Thursday, January 06, 2011

“The Rebel Prince”, by Celine Kiernan (Orbit)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie

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The gripping conclusion to The Moorehawke Trilogy

Wynter is at last reunited with the exiled Prince Alberon, as he plots insurgency from his forest encampment. But she is losing faith with her companions, as they attempt to drive Alberon’s plans in different directions.

Caught between Razi’s complex diplomacy, Alberon’s desire for martial strength and Christopher’s fierce personal loyalty, Wynter finds herself torn. Can she combine these philosophies, and find a way to heal the rift between king and heir? Or will each side destroy the other, causing Wynter to lose everything she holds dear? She fears the answers lie veiled in conflict and loss.

Regular readers of this site will know that I loved the first two books of the Moorehawke Trilogy. With a gift for building both personal and political conflict, Kiernan set herself a hefty task for her final volume – at the end of The Crowded Shadows, there seemed to be innumerable questions and problems to be resolved, all in some way depending on the ambiguous figure of Alberon, the necessary final confrontation with Jonathan, and the ‘bloody machine’ that haunted the first two books. In this last book, Kiernan ably rises to the challenge she has set herself – The Rebel Prince does not disappoint.

For the first two volumes of the trilogy, Alberon emerges as a contradictory character. On the one hand, he is the sweet, loving boy who had been Wynter’s playmate and Razi’s devoted younger brother Kiernan showed through Wynter’s memories. On the other, he is the apparent betrayer of his father, forming alliances with enemies to Jonathan’s crown and plotting his overthrow. True to form, when she does bring him to the page in person, Kiernan does a fine job of creating a nuanced, authentic character. ‘Albi’ is not always appealing; he is harsh, arrogant, and uncompromising. However, in every respect, we see how his character – both the good and the bad – has been formed by the life experience that has differed markedly from that of Razi or Wynter. He is politically pragmatic, occasionally to the point of ruthlessness, in sharp contrast to Wynter’s and Razi’s idealism. While Wynter and Razi see his actions as the cause of the instability of the kingdom, Albi is aware that their position has always been unstable:

“Our own great-grandfather wrest this kingdom from William of Comber. Our historians now call it a legitimate reclamation of title, but let us for one moment admit it for what it actually was, shall we? Two men with big sticks pummeling each other over land – and the man with the biggest stick won. A king only remains a king for as long as he can outsmart, outrun or outfight his opponents ….”

Wynter at one point describes Jonathan’s kingdom as “This small island of tolerance. This little flame of hope in the dark.” The questions that each of the characters in The Rebel Prince must grapple with are what they are prepared to sacrifice – whether it be pride, power, or principle – in order to preserve it, and whether they risk destroying the very kingdom they hold dear in their attempts to keep it safe. In politics – in war – do the ends justify the means? Does political expediency outweigh personal betrayal? Kiernan deftly raises these questions through her narrative, as each character struggles to come to terms with the crisis at hand while also trying not to lose sight of their own ends.

As soon as Wynter and her companions arrive at Alberon’s camp, the plot begins to move quickly. Events build to an almost break-neck speed, with situations constantly changing and circumstances becoming more dire, whether through errors on the part of characters or sheer bad luck. As in the earlier books in the trilogy, Kiernan constantly raises the stakes and increases the danger for her characters. There was actually a point at which I thought to myself, “Ok, things are already so bad, from now on nothing more can possibly go wrong” – and then, of course, something did. The story races towards its climax with the building momentum of a boulder rolling down a hill – the final hundred pages are impossible to read slowly.

As satisfying as I found the book as a whole, I must admit to being at first a little disappointed with the war machine when it was finally explained. I had built it up in my head to be some impossibly twisted and potentially mystical device of torture. However, in keeping with Kiernan’s world – where magical elements like ghosts, talking cats, and werewolves are present but not paramount – the reality is at once more prosaic and more chilling. It is a testament to Kiernan’s writing that the horror with which she invests the machine does not, by the end of the novel, seem remotely unwarranted.

With a fast-placed plot, well-drawn characters, and a brilliantly-imagined world, The Rebel Prince is a pleasure to read. Kiernan is a gifted storyteller, and The Moorehawke Trilogy is a debut series to be reckoned with.

Highly recommended.

The Moorehawke Trilogy: The Poison Throne, The Crowded Shadows, The Rebel Prince

Celine Kiernan’s Website

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