Even the most obsessive readers of fantasy novels may need a little hand-holding when they dive into a new book. The best fantasies carefully explain and elaborate as they go, taking care to reward the reader's suspension of reality with patient storytelling.
With the first two books of her "War of the Rose" trilogy, The Serpent and the Rose and The Golden Rose, Vail-based author Kathleen Bryan concocted a vaguely medieval tale of Averil, duchess of Quitaine, and her beloved Gereint, a squire. The two books were intriguing and interesting, but always a bit confusing. It was worth hoping, then, that in the third installment, The Last Paladin, Bryan would explain withheld secrets and tie up loose ends. However, every time you're ready to fully immerse yourself in her richly wrought world of knights, nobility, serpents and sorcery, she leaps ahead to the next confrontation, making for a head-spinning tale that trips over its own complexity.
In The Last Paladin, Gereint has morphed from a gangly, awkward farm boy with little control over his "wild magic" into a talented squire, well on his way to being a full-fledged Knight of the Rose.
He's still unsure of his own abilities, but he's sure of his love for the copper-haired Averil, even though the land's laws dictate that the two can never be married. As for Averil, she's no longer a demure teenager, either: Since she must be crowned queen of Lys before she can use her magic to help heal the battle-scarred land, she relentlessly battles her way toward coronation.
The evil king Clodovec, Averil's uncle, has been slain, but the long-imprisoned serpent he so desired to release still lurks in the land. And Clodovec's army—a grim assembly of men who have had their souls stolen—is now under the influence of a group of sorcerers, desperate to free the serpent and see chaos reign. Averil knows that she must confront the sorcerers, but even her most trusted companions, concerned for her safety, try to keep her from bringing the battle to the enemy's doorstep. But Gereint supports her: The two have grown so close that they're essentially one being, sharing not only one another's emotions but their magical abilities as well.
Still, the two must part—Gereint so he can take on the soulless army with the rest of the knights, and Averil so she can confront the evil sorcerer Gamelin. The book builds to a confrontation between order and chaos, a conflict that proves satisfying when the scaly villain turns out to be far more complex than a snake.
A colorful cast of characters enhances the saga: There's the tortured Prince Goronwy, who skulks around at the sorcerers' bidding, desperate for power and jealous of Gereint. There's Prince Esteban, the dashing, courtly gentleman who longs to be joined with Averil and her power, which would increase his own. Finally, there's the mysterious Peredur, a mage of the wild magic, who holds the greatest secret of all—one that just might allow Gereint and Averil to be together.
Bryan's world is elaborately wrought and is filled with gorgeous imagery: Magic is wielded through colorful bits of glass; mythical creatures roam all over; and the people of Lys are all dashing, beautiful and romantic. But the sheer volume of places and people and fantasy terms (which Bryan doesn't take the time to define) makes for a confusing read, even for those who've read the first two books. It would have served Bryan to pace herself and spend more time revealing the intricacies of her world, but it seems she was desperate to get to the action. The result is that intriguing characters, even those theoretically essential to the plot, only appear for a few pages before vanishing.
Every chapter hightails it to some grandiose confrontation or realization, so there's little along the lines of suspense. Even an attentive reader will find himself flipping back to try to remember who fought whom or who cast what spell before.
It's rare to think that by being a bit longer, a book would be better, but that's the case with The Last Paladin. Bryan has a gift for imagination and dramatic effect, and it's worth hoping that in her next book, or series of books, she'll invite readers into yet another new realm. But here's also hoping that she'll allow her readers to sit back and relax, at least for a little while, while they spend more time getting to know her gifted cast of spell-makers.