Saturday, 25 August 2012

Retro review: The Second Sons Trilogy by Jennifer Fallon

Jennifer Fallon is one of my favourite authors and I have enjoyed all of her books. You can read my review for The Dark Divide, her most recent release, here.

The Second Sons trilogy was Fallon’s second trilogy, after The Demon Child Trilogy. It was first published by Voyager AU between 2002 and 2003. It has since been released in the UK in 2005, the US from 2004 to 2005, and I think also in Germany. The covers I’m using in this post are the original Australian ones. And for the record, I’m pretty sure I’ve read the series at least three times.

Book 1: The Lion of Senet
Book 2: Eye of the Labyrinth
Book 3: Lord of the Shadows

Second Sons is set on a world with two suns — a red dwarf and a yellow star more like our sun. The unusual celestial setup means that there is a lot more volcanic activity than on Earth and that it’s never really dark. At night the red sun shines and during the day the yellow sun lights up the world fully. At this stage I should point out that the physics isn’t 100% accurate which bothered me when I first read it but which was easier to ignore on subsequent rereads. I suspect the fact that this is billed as fantasy rather than science fiction (even though there is zero magic and 100% strange other planet) helped me not be as annoyed. That and the excellent story.

The main characters are mostly their parents’ second sons (apart from the women/girls, of course), hence the series title. My favourite was definitely Dirk the main character. In fact, he is one of my favourite male characters in any series because unlike the traditional fantasy hero, he saves the day through wits not by running in swinging his sword wildly. He’s also a bit of an anti-hero, but I’ll get to that.

At the start, Dirk, second son of a duke, is apprentice to the duke’s physician. He is uncommonly smart (can do difficult maths in his head) and really wants nothing more than to pursue his studies. Since his older brother is set to inherit, this doesn’t seem to be an unrealistic hope. Until a wanted pirate washes up on the shore and Dirk gets caught up in other people’s political scheming.

Dirk’s virtue is that he is smart enough to turn the tables against those in power and that he doesn’t mind doing morally questionable things for the greater good. Throughout the series he falls in with groups generally considered dishonourable like drug runners and religious sects. I like morally ambiguous characters (mostly because I tend to find them more realistic and less grating). To top it off, Dirk’s final coup/day saving climax is to die for (well, after you get past the wait what is happening oh my poor defenceless knowledge of physics… oh… OHH. Ahem).

Of course, Second Sons wouldn’t be quite as great without an excellent cast of supporting characters. Jennifer Fallon is great at writing complex and difficult characters in all roles. The Lion of Senet — a king-like ruler — has being blatantly manipulated by the High Priestess of the Shadowdances (an upstart sect that formed in the wake of a time of turmoil when the second sun stopped shining — honest, the physics could be worse) ever since she convinced him to sacrifice his first-born to bring back the light. Now she desperately needs to work out when the suns will do something unusual again and has been trying to crack the mystery left behind in an ancient labyrinth. Cue her interest in Dirk and his mathematical prowess.

My favourite supporting characters were Alenor, crown princess and cousin to Dirk, and Marqel, acrobat cum social climber. Alenor I liked because of her strength in dealing with the people around her, most of whom didn’t really have her best interests at heart. Marqel I didn’t so much like as a person, but I very much enjoyed reading about her antics. She was the kind of character you want to throttle for her blind ambition. In my opinion, any character that makes you want to scream at the page (because of the emotional connection, I mean, not because they’re poorly written) is an excellent character. I particularly liked how polarising she was with the other characters — some loved her and bought into her scheming while others saw through her straight away, but of course they couldn’t convince the former of that.

Thematically, the Second Sons series explores the nature of belief and the whether the end justifies the means. I’ve noticed that most of Fallon’s books interrogate religious ideas (eg Demon Child has atheists encountering gods/magical beings they don’t believe in, Tide Lords is about a suicidal god/immortal) and I always enjoy the way in which she does it.

I highly recommend the Second Sons trilogy to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy, especially of the unconventional variety and to anyone who doesn’t mind their science fiction not being strictly scientifically accurate. Also to anyone who enjoys intelligent main characters.

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