About Me

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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ambiguity, not ambivalence: Fall of a Kingdom (Farsala series), by Hilari Bell

Book Review: Fall of a Kingdom (initially released as Flame), by Hilari Bell
(Farsala series, book 1)

From the opening hint of mythology, through the interwoven tales of characters drawing together in the narrative fabric, to the devastating end and the protagonists’ reactions, Fall of a Kingdom resists easy judgments and moral alignment. While reading, I was impressed with Hilari Bell’s careful balancing of three main characters’ narratives, both against each other and together against the incrementally constructed mytho-historical background of the book’s events.

(In a nice twist, Bell uses a real mythology to explain the fictional characters’ story.)

Bell names the chapters after the protagonist whose narrative point of view is represented in it. I recently read two novels set in space that did something similar; Bell’s version of this is the more natural feeling, why I can’t figure. (Please leave a comment if you can help me figure this out; the other two were Beth Revis' Across the Universe and Amy Kathleen Ryan's Glow.)

Two of the three protagonists – the male ones – begin as sympathetic characters; the female protagonist, Soraya, is introduced in a male character’s chapter, but soon thereafter has her own internal monologues and is shows equally appealing characteristics. This begins the complications of judging Bell’s characters, as an appealing protagonist develops faults, and a faulty one strengths.

This was the aspect of the story that most struck me after reading Fall of a Kingdom. (That, and the small matter that the library copy I read had the initial release title, Flame, making it the second book I’d read in a few weeks that had a title I couldn’t justify on its relationship to the story.) Not only did the characters interact, often without knowing, and not only did they seem to be converging on a conflict shrouded in myth, but I was sure I wanted each to prevail against the others, or better, to somehow betray their essential differences and join forces against…what?

However simplistic Bell’s world creation may prove, Farsala is a land without persistent bogeymen. Kavi hates the deghans (nobles) for their exploitation and disregard for the lives commoners, but deghass (noblewoman ) Soraya develops conscience and consideration through her hardships, and more particularly through her encounter with the desert-dwelling Suud; Soraya nurses a resentment against her peasant-born half-brother Jiaan, whose noble father (he’s Soraya’s as well – nobility passes from mothers to children) elevated him above many of the high-born; Jiaan resents the deghans he serves, but develops a modicum of respect for some of their eccentricities, while distancing himself in distaste from the peasants out of whose milieu he rose; and so the conflicts thicken.

Many of the secondary characters also appear Janus-faced in this manner, including the commander of an invading army, a child pickpocket, and a deghan who shows common sense. I look forward to meeting these six and many new characters in the sequels.

Fall of a Kingdom is a book “for young readers,” printed something like 12-on-20 points (almost double-spaced), and written without frivolous violence or “provocative moral situations.” There is the slightly uncomfortable sense that a romance may develop between half-siblings Soraya and Jiaan, but that’s an element of many myths, from Izanami-no-Izanagi, a Japanese origin myth, to Star Wars. I think any kid in the double digits who likes adventure, magic, intrigue, and battles in good balance would like Fall of a Kingdom.

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