Averil is the daughter of a duke of Lys, trained from childhood in the magical arts on the Ladies’ Isle. Gereint is a fatherless farmboy who possesses a powerful, untamed streak of wild magic. As the sinister king of Lys and his advisor, both practioners of dark magic, unleash a plot to remove the realm’s nobles and awaken an ancient evil, Averil is summoned back to the mainland, while Gereint chases after a band of Knights of the Rose, hoping that their Order can train him. In time, Averil and Gereint find themselves together as unlikely allies and, perhaps, the only hope of both their realm and world.
As is obvious from that brief summary (and its faint echoes of Star Wars, among other tales), there is little new in The Serpent and the Rose, the first book of The War of the Rose trilogy by Kathleen Bryan (a penname of Judith Tarr). Still, the author’s prose is almost always clean and even elegant, and her creation of an alternate Europe and a magical system centering on the use of glass are deft accomplishments. And even though little — especially the two main characters — was new or surprising in the first half of the book, I enjoyed the tale’s unfolding. However, the plot loses focus and momentum in the second half, and the characters’ choices make little sense except to prop up the collapsing plot. The ending of the book on a weak anti-climax, in preparation for the next book, was particularly disappointing. Other weaknesses include the lack of characterization of (or motive for) the villains and too many instances where seemingly important events or world-features (e.g. the orders besides the Knights) were glossed over or unexplained. (It is worth noting that one positive for many readers may be the lack of profanity and graphic violence or sex.)
Recommended as a library loan only for fans of high medieval fantasy, many of whom may enjoy this book. Three unremarkable stars.