Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Gilraen and the Two Cities by Joanne Reid is one of the best books in the ongoing Jaralii Chronicles! It is the sixth book in the series overall and the third in the “Doom of the Adjudicars” arc. Gilraen and the Two Cities is a welcomed return to form for the series which seemed to be losing a lot of steam and momentum after the epicness that was I Conquered (book three). Like book three, this book features a lot of action, good tension, high stakes, and epic moments.
This book actually addresses many of the complaints we've had about books four and five such as Gilraen's character growth, how Gilraen comes across at times, and what was perceived to be a lack of meaningful action or stakes. Books four and five seemed to be leaving a lot in the tank. They were clearly building to something: something big. Thankfully that something big was this book!
This book incredibly action-packed, arguably even more so than I Conquered or I Came. There are several high-stakes battles in this book featuring multiple different factions and interesting dynamics.
Another thing we really appreciated about this book is that we got to see both sides of Gilraen's dynamic personality. For whatever reason, in Gilraen Returns and Gilraen and the Guilds, Gilraen had come across as very egotistical, extremely bossy/demanding, and maybe even a bit mean. In Gilraen and the Two Cities, our fiery, feisty Elf queen gets to show a lot more of her soft side, even in the midst of battle. Furthermore, she does this without coming across as disingenuous or like a Disney princess. Dare we say, she is NOT a Mary Sue in this book. Actually, she is challenged in multiple ways and pushed far outside of her comfort zone, having to rely on others to overcome her many powerful enemies.
We'll get back to those enemies in a second, but let's continue to talk about how much of an improvement this book is in terms of Gilraen's character. Let's talk about doubts and anxieties. Gilraen in the past was almost always perfectly confident of her plans and their outcomes. She is, indeed, extremely gifted in her intelligence and her physical abilities, having military and tactical gaming experience from her player (Anthony). However, in this book, she actually has worries and nightmares about failing.
She has a nightmare in which she is attacked by Auchust Machister, the powerful supreme guild master of Narwortland and one of the main antagonists of the last book. She even fears being recognized by Sheldrake, a guild master whom she had pretended to be an ally of during her infiltration of Narwortland. The situation is as awkward and embarrassing for her as it is for us, the reader, and that's a good thing. We feel the way Gilraen is feeling because what she's feeling is a familiar concoction of emotions. Imagine walking into your old workplace after quitting in frustration five years ago, confronting some of those same faces and wondering if they still hold a grudge. Imagine coming to court to face the guy whose car you accidentally rear-ended last year. It's that familiar awkward feeling.
Another great thing we get to see in Gilraen again is her respect, deference, and appreciation for people who deserve it. In the middle of the series, it almost seemed as though Gilraen had become quite arrogant and patronizing, thus she became a more distant and less relatable character. In this book, she is willing to remove and raise her crown to William in public to help him to be acknowledged as king in the midst of territorial and political instability. Also, when she meets with the various masters such as Vigash, Talbot, and Targus, she treats them with an enormous amount of respect. She is excited and happy to see them, and it comes across in her dialogue and the way their scenes are written.
You really see Gilraen rely and depend on others more and not try to solve all problems and win all fights on her own. William, for examples, serves as the hammer in his wife's original hammer and anvil strategy. Gilraen acknowledges that without the support of her many retainers and generals, the conflict ahead is insurmountable. She values William, Cassandra, Armjurst, Durkin, Elizabeth, Richmond, Oberon and even Roselyn, knowing that they are more than “pieces on a chess board” (as a reviewer had called them in the past), they were irreplaceable allies in a very difficult struggle ahead. She even asks for help to put on her armor. It's little things like that that show her growth and give her dimensions.
Another thing is that Gilraen really comes across as a “good guy” and a good person in this book. In the past, we almost had a feeling like this was some kind of falling-from-grace kind of story in which the hero becomes the villain. In this book, Gilraen goes out of her way to lessen the amount of casualties on both sides, knowing full-well that no matter the outcome, these kingdoms still have to somehow coexist and work together in the future in the way the USA, Japan, and Germany worked together following World War II. You cannot just embrace total war and try to annihilate your enemy, that's one sure-fire way to lose a powerful ally.
