Kathleen Bryan's world, described in The Golden Rose, is such a place, where a beautiful duchess and a bold squire must face power-mad evil. There may be fewer swords here than in other fantasy worlds, but any connoisseur of the genre will discover enough sorcery to satisfy. Averil is the Duchess of Quitaine. She is in love with Gereint, a farmer's son and a man pledged to the Order of the Rose. Not that she could wed a commoner, but the order does not allow its knights to marry. Of course, poor Averil is bound by a pledge she made to save the people of her duchy. She must choose a mate from the men the evil king selects and, with that mate, produce an heir--not just to Quitaine, but to the kingdom as well.
Once at the palace, Averil is surprised to find pleasure as a prize. One of those pleasures is the tall, dark and slender Prince of Cordoba, whose appeal exceeds his looks. Like the king, he wants the secret of serpent magic--not with the same evil intent, though Averil still fears the result. And so another suitor catches her interest; the man is willing to risk all to help her escape the fate that a king and a prince have in mind for her. They flee to a distant isle, the protection of the Knights of the Rose and her beloved Gereint. The king's soulless armies inevitably follow--leading to a titanic battle that threatens all Averil meant to save. The Golden Rose is the second book in the War of the Rose series; the first is the highly acclaimed The Serpent and the Rose. These books prove that Bryan is a sure and confident storyteller. The world she has created is truly magical, and the characters are beautifully crafted and cleverly drawn. Such skill would be unusual for an author so early into her career--but Kathleen Bryan, it turns out, is not in her early career; the name is a pseudonym for Judith Tarr, a veteran romantic-fantasy author and Vail resident who has publishing experience now approaching 40 books. Tarr is a historian by training, and it shows in her work. She has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and many of her books are considered classics of the genre.
A visit with Tarr, or Bryan, to Averil's world does not involve too great of a challenge. It is meant to entertain, to provide an escape from the trials and tribulations of our modern world. It will reveal no great truths of timeless knowledge--beyond affirming the value of right over might, and honor over treachery. (Perhaps these are not such small truths after all.) To follow along on her adventure is to set forth on grand quests, to march with heroes, to challenge evil and to blow off high gas prices and a rotten economy for a few enchanted hours. Not a bad trade. If there is a weakness to The Golden Rose, it lies in the unspoken rules that fantasy series tend to follow: They are epics. They come with the built-in assumption that readers will enter second (or later) volumes, such as this, only after reading everything that came before. Fantasy series, like mystery series, stay with their characters. But mysteries are more likely to stand on their own. Not that The Golden Rose is less than a complete story; it can be read and enjoyed all by itself. But readers who come to this volume without the benefit of the first may occasionally feel like they are missing a point or failing to grasp the full implications of some dramatic development.
The Golden Rose is sufficiently well-written that it is easy to recommend. But it will be enjoyed at an entirely different level by those who first read The Serpent and the Rose--and those who are prepared for future developments as the War of the Rose saga continues to unfold.