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The One Kingdom, book one of the The Swans’ War (trilogy), by Sean Russell

Review by Mike

550 pages in hardcover
Available in UK (Orbit) in hardcover and in US (HarperCollins) in paperback.
UK paperback release is scheduled for March 2002.
Book two in the series, The Isle of Battle, is scheduled for a US release in August 2002 and a UK release in September 2002 (hardcover).

High Fantasy

Three young men set out from the remote Valley of the Lakes to explore the outside world. Travelling down the river Wynd, they soon find themselves involved in the unrest that is growing in Ayr. Once, in its prime, this country was ruled by a king, but countless conflicts between the two families that claim the crown have ripped it to pieces. Now trouble is once again stirring as ancient creatures return to life to continue their wars.

Russell has created a rather grim medieval world with a general sense of loss and longing. Only ruins and memories remain of what was once a prosperous culture. You get the feeling that the people are trapped in this past. Instead of shaping their own future, they are obsessed with carrying on centuries old blood feuds. Some things, like the political situation and the knightly ideals, reminded me a bit of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

Russell has put in the largest effort in the magical influence. I deliberately chose to call it “influence” instead of “system”, since little is explained about its premises and uses. Instead it’s very well anchored in the plot and feels like a natural aspect of the world.

We get to meet a large, though by no means unreasonable, number of characters. The Valemen on their river adventure take up most of the space. Then we have prominent members of the Wills and Renné families; some of them are dedicated to the political games, while others would like to see a permanent end to the conflict. At first I thought that Russell had chosen one person from each of these three groups for his POV’s, but later on when everything starts to converge he lets some of the other people tell parts of the story too.

The characters are generally better developed than what you would expect in standard fantasy, but perhaps not as easily accessible and immediately likeable as characters in other stories. In the beginning they seem more like normal, everyday people than fantasy heroes or villains. Later some of them turn out to be far from normal.

Russell has revealed in interviews that the plot is mainly inspired by two sources: Huckleberry Finn and Romeo and Juliet. The Huck Finn part is obviously the young men travelling down the river and the Shakespeare influence is there in the rivalry between the two families contending for the throne. The resulting plot is a nice mix of adventure and political intrigue, which he develops deftly over the course of the book.

This is my first exposure to Sean Russell, but looking at Amazon I found that he has written a number of stories. I was not surprised to see that, since his style feels mature. There is an easy, poetic flow in the writing that makes The One Kingdom an enjoyable read.

It may be that reading this book in parallel with the A Shadow on the Glass puts it in a better light than it deserves, but I will go along and award it with 4 amulets in any case. This is a very nice story! Too bad I have to wait for the sequel… *sigh*

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