While not too unlike the usual motley of medieval fantasy folk, Juliet E. McKenna’s characters come equipped–or lumbered–with finely-drawn gifts and quirks that set them apart both in her world and in the usual run of characters in the genre.
Their distinctiveness arises in part from several interesting ethnicities. The hunter-gatherer forest folk, for instance, have fiery hair, exceptional night vision and gifts for music and survival. The yellow-haired mountain dwellers are given to monolithic clan fortresses, mining, shepherding, and feuding, within a matriarchal society. But most important in all these peoples are their individual qualities of head, heart and/or temperament, either natural or the result of chancy nurturing in their chaotic world.
Previous reviews of McKenna’s Tales of Einarinn series have examined her extraordinary female hero Livak (The Thief’s Gamble) and Livak’s partner in adventure Ryshad, “a man both bold and honest,” (The Swordsman’s Oath.) In The Gambler’s Fortune, three of her well crafted supporting characters move into finer focus: a mage, Usara of Hadrumal, and the brothers Sorgrad and Sorgren, two thoroughly disreputable old friends from earlier adventures.
Livak leading, they constitute a company of four chartered by Archmage of Hadrumal and the powerful Tormalin house of D’Olbriot. Their charge? A quest for traces of an ancient magic now being wielded against them by shadowy enemies from beyond the sea. Livak’s leverage in winning the commission–and her hope for a fortune suitable to a quiet early retirement with Ryshad–is a book, a collection of ancient songs which may hold clues to the lost magic.
With Ryshad left to his own responsibilities and hopes of fortune back in Tormalin, Livak takes full stage with her personal brand of leadership: brainy, confident, and resourceful; courageous almost to the point of recklessness when the odds are with her or when lives are in danger.
The mage Usara is touchingly drawn as the closeted scholar eager to pit his considerable powers against the challenges of the greater world. Never mind his less-than-subtle air of superiority and sporadic power struggles with Livak, he works hard as a mage, ever willing to tire himself to exhaustion for the protection of others.
Sorgrad and Sorgren, pureblood natives of the northern mountains, are the darkest of Livak’s allies but far from the darkest of her world. As young men, expelled from their clans for impudence and disruptive behavior, they blazed a trail of mayhem and larceny across the lowlands, chiefly as soldiers of fortune in the annual summer wars. Sorgrad, the elder, is good-looking, intelligent, self-taught in many skills and social graces, ingenious in devising enterprises and strategizing battles large and small. Sorgren, the smaller and more violent of the two, has rarely, if ever, lost a fight.
So why are they, and particularly Sorgren, in Livak’s company? Because their greatest positive talent is unfailing loyalty, priceless beyond gold in her dangerous world. And because, on this venture, their less attractive talents may mean the difference between life and death.
That enemy, a wizard as brutal and implacable as the vicious father and frozen land that produced him, will draw Sorgren into the battle of his life, revealing the blackest secrets of both their souls.
As has been said of other anti-heroes, the brothers will do the bad, even the evil thing to stop the horrible thing.
Still, interleaved with the challenges of this engrossing adventure are good times among friends, interludes with the intriguing people of the forest, and the wisdom and poetry of Livak’s book of ancient songs.
Incidentally, the account of her discovering that book can be found in A Few Further Tales of Einarinn, a collection of illuminating shorter works set between Swordsman’s Oath and Gambler’s Fortune. The story, “Absent Friends,” also provides a closer look at Livak’s and Ryshad’s relationship in quieter times.
The Gambler’s Fortune, A Few Further Tales of Einarinn, and many other works by Juliet E. McKenna are published by Wizard’s Tower Press and can be found on Amazon.com.