Rating: 4.5 stars
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For Aelis, having magic, money, connections, skill, and power entitled her to a prestigious position in one of the largest cities in the empire. After all, she’s one of a very few female necromancers, an excellent anatomist, a top student in most of her classes, and has graduated from all three colleges. Aelis is destined for great things, not … this. Not some sheep village that even the backend of nowhere would look down upon. Instead of a tower, she’s expected to live in a two-story pile of stone with no roof, a door that doesn’t close, and covered in years of filth.
She’s trying very, very, very hard not to be upset.
Lone Pine is a small border town somewhere between the frontier and civilization. In one direction is a road leading to distant cities, culture, friends, good food, and fashion. In the other direction, woods. Mountains. Orcs and bandits and the ruins left behind by the war some twenty years in the past. The land is slowly healing, and so are the people — like Rus, the inkeeper and barkeep, and his husband Martin, the cook whose hand trembles when he has to cut meat. Or Elmo, who served as a scout in the war and has night terrors and violent outbursts. These people and their children are her charges, now. And their sheep. And their goats.
None of this was part of the plan. None of this was part of her destiny, but Aelis refuses to back down and give in. She is a Warden. It’s what she wanted, what she fought for, to use her magic for good, to defend the helpless, bring justice and mercy in equal measure, and if she sticks it out for a few years, maybe they’ll station her somewhere better, somewhere more suited to her talents? Then the dwarves show up with their gold, found in some lost and abandoned fort. Gold that looks newly minted, gold that draws the eye and the heart, causing brother to turn against brother, neighbor to turn against neighbor. A missing book, a murder, a man no one remembers, and the oncoming winter will soon be the least of Aelis’s worries.
This is the first book in Daniel M. Ford’s Warden series and I’m hooked. It has necromancers, giant bears, half orcs, half elves, and a conspiracy to bring back a fallen Dukedom, interspersed with the undead, with sorcerous arts and artifice, and devil trees. (And the goat.) There’s an abundance of world building, a well-crafted plot, and Aelis, who is worth reading the book for in her own right.
Aelis is a genius. In flashbacks scattered throughout the book, we learn both about the magic system of the world, and Aelis herself. She is determined, dedicated, and willing to push herself beyond her limits just to see if she can. While she has money and a family name, it’s her power and her skill and her inexperience that best serve her here. Half of the things she does are simply because she doesn’t stop to think whether or not she can; she relies on her own native brilliance and gut instincts. For all that she is self-deprecating about her power, the temptation to use it is only tempered by the physical limits of exhaustion that pull at her every time she uses it. But the more she uses it, the stronger she becomes, and the more confident in her own abilities and her own self.
Again and again, Aelis demurs the dangers and preconceptions of necromancy, telling people it’s no more than a tool. And then she gets to use it, to truly use it, and we see both her sheer power and her sheer delight in using her native magic. And then the book ends and I have to wait for book two to come out so I can keep reading. Aelis goes through a great deal of character growth, from her first moments of carefully hidden disdain and disinterest to using her power for the citizens of Lone Pine and earning their respect by them because she put their safety above her own. There is a line between fear and respect, between respect and love, and Aelis balances on that tangled knot with an unconscious grace.
Her two closest friends in the book are Tun, the half orc — who would be shunned by the citizens of Lone Pine if they knew what he was, so he keeps to the woods — and Maurenia, the half elf, who travels into the woodlands to treasure hunt and grave rob. Maurenia is more obvious with her flirtation and seduction of Aelis, who is instantly attracted to her beauty, her confidence, and the fact that, like Aelis, she is an outsider. Maurenia won’t be staying in Lone Pine longer than a few weeks at a time, perfect for a fling … but there’s a spark between them. Given time, given fuel, Aelis could easily find herself falling in love. Tun is more subtle. With them is a meeting of equal wits, of kindred spirits. Tun matches Aelis’ spirit, her intellect, her sense of humor, but his awareness of his own inhumanity keeps him from treating Aelis as anything but a friend. And yet there is something there, something subtle and still growing.
As much as I enjoyed the story and Aelis, the writing relies sometimes overly much on needless description: how many socks, how many windows are in a room. It’s at its best when the focus is on Aelis’ thoughts and emotions and actions, such as when she’s solving a puzzle or coming up with a plan. I felt the length of the book as I read it, and the pace can be a bit leisurely in places — and the flashback scenes are all exposition, but well-framed through Aelis’ very personality-filled point of view. Add to that Aelis herself, who will explain, sometimes in detail, about what and how and why her magic does, leading to a bit of repetition here and there. Still, for all that, I very much enjoyed my time with this book and this world, and look forward to reading the next one!
Thank you so much for this generous and joyful review. I’m so glad you loved Aelis as much as I do!
And thank you for sharing her story!
Thanks for sharing your enthusiastic review, Elizabeth! You’ve definitely piqued my curiosity, and I’m off to get a sample.