Allegiance, Beth Bernobich. Tom Doherty, October 2013, ISBN 9780765322197. Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Allegiance is Beth Bernobich’s fourth novel, and the third in her epic fantasy River of Souls series. It marks the culmination of an arc begun in Passion Play (2010) and continued in Queen’s Hunt (2012), the story of Ilse Zhalina and Lord Raul Kosenmark, and how their fates are entangled with each other and with their homeland, Veraene.
King Leos Dzavek of Károví, whose magic extended his lifespan by centuries, has finally died. Ilse Zhalina and Valara Baussay, the queen of distant Morennioù whom Dzavek’s right-hand man Duke Miro Karasek had carried off from her island kingdom, witnessed his death. They witnessed, too, Lir’s jewels — magical gems — merge into one single creature, perhaps a god, and disappear into the magical realm of Anderswar. The way is clear for Valara and Ilse to return to their respective homes — provided they can escape hostile Károví. In a surprising move, it is Duke Karasek who offers them his aid… ostensibly without ulterior motive.
While Ilse struggles to cross inhospitable countryside, bearing letters that hold out hope for a lasting peace, back in Veraene her lover Raul Kosenmark is choosing to stop working in the shadows and confront his king directly. Spurred by duty and honour, he will try every last stratagem in his power to prevent a costly and pointless war. But the king of Veraene is a selfish man who brooks no defiance, and Kosenmark’s open stand against war will see him imprisoned on charges of treason, awaiting execution. Only Ilse can testify to his innocence, but she doesn’t even know the extent of his peril. If she arrives in time, she and Kosenmark must outfox not only the king, but his closest councillor, the dangerously powerful mage Markus Khandarr, who has grown unpredictably mad.
Allegiance is an odd book. This is not to say it is a bad book: Bernobich’s skill with character and with the turn of a phrase have, if anything, improved. But it is structurally odd. Two of the things it’s doing are diametrically opposed: it is bringing to a culmination the narrative arc of Raul Kosenmark and Ilse Zhalina and the politics of Veraene with which we as readers have been primarily concerned to date. At the same time, it’s widening the scope of their world and increasing the number of point-of-view characters, laying the groundwork for future storylines focused on Valara Baussay, among other possibilities. These conflicting narrative impulses — the first, centripetal; the second, centrifugal — combine to create a sense that Allegiance is a novel without a centre — or rather, with more than one. This impression is compounded by the denouement, a leisurely, meditative, post-triumphal conclusion that leaves Allegiance‘s loose ends tied off in an unbalanced fashion.
These criticisms may leave you with the notion that I didn’t like Allegiance. Perish the thought! It may be an interesting failure, but it strives to do fresh, interesting things with the genre. Its failings come from a surfeit of ambition, rather than ambition’s lack.
I’ve said before that an interesting failure is often more entertaining than a novel that’s technically successful but has no heart. Allegiance has heart by the bucketloads. I enjoyed it very thoroughly, and look forward to reading more of Bernobich’s work in the years to come.