s books. This is Allen’s third book and much like Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen, it has elements of fairy tale mixed with small town North Carolina flavor and a pinch of romance. Emily Benedict returns to quirky Mullaby, North Carolina in search of a solution to the puzzle of her mother’s life. Why did Dulcie Shelby leave Mullaby and never return? Why was she so reluctant to discuss the grandfather Emily never knew, or the house she grew up in? And why are the eccentric townspeople so angry at Emily for something that Dulcie did years ago?
Like the two other books before it, The Girl Who Chased the Moon is filled with magic, like the wallpaper in Emily’s room that changes with her moods, the bewitching aroma of the sugary cakes that Julia, owner of the local barbeque joint, bakes in an effort to lure lost love back to her, and the mysterious Mullaby lights that appear in the woods outside of Emily’s window each evening. Emily’s grandfather is a gentle giant and her boyfriend’s entire family mysteriously refuses to be seen by moonlight.
Even though this time around Allen’s book was a bit predictable and some of it was a little silly (the explanation of the Mullaby lights for example), I still enjoyed it for what it was — a light enjoyable read as sweet as one of Julia Winterson’s cakes.
Epic fantasy requires a writer to juggle complex plots where characterization often gets lost beneath politics and world-building. It’s rare to find a writer who can deliver intrigue, an exciting world, and well-rounded characters, but Liane Merciel succeeds beautifully with The River Kings’ Road.
Odosse is a young woman with only one wish: to make a good life for her infant son Aubry. Unfortunately, Odosse has neither husband, nor money, nor beauty to ease her way in life. When an Oakharne lord’s son is orphaned, Odosse is thrust into a conflict between the warring kingdoms of Oakharne and Langmyr, all for the sake of an infant not her own.
Merciel skillfully draws the reader into a dark story full of treachery and builds her world of Ithelas with care. In Ithelas, evil walks in the form of maimed witches known as Thorns. The Thorns’ powers can be bought for a price, and one act of violence purchased by Leferic, an Oakharne lord’s youngest son, sets off a chain reaction that soon spins out of his control.
The beauty of The River Kings’ Road rests with Merciel’s skillful portrayal of her characters and their motivations. Each action leads to a reaction so that the characters become intertwined in one another’s survival. Merciel guides the reader through her plot twists with enough sword and sorcery to satisfy the most hardened fan, but she also uses a dark edge that I’m glad to see returning to fantasy.
Merciel doesn’t rely on shock value for her horror. The Thorns’ zombies are unique and well done, and I found the plight of one of Leferic’s henchmen, Albric, to be particularly disturbing. Merciel probes the psyche and shows the reader how easy it is to fall into death and dishonor with one wrong choice.