Lynn Flewelling is the author of the NIGHTRUNNER series. The two main characters are Seregil, an aurenfaie, a race with powerful magical abilities; and Alec, an orphan from the north who, it turns out, has aurenfaie blood. Seregil and Alec live in Rhiminee, the capital city of Skala. Skala is always ruled by a queen, and for centuries they have been at war, off and on, with the Plenimarans. Casket of Souls is the sixth book in the series, which started with Luck in the Shadows. A separate trilogy set in a much earlier time period, the TAMIR TRIAD, explains some of the geo-politics and magic of this land.
I really liked Luck in the Shadows. I thought the characters were fresh, and I loved the society, religion and magics that Flewelling had created. Subsequent books continued to deliver on that freshness, until the previous one, The White Road, which I thought bogged down. I see the same problem with Casket of Souls: a four-hundred-fifty page book with enough plot for about three hundred.
Because I enjoy Alec and Seregil so much, I was disappointed when this book turned out to be a bit of a slog. Flewelling’s prose is fine, even lovely, and her descriptions of nights at the theater, dinner parties, shooting parties, salons, gambling excursions and visits to court are solid. There were just too many of them. Since Skala is once again at war, and when the book opens the war is not going well, there is inevitable political intrigue, but it’s convoluted and tedious at the same time. There is a B-storyline, where children in the poor sectors of the city are dying of a strange disease, a “sleeping plague” that strikes without pattern or warning and is not transmitted by air or physical contact. What is causing this? Is it an epidemic? Is it a secret weapon? No one knows.
The sleeping plague story is powerful, frightening and engrossing, but it is subordinate to the assignment Seregil and Alec have taken on as undercover agents for the crown: the supposed threat of a coup against Queen Phoria, who, being a warrior queen, is on the front lines. Her sister Princess Klia is also on the front lines, a beloved and battle-proven commander. Either Klia is plotting against Phoria, or someone else is plotting against Phoria on Klia’s behalf, or someone else is plotting to make it look like Klia is treasonous. I’d love to care, but, um, excuse me? Hello… yes, children dying over here, remember? I just wanted to point that out.
This is exactly the problem with the plot. Of course the nobles in the city don’t care about a few peasant children, until the disease reaches out to the nobility, but somehow, it seems like Alec and Seregil should. Early in the book, Alec carries a dying child to the healing temple. He is very affected by this experience, but it’s at least seventy pages before he sees another victim and remembers how upset he was. I think that the problem is structural, but despite the privations war has supposedly wrought on Rhiminee, there is just too much partying going on for anyone to care about dead children. I understand that this is political intrigue, happening in coded dialogue over glasses of fine wine or in private boxes at the theater, and normally I love that type of plot, but I think the choice to make the deaths the secondary plot line weakens the book. Letting the reader in on the secret of the sleeping plague before the two heroes figure it out made them look a bit slow.
That said, Flewelling’s characters and settings are still intriguing. Skala is an interesting country with an interesting political structure, the magic system is detailed and fascinating, and the dialogue is witty. The actual nature of the fatal agent in Casket of Souls is different, and her concept of what gives certain souls their power was original. The secondary characters who make up both the royal court and Seregil’s circle of friends are well developed. I was disappointed in Casket of Souls, but not enough to stop reading this series.