Kristen Britain

Green Rider, book 4

Orion (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-575-09998-2

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

I’d put off starting Blackveil, as the cover suggested it was book four in an extended series, and I generally don’t enjoy coming into a series so late. My misgivings were unfounded; although it comes late in the series, it is remarkably easy to get sucked into the world of Blackveil and become totally absorbed in the problems of the characters. Blackveil is not the last of the series; although it has many satisfactions it ends on a cliffhanger, so there is clearly at least one more volume to come.

Karigan is a Rider, one of a small band of messengers magically called to serve the King. Not only are the Riders magically called, each has a (generally small) magic talent which they deploy in the service of their King. They keep the magical part of their job quiet, though, as the Kingdom at large is fearful of magic and antagonistic towards the mere idea of people using it. As the novel opens, Karigan is carrying messages which indicate that the King is preparing for war – he doesn’t want it, but he fully expects the Kingdom to shortly be assailed by magical forces from behind the magical D’Yer Wall and mundane forces from another kingdom. So he is prudently preparing; building up his army and seeking to strengthen those who are trying to repair the damage done at the wall.

Although this novel touches only lightly on certain events – which I assume occurred in one of the earlier novels – it is quickly clear that Karigan has had an extremely eventful time since she joined the Riders. Indeed, it seems that she has been in the middle of a great deal of trouble. It isn’t long before she seems headed that way again. A small party of Eletians – a magical race so rarely seen that most consider them almost a myth – have approached King Zachary to say they intend to cross the wall and travel into Blackveil Forest. King Zachary is disinclined to stop them – even if he could – but he needs to know exactly what they’re up to. He sends a small party with them, with orders to map the land beyond the Wall, identify anything that could help protect his land from this evil, and report back to him on what the Eletian’s goals are. Because Karigan is one of the few people who has ever entered Blackveil and survived, she is one of those chosen to go.

Although Karigan will need all of her attention to survive Blackveil, there are distractions aplenty. In the early pages of the novel she’s discovered some unexpected things about her parents, and she’s still trying to assimilate these. She’s also wrestling with her love for King Zachary. It’s requited, he loves her too; but for state reasons he’s preparing to marry Estora. And although Karigan is a reluctant member of the Court, and although she thinks her feelings for Zachary are unknown to anyone but the two of them, she’s slowly but surely being drawn into the politics of court. And let’s not forget Alton; he’s posted to the wall, tasked with trying to repair it to protect the Kingdom from Blackveil and its denizens. It seems he and Karigan have shared some adventures in the past, and now he’s hoping to take his friendship with Karigan to another level.

There were certainly moments when reading Blackveil where it was particularly obvious that a book or books had preceded it. However, it is impossible to have realistic adult characters unless they have had a past, and references to these characters’ pasts were kept brief and comprehensible enough for new readers such as myself to get the gist of what had happened. Blackveil is good enough that I want to find and read the rest of the series – I really want to spend more time with these characters and find out more about their past. But I didn’t need to; Britain has provided a very complex  novel which is still remarkably friendly to the new reader.

Initially it seemed the novel is going to focus on Karigan. She is certainly the central character, but after a few chapters the story spreads out to encompass a number of other characters, most of whom have some connection to Karigan. Britain deftly handles what turns out to be quite a large cast. The characters are all very distinctive and the preoccupations and concerns of each are quite absorbing; we can empathise with all of them and sympathise with most. Karigan is not the only character I wanted to know more about. I was impressed by the extent to which so many characters came to life. One of the reasons this novel should appeal to a wide audience is the diverse range of characters male and female, highborn and low. Most readers will easily find a character they are particularly interested in.

I also like the way the medieval setting is integral to the story. Sometimes a medieval setting can feel as though it’s simply the default setting for a fantasy, and the author hasn’t really given it much thought. However, in this novel the limitations the setting imposes on characters – the difficulties of communication, for example, or the particular style of politicking that gets involved when you deal with hereditary monarchs, or the necessity for the Riders to be skilled in a number of forms of combat – is a very real part of the story. It impacts on how characters interact, the decisions they make, and sometimes the way things happen. This would have been a different story with a different kind of setting, and that’s not true of all novels. It’s subtle, and not all readers will necessarily explicitly notice this, but I think most will notice the greater power of this novel compared to a “default” fantasy.

Blackveil was an interesting mix of action and politicking, scheming and maneuvering, with some personal angst and problems thrown in for good measure. I like a story where not all the scheming is too obvious; this is an easy story to follow but still some of the scheming is quite subtle. It was realistic and utterly fascinating. On the other hand, there was enough action to provide extra momentum to the plot and to give the characters plenty to do so that it did not all feel too dry.

This is a substantial novel and a very rewarding one. I enjoyed getting to know these characters, and I was really keen to find out what happened to them. I imagine that readers of the earlier novels would find this heightened; they were probably even more eager to find out how some of the relationships – political and personal – played out. The plot is easy to follow but there are a number of layers and it is fairly complex – Britain doesn’t speak down to her readers. Probably the only real disappointment of the novel is that it ends on a cliffhanger. Yes, a number of substantial matters are resolved. Yes, there is substantial progress in terms of a number of other plot strands. But several significant matters are left unresolved, and we’re left hanging about something extremely important. I suppose because Britain had managed to write a novel which was so readable despite coming late in a series, I kind of expected it to be similarly rounded off at the end with a strong sense of completion. However, although readers are given some rewards, they’re also left waiting for the next novel. Despite that one disappointment, I highly recommend Blackveil. It’s got strong and diverse characters, an engaging plot, and is highly readable even if you aren’t familiar with the earlier novels.