Beth Bernobich, Queen’s Hunt: A River of Souls novel. ISBN: 9780765322180. Tor, July 2012.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Queen’s Hunt is the second volume in Bernobich’s River of Souls series, after 2010’s Passion Play. It’s fortunate that it’s a book which stands fairly well alone, for I come to it in medias res, with no prior knowledge of characters or events.
Despite my failure to do my homework, Queen’s Hunt is a strikingly enjoyable read. It opens apparently some months after the events of Passion Play. Ilse Zhalina, publicly estranged from her lover, the disgraced but powerful Lord Raul Kosenmark, is dwelling in a garrison fort, Osterling Keep, distant from Tiralien, capital of the kingdom of Veraene. Their estrangement is a ploy to keep them both safer while Ilse searches by magical means for the powerful jewels of Lir, and while Raul attempts to influence politics to prevent war with the kingdom of Károvi, whose king, Leos Dzavek, has lived several hundred years already. They must tread carefully, because of the enmity of Markus Khandarr, councillor to the king of Veraene. And because Dzavek already has one of the jewels.
In Tiralien, Gerek Hessler joins Kosenmark’s household as a secretary under false pretences, and comes to realise that the man he suspected of terrible things is not actually arrogant and cruelly indifferent. He comes to play a key role in Kosenmark’s plans to preserve Ilse.
In Osterling Keep, Ilse comes face to frightening face with Markus Khandarr, and encounters another important player: Valara Baussay, heir to the hidden land of Morennioù. Twice taken prisoner – once by the Károvians, once by the garrison at Osterling Keep – Valara has nonetheless been able to keep possession of the second of the three jewels. When she escapes from the garrison prison, she and Ilse join forces to seek the third jewel. Evading pursuit, distrusting each other, in the end they must confront Leos Dzavek, for the sake of their homelands – and themselves.
What makes things more interesting still is the ontology of Bernobich’s world: the characters remember previous lives, and most of the main characters turn out to have leftover unfinished business with each other from generations, even centuries ago, involving (for the most part) love and betrayal. Blood, love, and rhetoric – to borrow a phrase from Tom Stoppard, it turns out that for our protagonists, blood is compulsory, in all of their lives.
(They’re all blood, you see.)
The prose is strong, expressive, rising occasionally to understated elegance. Bernobich has a good hand with a descriptive turn of phrase, and a robust grasp of characterisation: for the most part, everyone in this book has reasonable, internally consistent motivations for the secrets they keep and the actions they take. With intrigue and machinations and danger around every corner, secrets are understandable. The rare moments of trust are startling by comparison.
Queen’s Hunt‘s pace is measured. Far from breakneck, it nonetheless maintains its tension well. Much of this tension is interior, focused on emotions, possibilities, losses and risks: but there is also plenty of physical danger and derring-do. It is a quieter, more personally-focused novel than many second-world fantasies. Not only did I enjoy it, but – to my surprise – I found myself finishing it in one sitting.
It’s a good, solid, agreeable read. I recommend it.