Retro Friday: The Seer and the Sword by Victoria Hanley
As mentioned in my last post, I plan on doing Retro Friday reviews of older books I love that would have made my Unsung YA list. I hope to get to On Fortune’s Wheel next week, but I wanted to kick things off with Victoria Hanley‘s The Seer and the Sword in honor of Angie, because I think she would like this book.
Once, Torina was a princess, daughter of the king of Archeld. King Kareed was aggressive monarch, waging war not so much for the safety of his kingdom as simply for the sake of conquering nearby lands. After conquering the kingdom of Bellandra, Kareed returns to Archeld with presents for his daughter: a beautiful crystal ball, and a boy a few years older than her named Landen, who he says will be Torina’s slave.
Bellandra was an idyllic, peace-loving land. Its people were artistic and compassionate. They’d grown complacent with their possession of the legendary Sword of Bellandra, since people throughout the kingdoms believed it able to protect Bellandra from hostilities. Then Kareed waged war against Bellandra and won, killing its king and capturing its prince, Landen.
But Torina does not want a slave and so frees Landen. Kareed makes Landen a member of his household, one who will be trained in the arts of war. With nowhere better to run, and desiring to fulfill his father’s dying words, “Find someone who can teach you to fight,” Landen accepts his new life.
Gradually, a quiet friendship develops between Torina and Landen, who realizes that, with the crystal, Torina has the rare powers of a great seer. But the friendship falters as the two grow up and Torina is forced to spend increasing amounts of time with the duties of a princess. Then, too, she is courted by Vesputo, commander of Kareed’s army. But with a name like Vesputo, how could he be anything but devious? Sure enough, Vesputo craves power and the kingship of Archeld, plotting to kill Kareed and frame Landen for the assassination.
I was taking some notes on the story this afternoon, and between that and writing the summary above, it made me realize how much of the story relies on coincidence or fortune, as well as how familiar the plot and characters sometimes seem. There’s also the depiction of too-good-to-be-true Bellandra, which occasionally made me pause. It’s so idealized, and not just in the perceptions of Torina, her mother, and other’s who had never been to Bellandra. We can see from Landen’s reminisces that it’s not a result of their outsider’s perspective, that Landen also thinks of the kingdom in the same way. Then again, I suppose this could be a romantic, yearning remembrance of Landen’s lost past and birthright versus his new reality in Archeld’s martial society, where Landen is woefully unprepared to fit in.
But in the hands of some authors, none of this matters. They are still able to craft an irresistible story, one that hooks the reader and keeps them reading. That is what Victoria Hanley does in The Seer and the Sword.
Basically, what makes The Seer and the Sword work are Hanley’s style and character development. The story flows and some of her phrasing shines. Nothing fancy, but vivid descriptions and thoughtful insights that reflect and enrich the character development. The characters are imbued with enough depth and motivation that Kareed’s arrogant decision to have Landen learn swordfighting and other arts of war is plausible, even though this means Kareed is giving the son of the man he killed—someone who therefore could justifiably resent him—the skill to do more than a bit of harm. Torina starts off as young and impetuous, but with a good heart. Landen is quiet, steady, intelligent; quite the romantic ideal. Torina and Landen are sympathetic characters, strong enough to root for without feeling sorry for them. Both grow and change, partly as a result of their friendship, partly out of just growing up, and then again as a result of Vesputo’s actions. Vesputo is the least developed character. He’s a cliché, right down to the way in which Torina discovers his treachery. But I think I found this forgivable because he’s, well, a plot device, there to force Torina and Landen out of Archeld (separately and not knowing the others’ whereabouts, or even if they were still alive) and setting up the real story to come. Political intrigue! Secret identities! And, yes, a satisfying hint of romance.
Book source: personal copy.
I can’t believe this review ended up so long! Anyway, there are two companion books that follow The Seer and the Sword. Sadly, I didn’t think either was as good as this one.