The Isle of Battle is an excellent continuation of Sean Russell’s saga, The Swans’ War, begun in The One Kingdom. Sean Russell has avoided what many writers who undertake series writing have not: middle-book syndrome. Often the middle book (or books) in a series is merely a place-holder, where some nondescript stuff happens. This is not the case with The Isle of Battle. Russell develops the story, develops the characters and delves more into the world he created in the preceding volume.
As much magic and myth Russell imbued his world with in the first volume, more magic and myth are brought to the forefront in this part of the trilogy. He has embellished an already finely crafted world with the greater depth of lore and myth that sparkles off the pages. The world continues to show depth, life and a real sense of history. The discovery of the deeper myth and history of the land is one of the more enjoyable aspects of this novel, and the series thus far.
The story of the warring Renné and Willis families continues to build momentum while taking interesting turns. Hints and minor and important details given in book one come to the forefront in this continuing novel. The scheming and alliances change quite a bit in this volume while the true orchestrateors come more fully into the light. Two characters stand out: Elise and Hayfdd. Elise grew from a woman of royalty and honor thrust into here situation into a strong woman who has come to more control of her path. The events that impacted her in the previous episode truly take effect in interesting and not so predictable ways. Hayfdd is just an interesting character, though he is opposing the protagonists with some dark intentions, he doesn’t come across as the typical one-dimensional eeevil foil.
The story is a many-layered tale whose layers become more interesting and enjoyable as they unfold. Central, key players are revealed to be more than they originally say they are. The true architects of the conflict are more fully revealed to be more than the Renné and Willis. However, Russell does not reveal enough to fully satisfy the reader, which is good for keeping readers hungering for the concluding volume.
As with the previous volume, and what else I’ve read of Russell’s writing, the magic is handled with care and expertise. The magic is not in your face with spell-wielding wizards and every character in possession of a magical, all powerful weapon. It is magic that is mysterious and not explained in too much detail. The magic is in how legendary characters come to life and the reactions of characters such as Cyndll and Tam to these living legends. The enchanted places such as the River Wynnd and the titular Isle of Battle are shrouded in both mystery and conflict. These people and places are glowing with magic and a sense of wonder. Russell only gives the reader glimpses of the lore and magic he has imbued in his world. These glimpses make the world more alive, something that is more than what we think we know.
One other thing that Russell should be commended for is including a brief synopsis of the previous volume in the opening “What Went Before” section. Often with series books, there is a lag between volumes of a year or more. It is nice to have this refresher prior to delving into the current volume.
In summary, this is an excellent magical, resonating novel in and of itself and as a part of the larger tale being told in The Swans’ War. If the concluding volume of this trilogy lives up to the promises and portents of the first two volumes, then Sean Russell will have created a magical trilogy that will compare to Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn or any of Guy Gavriel Kay’s works as examples of how truly magical high fantasy can be.Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2002 Rob Bedford