Fall of a Kingdom
by Hilari Bell
Recommended Ages: 12+
Inspired by a Persian legend and originally titled Flame, this is the first book of the Farsala Trilogy. The new and improved title, while dramatically distinctive, has the drawback of giving away the ending. But since the story is only getting started, that's probably all right.
The kingdom that falls in this book is called Farsala, a society that has held its own for many centuries against hostile neighbors on both sides. Its strength is also its vulnerability: an aristocratic class of cavalry officers, called the deghans, that has ridden down every enemy it has faced in battle. But the deghans are also proud, prickly, jealous of each other's position, and apt to treat the peasantry as a lower life-form than their horses. There is also something about their religion, which propitiates eleven evil djinn—sometimes to an extent that corrupts the rule of law—while doing lip-service to a single, benign deity called Azura. Throw in an enemy empire with a relatively liberal system of laws and a tradition of either conquering a country within a year or giving up—which sounds like an easy foe to beat until you realize how seldom they have given up—and you might begin to see why Farsala is poised, tipping, ready to fall.
At the heart of this tragedy are three young people, ranging in age from fifteen to about twenty. Teenaged Oraya is the spoiled, haughty, willful daughter of Farsala's military commander. Merahb dotes on his daughter above all things—more than his wife, his younger male heir, even his illegitimate son Jiaan, whose career he has advanced with a patronage that makes Oraya jealous. Jiaan, for his part, has to put up with a lot of hazing from full-blooded deghans his age, who refuse to accept him among their ranks, and from the half-sister who seizes every opportunity to call him a "peasant-born bastard." The unlikely third side of the triangle is a young peddler with a maimed hand, who nurses a deep grudge against the deghans, their social system, and especially their treatment of peasants like him. Kavi travels up and down the trade road with his beloved mule Duckie, trading with miners and farmers and travelers from foreign lands, and keeping his shadier dealings just a click downwind of the law.
The book, alternately told from the point of view of each of these three characters, doesn't spend much time introducing them before events start swirling and sweeping them into a collision course with their country's fate. Rumor has it that the Hrum Empire will soon be ready to invade Farsala. Merahb fears for his country's future, especially if his political rivals succeed in replacing him as high commander. But thanks to the twisted church-state politics of the deghans, young Oraya must be sacrificed to the djinn—supposedly to enable Farsala to win the impending war. Merahb has other plans for his daughter, however. Plans that involve a skillful deception, a hiding place in the mountains, and a little help from the Suud—strange, nocturnal people who live in the uncharted desert beyond the mountains. Both Jiaan (willingly) and Kavi (unwillingly) play a role in Oraya's escape. But as calamity descends upon Farsala like a thunderstorm, each of them faces sudden changes in their status, their importance, their role in history. By the end of this first installment, it looks as though at least one of them may be the great mythical hero, promised to return in the hour of Farsala's greatest need.
Though this book is very fast-paced and oriented toward teen readers, it is also a challenging book in several ways. Oraya is not an easy character to sympathize with, even after she begins to transform under the magical influence of the Suud. Jiaan's first taste of battle is humiliating and heart-breaking, yet somehow he seems destined to become a great military leader. Most surprising of all is Kavi, whose loyalties are up for grabs and who may not seem to have the strength—either of body or of character—to influence events other than toward disaster. While you're still deciding whether you care about him or despise him, or to guess whose side he will end up on and whether he will live long enough to make a difference, everything changes in a rush of emotionally staggering events. And just like that, you'll be on the hook for Book 2, Rise of a Hero (originally published as Wheel).
Denver-based author Hilari Bell has written a dozen and a half books, of which I have only read one so far (The Wizard Test). After dipping another toe in her work, I will surely pick up more of the Farsala Trilogy on my next trip to the library. Other titles of hers that interest me include The Goblin Wood (also the start of a trilogy), a trilogy (soon to become a quartet) called "Knight and Rogue," and the conclusion of this trilogy, Forging the Sword.