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Allegiance by Beth Bernobich

Cover art by Scott Grimando

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This novel is the third in the River of Souls series, which began with Passion Play and seemed to conclude in Queen's Hunt. Quite honestly, I would've been completely happy with those two novels as a complete story arc. The wicked sorcerer king had been defeated, the jewels had been found, and in all it made for a satisfying, if bittersweet, ending to the saga which has begun when young Therese had fled her father's house to escape an arranged marriage to an abusive man.

Although author Beth Bernobich had said she would be writing further stories in the River of Souls setting, I had assumed that they would deal with other characters in other times, perhaps in the past or the far future of her world. There's so much to explore in this imagined world with its analogues of Germany, France, and Hungary (or maybe one of the Slavic lands -- sometimes the names almost sound Czech or Polish, but not quite), along with a mysterious magical realm that has parallels with both Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkovan Overworld and Sherwood Smith's Norsunder.

However, it appears that the success of her first two novels was such that someone in the publishing industry decided that Ms Bernobich not to be allowed to make those decisions for herself. In particular, one comment in the Acknowledgements looks very much like a coded reference to being told that she would produce a full trilogy, most likely with any and all future contracts being conditional on her "completing the trilogy." Given the power issues inherent in the relationship between authors and traditional publishers, it would be neither prudent nor politic to ever say so openly, but sometimes a person just can't keep from finding a way to communicate the issue to the reader base.

I have written elsewhere about how The Lord of the Rings set the model for the fantasy trilogy, and the problems with the resultant expectation that epic fantasy should conform to this format. In particular, it can deform a story that is not really suitable to having this structure imposed upon it from without. And quite honestly, I think that this novel really suffers as a result.

I've been excited about the River of Souls series ever since I read an early draft of the first several chapters of Passion Play in an online writers' workshop. So I was quite happy for an opportunity to return to the world of the River of Souls for a third time as I sat down to read it.

Unfortunately, I found it extraordinarily difficult to get back into the storyline. Part of it may have been the sheer number of years that had gone by since I read Queen's Hunt, which had allowed me to forget key elements of the storyline. But quite honestly, the whole novel felt like clean-up. Now that the Big Bad of the first two volumes had been defeated, there just wasn't anything as compelling left to carry the storyline further.

For most of the story Ilse is trying to find out what's happened to Raul, while struggling with her own loss of the ability to travel through the magical realm. Every time she tries to enter it, her way is blocked by a monstrous demonic entity whose characteristics clearly reflect the depth to which the traumas of sexual abuse carved their scars into Ilse's soul. Yet her struggles to regain her former power, and the very real possibility that she will never again exercise magic at the level she did when she fought to free the Jewels, just don't compare with the earlier volumes' desperate need to stop the now-deceased usurper king from carrying out his hideous plans.

There is also the matter of Ilse's promise to Queen Valara Baussay, the titular character of Queen's Hunt, to get her back to her native land now that the fight is over. Yet somehow it gets bogged down in all the political maneuvering in a realm where the power dynamics have been radically upended.

And there is a hell of a lot of politics in this novel, most of it quite murky. I'm starting to think that may well have been the biggest problem with this novel. There were so many characters representing so many factions, with so many ever-shifting alliances for temporary advantage, that it became impossible to keep track of them. And as a result, it was well-nigh impossible to care about any of these factions or their aims, and the story became an incomprehensible landscape over which the reader must perforce trudge through to the ending.

Maybe I would have a different opinion of this novel if only I had the time to go back through and re-read the entire trilogy from the beginning of Passion Play in quick succession, so that all the characters, countries and plots are fresh in my mind through to the end of this volume. But for someone who simply doesn't have the time to invest in a re-read of the entire trilogy, I really can't recommend this book.

I have heard that there are plans for further books set in the River of Souls universe, but that they will not be direct sequels to these three novels. Instead, future novels will explore other periods of the history of this fascinating fictional world, including some of the incidents referred to in the life memories of these characters.

Quite honestly, I think it's a good idea. Not only is the era of these three novels pretty well mined out at this point, but going to other periods also relieves the reader of the burden of having to remember an enormous amount of established history to understand the story at hand.

Review posted December 4, 2017

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