Gilraen even introduces sandwiches to some of the people who are foreign to the humankind of Earth. She is concerned when others are hungry and offers to feed and eat with them. And she does this not out of deception or to garner political favors. In the past, Gilraen would schedule elaborate events that were essentially staged publicity stunts or intended to ingratiate her with the aristocracy of whichever land she was trying to persuade. The people she's feeding in this book seem to be civilians and peasants, they don't have much to offer militarily or politically. No, this time, Gilraen does it out of the goodness of her heart, and that's a really good thing to see from your main protagonist. Furthermore, she forges the noble goal of ending slavery and corruption in all lands she controls.
Gilraen also seems to have clearly set limits such as not wanting or being able to cast certain powerful spells over great distances as they are more taxing on her (think Luke Skywalker's Force projection in The Last Jedi).
And, yet, Gilraen is still Gilraen. She isn't transformed into a completely different character entirely, which is technically a good thing. Gilraen is still severe, bossy, and even mean at times. For example, she threatens to send Roselyn to a dungeon for insubordination and failure, although it is debatable if she actually intended to carry this out or was simply trying to get into Roselyn thick head to ensure it didn't happen again. Even William calls her out on this, saying that they're technically family and that they don't want to lose the support of their close allies.
The villains are a huge improvement and play a much bigger part in this book, and that really lends itself well to adding tension to the story. This book brings true meaning to the phrase “doom” or “wrath of the Adjudicars.” There are so many powerful Adjudicars in this book, stated to be well over a dozen. Think about this: so far to this point, Gilraen has only faced faced a few, Galdor, Caranthir, and arguably Beckworth. Until now, we've heard about the Adjudicars and their great, menacing power, but Gilraen hadn't quite faced their full fury... until now. It turns out that Galdor, Caranthir, and Beckworth weren't the worst of it, there are even stronger Adjudicars, and there are possibly DOZENS of them!
In fact, there are times in this book when Gilraen and her forces are faced with three, six, eight, or even more Adjudicars at one time. And all of them have really cool names like Jellicothe. In addition, Gilraen is also menaced by Machister and finally has her long-awaited showdown with him. He is enhanced by multiple Adjudicars, so Gilraen is forced to accept help and rely on others in this fight—something we enjoyed seeing. In the past, Gilraen was a one-woman army who basically could do anything and everything. Even this conflict might be too big for her alone.
What's really nice about that is that it finally gives a rub and some shine to other characters. For example, there comes a point in the book when Gilraen and her forces have suffered the casualties of one-sixth of their troops. Gilraen is looking for whatever advantage she can find, so she turns to Master Talbot who is said to know a defensive spell that can lessen the effects of the Adjudicars' spells.
There are a lot of ups and down in this book, which is also great to see. That's how to write great fight and battle scenes: by making them go back and forth. The pendulum needs to swing. You can't have one group of people just routing the other side, and that's why I Conquered was as great as it was: you actually had the good guys suffering very grave consequences including atrocities and the death of loved ones. Similarly, there are times in this book when Farrowspike is pressed, then Narwortland is pressed. The tide of battle turns several times.
The writing in this book is dramatically improved since book one. Spelling, grammar, and formatting are solid. The one area that remains a bit of a weakness is that this book, like many others in the series, does tend to meander when it comes to discussing things, mostly military tactics and strategy. It can be very interesting for people who watch war documentaries and love to hear about how Hannibal won at Cannae or Alexander won at Gaugamela, ironically with many of the same hammer and anvil tactics Gilraen uses. However, the average reader may find this to be heavy handed, overwhelming, or even unnecessary. If you're going to describe a battle before the battle happens, it becomes a bit redundant. There are also times when one battle plan is repeated to one person, then another. It's written/read almost verbatim to that next person. The reader is already aware and already knows the battle plan, it only tests their patience to repeat it again. This book, like the others, is actually quite long. It may take 11-15 hours to get through. You could, however, make the argument that this is epic fantasy, and that's just the way epic fantasy is: it's long, complex, and elaborate.
We can definitely recommend this book on Amazon if you're looking for a solid epic fantasy novel!
We sound like a broken record, but we do hope to learn more about Anthony and to learn about how playing as Gilraen has affected him and his personal life on Earth.