Thursday, 15 May 2014

North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier

North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier is the final instalment in the Children of the Black Sun trilogy. I have also reviewed the first two books, Winter Be My Shield and Black Sun Light My Way, both of which I loved, especially the first book. This review contains spoilers for those earlier books but any spoilers for this one are under a spoiler tag (hover to read, or don't to not be spoiled).
Some things are broken beyond mending ... Grievously wounded in battle, Isidro's life hangs in the balance - but the only person who can help him is the man he can never trust. Sierra is desperate to rebuild shattered bonds with her old friends, but with Isidro incontrovertibly changed and her own wounds still fresh, things can never be as they once were. Burdened by all he's done at Kell's command, Rasten knows he cannot atone for the horrors of his past. But when their enemies in Akhara follow Cam's small clan back to Ricalan, carrying a thirst for vengeance, the skills Rasten swore he'd renounce may be their only hope for victory...

My favourite storyline in this book was Isidro's. The story starts with him pretty out of it after the events of book two. He's lost a lot of blood and his crushed arm is not getting better. Saving his life results in the loss of the troubling arm (which has been an ongoing problem for him since the first book) and also the loss of a lot of blood. What I really liked in this book is that instead of falling into the much-overused trope of the characters suddenly inventing blood transfusions (think about how often that happens, also tracheotomies get invented a lot), Spurrier takes the more sensible path of having Rasten be familiar with with the side-effects of extreme blood loss and letting the characters deal with it from there. The side-effects included fatigue and, more crucially, Isidro's wits being addled. (That isn't a spoiler, it happens very early on.) Watching him deal with this once he regains consciousness was fascinating, scary and sad, especially when he's sufficiently self-aware to realise that there's something wrong with him. Obviously it was hard for him, but it was also hard for the people around him to deal with. Delphine's reaction, in particular, was heartbreaking, and interestingly at odds with what Isidro was feeling as he got better.

On a slightly different Isidro note, after spending two books putting up with a dysfunctional arm that caused him a lot of pain, he now has to adjust to a missing arm. On the one hand, once it heals it doesn't hurt, but on the other, things like picking up a baby become a bigger deal than for two-armed people.

Isidro, Sierra and Rasten all have emotional wounds as well as physical ones — or more so than physical ones, a lot of the time — that have to heal before they can move on with their lives. Isidro has difficulty sliding back into family life once he's physically strong enough. As well as overcoming the physical ordeals he's been through, he also found himself with "tainted" power, because of a blood magic ritual Kell forced him to be part of. Because blood magic is inherently pretty evil, Isidro has to grapple with the feeling of having been made into something evil (from his point of view) and it's an interesting struggle. It's not hard to see the parallels with real world stigma. Sierra's emotional journey, by contrast, is more about learning that it's OK to be safe in one place and that she is loved and wanted, not just needed. And forgiven, when she didn't necessarily expect to be.

Rasten, of course, is the most broken character. He spent a decade as Kell's servant, suffering abuse and doling it out on command. Sierra is the first person, since his family was murdered when he was ten, to care about him and he has difficulty coming to terms with that idea. His coping strategies mean that he isn't present for the whole story, but they are entirely plausible. I know a lot of people who have been reading this series have enjoyed Rasten's character development most, and I don't think those people will be disappointed. I wasn't (although I still liked Isidro's story more). The last thing I want to say about Rasten is a spoiler for the very end and it is under a spoiler tag. Hover or highlight to read.

<spoiler warning. Do not read if you don't want to know whether Rasten survives the book>
What I liked best about Rasten's story is the way Spurrier subverted the Noble Sacrifice trope. It's so often easy to kill off the redeemed bad guy to avoid dealing with the ongoing fallout of their earlier actions. But it gets old. And I'm not sure that it's a healthy trope. Rasten wanted to die so much, but him living was a more interesting outcome, not only for him but also for Cam, Mira and the others, who have to deal with his presence. Isidro and Sierra moved on from hating him relatively early, having some idea of what he'd gone through to become who he was. But for the others and for Rasten himself, it's a much longer journey to acceptance.
<end spoiler>

The middle book of the series, Black Sun Light My Way, was definitely the darkest of the lot. This one was almost gentle in comparison. If you were hesitating over reading the conclusion because of the darker aspects in the second book, don't. It's not that nothing violet happens, but it's more action-movie violence (battles, exploding heads, generally quick deaths) rather than degrading torture. (I had actually managed to block out the details of the most horrific scene in Black Sun... until the specifics were mentioned. For most of this story, you don't have to relive the characters' past horrors, just remember that they had happened.)

On a final note, this series has very good titles. They are both metaphoric (there's no actual North Star in the story) and accurately descriptive (they do go home). They describe the main thrust of the story (or, at least, Sierra's story if not everyone's) well enough that I think can distinguish which arcs go in which books reasonably well. Clever.

If you've read and enjoyed the earlier books in the Children of the Black Sun trilogy, you absolutely have to read North Star Guide Me Home. If you haven't read the series, but got this far in my review anyway, then I can't recommend it enough. All fans of BFF (/epic/high/grimdark fantasy) should give it a go. I look forward to seeing what Spurrier writes next.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2014, Harper Voyager AU
Series: Children of the Black Sun, book 3 of 3
Format read: iBook
Source: The publisher
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

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