Tracato is the third installment in Joel Shepherd’s excellent A Trial of Blood and Steel fantasy quartet, and not only is it the best book in the series so far, it’s also one of the best new fantasy novels I’ve read all year.
The continent of Rhodia, shared by a fractured human civilization and the non-human serrin, finally begins to inch towards full-scale war. The northern Verenthane countries, with their conflicted and somewhat reluctant goeren-yai allies, are marching south to reclaim the Saalshen Bacosh. These provinces, occupied by the serrin during the last major conflict with humanity, have been thriving thanks to the rational guidance of the serrin and the Nasi-Keth, but the zealous Verenthanes have long wanted to reclaim them, and even some humans there long to return to feudal times…
In this politically and religiously complex situation we find our equally complex heroine Sasha, the headstrong former Lenay princess whose loyalties and beliefs have been stretched to the point of breaking in the first two novels of the series. In Sasha, she learned that not all goeren-yai are perfect, and in Petrodor it became clear that even the serrin aren’t as united and angelic as they initially seemed. Now, with her Lenay countrymen marching to wage war on the serrin, her ongoing crisis of identity builds to a truly agonizing climax.
The series’ large and complex cast of side characters returns in Tracato. While most of them don’t approach Sasha’s complexity, many also experience conflicted loyalties and are forced into difficult decisions. Most notably there’s Sofy, Sasha’s younger sister, who is marching with the Lenay army to marry one of the most powerful Verenthanes and who becomes a character you can genuinely cheer for in this novel. Somehow always in Sofy’s periphery are Jaryd, the former noble and now goeren-yai soldier, and Yasmyn, her fierce handmaiden. Meanwhile in Tracato, other returning characters are Sasha’s second sister Alythia, her mentor Kessligh, and the two almost diametrically opposed serrin: her lover Errollyn and the pragmatic, uncompromising Talmad leader, Rhillian.
If you haven’t read the first two novels in A Trial of Blood and Steel, the above paragraphs probably make this series sound impossibly complex (if you have read them, they will hopefully help refresh your memory). However, Joel Shepherd has taken his time to carefully and organically build up this highly complex political and religious setting to the point where now, finally, the tension is dialed up to the maximum: the history of the various countries and religions is known, the characters are in place, and everything is inexorably converging. The result is a textbook example of how to structure a fantasy series: this novel has a few scenes of such unbearable intensity that, at one point, I was gripping the book so hard I accidentally almost ripped it in two.
With the third book in a series of such complexity, it becomes hard to include many plot details without also including spoilers, so this is intentionally vague: you’ll find romance, conflict and betrayal ratcheted up to entirely new levels. Characters’ morality and loyalty comes in so many shades of grey that black and white may seem a faint memory by the time you’re done. There are some edge-of-your-seat scenes describing warfare that are, in a word, simply awesome — especially those including the serrin light cavalry. There are a few scenes that are extremely dark, but also some that may have you cheering out loud for the characters. In a nutshell, it’s hard to imagine that readers who have been following the story so far in Sasha and Petrodor will be anything less than satisfied with Tracato — not to say chomping at the bit to get the fourth and final book in the series, Haven (tentative publication date: April 2011). Sure, there are still a few small glitches (mainly some run-on sentences and the occasional lecture-dialogue) but those are easy to forgive in such a gripping novel.
Joel Shepherd, only in his mid thirties, has already written six excellent books: the three Cassandra Kresnov science fiction novels, and now the first three installments in A Trial of Blood and Steel. Thank goodness the intrepid folks at Pyr brought this Australian author’s work to the US, because if he keeps working at the same high level of quality, he will be a writer to watch for a long time to come. For now, Tracato is simply one of the best fantasy novels of the year. Highly recommended.