The first book of Fiona McIntoshís The Quickening series, Myrrenís Gift, seemed like a standard epic fantasy, yet I couldnít stop reading it. There were some fairly big annoyances and literature it is not, but I thought it a pleasant read. The ending was awful, yet I want to read Book Two. Now either Iím a very indecisive person, or this book is not very consistent in quality.
The story starts in the country of Morgravia, where magic is practically non-existent as witches have all been hunted down and burnt over the centuries. People live quite happily under the rule of the good king Magnus. The main character is Wyl Thyrsk, plain looking son of the rather ugly general, Fergys Thyrsk.
Fergys dies in the prologue. During the war with the neighbouring country of Briavel he sacrifices his life for that of his king and friend. Since plain Wyl and his pretty sister are now orphans, King Magnus promises to look after Wyl as if he were his own son and train him to be the general he is supposed to be. The daughter just needs to be married off well. And here is the first of my big annoyances. The women in the book are just not very interesting. They are either virgins or whores, sheep or vixen. I know this is supposed to be a Medieval-type community, but for goodness sake, itís fantasy so there is no need to set back womenís development by hundreds of years.
Anyway, fourteen-year-old Wyl is taken to the castle to be trained as a general and befriend the kingís son, as is another tradition. But alasÖ Magnusí son Celimus, although gorgeous looking, is vain and cruel and spends his time torturing little animals and pestering Wyl. Itís all a bit Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, but with a very young (and red-haired) Maximus.
When one of the last witches in the country is caught, the classic psychopath Celimus takes his entire entourage down to the cellars to watch her being tortured. The witch is a beautiful young girl called Myrren. During the lovingly described torture scenes (big annoyance number two), she connects with Wyl. When he shows her kindness at the stake, she gives him a gift. He thinks itís just the puppy sheís asked him to look after, but we suspect itís something more than that. And of course it is, although we donít find out until later.
General in exodus
Years later, Magnus falls seriously ill and Celimus canít wait to take the throne. I donít understand how a good king can stand by and let an obvious tyrant take over after his death, but thatís families for you I suppose. The full extent of Celimusí evil character is not revealed to the world until immediately after Magnusí death. Wylís sister suffers a horrible fate and Wyl himself is sent away to Briavel, in the company of the mercenary Romen Koreldy. Romen is ordered to kill Wyl as soon as his mission is complete. Wyl is supposed to ask the King of Briavel for his daughterís hand in marriage, on behalf of Celimus. Marriage will bond the two countries so they can fight the increasingly aggressive mountain kingdom to the North.
Looks are not deceiving
Wyl meets the gorgeous princess Valentyna and falls head over heels in love with her. But he is shorter than her and uglier, so no chance there. According to McIntosh anyway. Looks obviously are very important to her, judging by the way characters are described. To me, they just contributed to the stereotypes (big annoyance number three). Wyl and the king get on so well that Wyl decides to be honest and tell him all about the nasty king Celimus. But a major conflict erupts in Briavel castle and everybody ends up fighting. The king dies and the princess escapes with the puppy, who has grown to become a big black dog with magical powers. In a final conflict between Wyl and Romen, we discover what Myrrenís gift truly is. Not to give everything away, but Wyl ends up being a good-looking man who is unrecognisable to anyone who knew him as he was. And he is now taller than princess Valentyna, which is handy.
Disguised, Wyl sets out to rescue his sister, kill the king, marry the queen and find out what his big, black dog really is. He manages little of this in Book One, as McIntosh creates all sorts of problems for him. The marriage between his beloved Queen Valentyna and the cruel Celimus seems set to go ahead, war is brewing in the North and the best assassin of the country is after him. I want to read Book Two but am a bit worried about it too. Myrrenís gift could be used for a novel storyline or for some really horrible clichés. The way I feel now, it could go either way.