Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Out of all the many books in the Jaralii Chronicles, this book pleasantly surprised us the most. You would need context to understand why, but this ambitious, imaginative series by Joanne Reid has had huge peaks and deep valleys.
Probably the deepest valley in the series was Gilraen Returns (book four) because it was following right behind the heels of I Conquered, arguably the best and most action-packed in the series, and seemed more like a break in the action rather than a continuation of it. So, we were prepared for a similar kind of book: a more laid back book with multiple happy endings that would read more like a Tolkien-esque epilogue. However, that wasn't the case!
The worry that we had was that there wouldn't be much more for Gilraen & William to accomplish after defeating the Supreme Guild of Narwortland, Machister, dozens of Adjudicars, and Beckworth. Where do you go from there?
Well, it turns out, there was a lot more for Gilraen & William to accomplish diplomatically and militarily.
This book is actually one of the most interesting of the seven. It is full of drama, adventure, action, and even mystery. The mystery aspect actually surprised us the most. It's an aspect that's been mostly missing since Gilraen Returns, ironically, when Gilraen and company uncovered a secret haunted music room visited by Queen Dominica. Sorry if we misremember that, but we do remember it being quite a thrilling, spine-tingling highlight of the book.
Investigating the sacrificial alter and the secret passage in Gilraen Regnant reminded us a lot of the treacherous journey through the Mines of Moria from Fellowship of the Rings. It's intense and definitely keeps the reader's attention.
Something we loved about this book compared to the others is that BOTH Gilraen and William adventure together, fight together, and experience trials and tribulations together. In previous books, Gilraen and William were largely separated with Gilraen traveling, experiencing, and accomplishing things on the road while William held the fort at home. We all know that William is strong (lifting 500+ lbs.) and can fight (displaying that in various battles), but what we were really starving for was to see William and Gilraen fight back-to-back and side-to-side as a dynamic duo. We got glimpses of that in the previous books, and we get a great few scenes here, starting with Gilraen & William taking on assassins together. Not only that, but they actually go through many of the obstacles in this book while at each other's sides.
Another cute aspect of their relationship that comes to light in this book is that William still doesn't understand figures of speech and idioms used on Earth, so Gilraen is always educating him about them. This is a nice little touch. Gilraen's knowledge of Earth things also has practical uses like when she is able to identify the threat posed by scorpions. Yes, there are giant scorpions in here that are over six feet long! Gilraen is knowledgeable enough to recognize that they may be crossovers from Earth's prehistoric past. It's like a scene out of a Ray Harryhausen movie!
Another thing we loved is that there's a great amount of continuity to this book. It doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, it fits right into the series. Notable are the many callbacks to previous events and characters in the book. For example, the burial of the massacred elves, the encounters with the Daunts (large blue cat creatures), the tunnels that Beckworth was using to launch attacks, and Gilraen gaining acceptance by William's family are all touched on. Talbot, one of our favorite characters throughout the series, is also still active.
Something you need to be prepared for when reading a Jaralii Chronicles book is the political drama and the fact that it's probably going to dominate a large portion of the book. Indeed, this book is full of it. However, for some reason, it is more pleasant and interesting in this book. The premise of this book, similar to I Came (book one), is that Gilraen needs to start reaching out to other groups of people, particularly the elves of different kinds, knowing that a “matrix” of enemies still exists that plan to use the world as a launchpad to conquer other worlds.
The people that Gilraen reaches out to all have their own quirks. Some are even former allies of Gilraen's enemies. One is a kingdom of pacifists who hate Gilraen and what they view as her warmongering. Many are stuck in their ways. Beside confronting ideals like the aforementioned pacifism, Gilraen also combats misogyny, patriarchy, and religious fanaticism. These are the kinds of socio-cultural challenges that one would naturally encounter as a foreign ambassador or diplomat. So, it's fitting that Gilraen encounters these challenges here.
World-building remains a strong suit in this book. For example, we learn a bit more about the Dwarves in the series. Did you know they can't swim and are afraid of bodies of water? That's pretty interesting. Every location here also has something new and unique to offer.
One thing that Joanne Reid does prolifically, sometimes to a fault, is that she's very ambitious with her details and descriptions of things. This goes back to the first couple books in the series when dying enemies were compared to “marionettes” whose strings had been cut. Likewise, this book is very detailed with strong descriptions. It almost seems like the author may have finally figured out a good balance between being detailed enough to get the point across and being overly detailed.
As an example of how Reid's writing has really evolved, look at this passage:
Now, with that said, Gilraen is still Gilraen. She has quite an ego, and she even displays it playfully here when someone doesn't recognize her as a high-queen. Instead of just declaring her high-status and marriage to King William, she implies and teases these things until the other party feels like a fool. She's more upfront and bold about it through the rest of the book.
One of the first descriptions you get of her (and from her) is: “I enwrapped myself in a brilliant white aura of power and awe with just a hint of lust to maintain their attention. I was the sexy goddess of their most carnal dream, yet indefinitely superior to them and unapproachable...”
Let's face it, Gilraen can be quite a drama queen and prima donna sometimes. This might be best exemplified in this passage in which she “whines” to William: “I'm just frustrated... I don't handle frustration well. I don't stand around and wait for things to happen, I make them happen. I bend the world to my will!”
So... here you really get to see three layers of Gilraen that we've noticed over the course of the last seven books. From one perspective, she's admirable in her ambition and with her go-getter attitude (“I don't stand around and wait for things to happen”). From another perspective, she seems to be incredibly egotistical—practically plagued with a god-complex (“bend the world to my will!”). From yet another perspective, she's flawed and emotionally vulnerable (“I don't handle frustration well”).
She also briefly describes redressing herself in “less smelly underwear, tunic, and breeches” in the middle of the journey, so there's a humorous hint of humility and self-consciousness there. We've also seen her be a bright light to other characters. We've seen her be compassionate and loving. In this book, she even tries to crack some humor in the middle of a stressful battle, trying to lighten the mood with mixed results (partly because many of her entourage don't understand Earth humor).
Gilraen is a handful, and possibly the most polarizing character we've seen. You're going to hate her at times, and you're going to love her at times.
But you probably also need to consider that Gilraen is also “played” by a nerdy middle-aged male gamer (Tony) who probably has a few insecurities and power fantasies that are impossible for him to work out otherwise. Compare this to Jake Sully from the Avatar series. Both Gilraen and Tony are actually pretty complex and nuanced.
All in all, this book stands out as one of the stronger entries in the series.
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