The second book in the A Novel of Dhulyn and Parno series, The Soldier King is a fun sword and sorcery romp featuring engaging characters and an entertaining, multi-faceted world. Picking up about a year after The Sleeping God leaves off, Violette Malan starts the story on a battlefield at the end of a war. The Mercenary Brothers Dhulyn and Parno accept the surrender of the prince of the opposing side’s army. Their own commanders want to hold him hostage as a bargaining chip in opposition to the Common Rule of the Mercenary Guild, so Dhulyn and Parno smuggle Edmir, the young prince, out of the camp and make a run for his capital. On the way, they discover that it was his own army that had been subverted, and his own country is no longer safe because of power machinations of the mysterious Blue Mage.
Violette Malan excels at writing fun books with entertaining characters. There is a level of sophistication to her writing that is not commonly present in this style of book. This story is more action-driven than The Sleeping God, but it is still centered around the characters. The relationship between Dhulyn and Parno is complex, with layers of responsibility and trust that transcends the word “love.” The supporting characters are sympathetic and believable, from the young prince Edmir to the actress Zania to the members of the royal Houses. Malan even manages to riff on Hamlet throughout the entire plot, though luckily the two Mercenaries don’t pull a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Her pacing is excellent, as the story ramps up to a thrilling, fast-paced climax that resolves all the story lines in a convenient, convincing package.
There were some serious missteps, however. Beyond a desperate need for editing, and an overly simplistic resolution to the love story, my biggest problem was with Malan’s choice of setting up the major conflict at the end of the story. It will ruin the plot to explain it here, so if you want to know about it, highlight the following spoiler to view it: I understand that for the story to progress that Dhulyn needs to get captured by the Blue Mage, but there is no way you can convince me that a trained Mercenary — who has spent a book and a half being so overtly cautious that it borders on paranoia — decides, when she breaks into the Mage’s stronghold and locates the mysterious magical artifact locked in a chest in his workroom, that she is going to play, “Hey, what does this button do?” with a object of unknown powers and abilities. It was so out of character that it threw me out of my engagement with the story and I spent the rest of the book waiting for an explanation of that behavior. No explanation ever materialized. I knocked half a star off of the rating just for that one incident. [END SPOILER]
Even so, The Soldier King is an entertaining tale of intrigue and adventure. Malan excels at character-driven action novels, and this is a fun and worthwhile addition to this series. Recommended for all adult and advanced young adult readers.