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The legend says that the great hero Sorahb will return when his country has need of him. If ever Farsala needed a hero, it is now. The Hrum Empire has destroyed its army and taken possession of most of its major cities. They still have most of a year to meet their deadline, when they must either subdue all resistance or abandon their plan to conquer Farsala, accepting it as an ally instead. The nation’s slender chances of holding out that long depend on one walled city withstanding a siege, a band of lawless “swamp rats” evading capture, and the tiny remnant of her army being ready to make a last stand before the end.
Though oral history in the future will say that Sorahb indeed returned, the hero Farsala needs is really not one person, but three young people whose interests and approaches to fighting the Hrum couldn’t be more different. One of them is Soraya, the daughter of the army’s late High Commander, who was the shrewdest representative of Farsala’s ruling “deghan” class. Soraya just wants to rescue her mother and little brother, who have been captured and deported as slaves. Though proud and haughty, and sometimes not a very sympathetic character, she learns a lot and grows greatly while accepting immense risks and hardships for her family’s sake. Then there is Jiaan, Soraya’s bastard half-brother, who takes command of the surviving army in spite of his half-blood pedigree. He too has picked up unusual leadership skills from his broad-minded father. The question is whether he will have vision enough to reorganize his country’s defense around the strengths and values of the peasant class.
The final third of the newly-arisen Sorahb is a lowly peddler named Kavi, whose resentment of the deghans stems from an act of brutality that destroyed his career as a smith. As a spy to the Hrum, albeit against his will, Kavi’s betrayal of his country has been so effective that it played a role in destroying the deghan way of life. No one could seem less likely to be part-savior of Farsala at this stage, but after seeing the results of his betrayal Kavi has a change of heart. Now he uses the trust he enjoys on both sides of the conflict to play a double game, cuing the Farsalan resistance into opportunities to frustrate the Hrum governor’s plans. By spreading rumors, organizing supplies for the besieged city of Mazad, and planning even more daring escapades in the name of Sorahb, Kavi becomes a sharp thorn in the enemy’s side.
Working independently, these three leaders will need a lot of courage, charisma, and luck to keep the Hrum off-balance for the months to come. The real test of whether they can win, however, will come when they finally meet in one place. Will they be able to overcome their bitter differences, and unite to realize the legend of Sorahb? This question smolders throughout the second book in the Farsala Trilogy, providing tension and cohesion to a complex tale. Originally titled Wheel, this book is the sequel to Fall of a Kingdom (a.k.a. Flame). As to how it all works out, that will be revealed in the third book, Forging the Sword.
Author Hilari Bell, a sometime librarian in the Denver area, says on her website that she specializes in “ethically ambiguous” fantasy. This claim is certainly borne out in this book, in which three patriots—none of whom has a spotless character—resist an empire that, in some ways, would be a better place to live in than the country they defend. Each of these three young heroes must consider the other side’s point of view, and each other’s reasons for the choices they make. Everywhere one sees good and evil mixed in subtle and thought-provoking proportions. And they always seem to find that wisdom consists in dealing honestly, reconsidering accepted way of doing things, and knowing what risks to take and not to take.
Among Bell’s other titles are the “Goblin Wood” trilogy, the “Shield, Sword, and Crown” trilogy, the “Knight and Rogue” quartet, and the “Raven” duet. These and several standalone books looks like attractive picks for teens and younger who enjoy adventures with swords, magic, and the occasional unicorn.