CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 7. . . .October 19, 2012
The Dark Lady.
R. J. Hore.
Calgary, AB: Burst/Champagne Books (www.burstbooks.ca), 2011/2012
317 pp., trade pbk., $14.95.
Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.
Review by Joan Marshall.
Nefasti and her armed escort, increased to four knights this morning, arrived at the Council Chambers immediately after breakfast. She had not slept any more that night and was in foul humor. By the looks of her uncles, standing around the council table, the princes were not in a good mood either. They broke up their argument to turn to her as she settled on the throne and stared down at them. The four knights of her escort stood behind her on the dais, and against all custom of the Council Chamber, armed.
"Well, gentlemen," she growled, "do you have any ideas who tried to murder me last night?"
"We've had other problems to worry about," Prince Pilarius said.
"More important problems?" she said in a soft voice.
Prince Mortuus swept up to the dais. "Of course not, my dear. Your safety is the most important concern, at least to me."
"Someone tried to murder me last night!" Pilarius exclaimed, glaring at his two brothers.
"You don't know it was murder, or even directed at you," Prince Lubricius said.
"By the gods, my food taster was poisoned!"
"It could have been an accident!" Lubricius shrugged.
"It was murder, and I'll have Hecatean test everything in the kitchens until the potion is found!"
"It was probably our guests from Hesperus. That Prince Ultran has shifty eyes," Mortuus said cheerfully.
"I was almost murdered last night, in my bed!" Nefasti said, louder.
"They were probably only trying to kidnap you," Pilarius grunted. "Me, they were trying to poison."
In the year 3507 in the fantasy land of Vadio, the king, and father to 10-year-old Princess Nefasti, is poisoned, and, subsequently, Princess Nefasti's mother dies of grief. The murdered king's three brothers argue amongst themselves over who should be Regent until Nefasti is of age to marry and become queen. With their varying allies, the princes vie for power both in the court of Vadio and in the region. Over the period of a couple of years, Nefasti builds trust with key individuals and learns the craft of politics while she investigates who could have been responsible for her parents' deaths. When she and her retinue are attacked by knights loyal to her uncle, Lubricius, she relies on the support of loyal knights and her own wits to defeat him and bring her other two uncles to an understanding that she will be queen alone, without marrying anybody.
Nefasti is a powerful female character who quickly learns how to gather information surreptitiously from within the castle's secret passages, to think ahead of her predictable uncles, and to use her genuine good nature to gather strong people around her and reward them for their loyalty. It is unlikely that any 10-year-old could accomplish or even think of the tasks that Nefasti achieves. Indeed, she behaves as if she is at least 15 or even older, and the conceit that she has to be 12 to be betrothed and 14 to marry according to the laws of Vadio could have been altered to fit her strengths and actions.
Nefasti's uncles play the villain role collectively. All are eager for power and riches. All plot to either marry Nefasti to become king or to kill her to eliminate her. Their time is spent nastily quarrelling with each other and toadying to powerful princes of the neighbouring kingdoms.
Vita, Nefasti's old nurse, plays the role of loyal servant who understands all. In the end, as Vita is kidnapped, tortured and killed, she refuses to divulge any useful information about her mistress. Old Hecatean plays the role of the ancient, powerful court magician, Nefasti's supporter. Josephuse is Hecatean's bumbling apprentice who pulls it all together at the end when he has to do so.
The setting of this novel is typical middle ages: horses are the transportation of the day, the monarchy rules supported by knights and clansmen, and technology is absent. Monks flirt with magic, and food is bought in markets and cooked over open fires. Peasants labour on farms. Wars and battles are small and vicious.
Each chapter begins with a short paragraph of Vita speaking to her captors, and in it, she scoffs at the superstition and gossip swirling around Nefasti. Thus the reader learns how Nefasti is regarded by the common people. The dialogue is this book's strength but all too often is unnecessary to the forward motion of the plot. Readers will struggle through the many descriptions of how the knights are standing at court or arranged on the road. Older readers will wince at the contrived names of characters, dogs, horses and foreign countries.
There are unfortunately many copywriting errors throughout this book, the worst of which is on the back cover.
Junior high fantasy readers may be enchanted with Nefasti and her rise to power in spite of predictable story elements.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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