I haven’t read much fantasy since I was in high school. Somehow or another, sci-fi knocked it off my reading list and then urban fantasy knocked sci-fi off the reading list. Eventually something will come along that will knock urban fantasy off. Probably crime-based horror erotica or something equally disturbing.
Anyway, back when I was reading fantasy, it was a different world. It was very much good guys in shining armor taking on the bleakest bastards the author could think up in fight to determine the fate of the whole planet. The good guys were really good and the bad guys were excruciatingly bad, so throughout the whole book – or series, those guys were big on series – you knew exactly who you were supposed to root for.
Those were fun books in their own way, but the meat in them was closer to supermarket bologna slices than a good slab of steak. Not to say they were bad, and I’m definitely not knocking the fantasy genre. Remember, I also spent a lot of my formative years reading Mack Bolan books, so I’m not exactly in a position to complain about someone’s literary choices.
Anyway, fantasy stories seemed like they were all about the good kingdom versus the bad kingdom and all the characters had high-minded ideals like “preserving love and freedom” or “making sure only good magic is used” or “slaughtering those insipid fools while they sleep”. Mighty armies march on each other, good is almost defeated but at the last minute someone who’s really, really good saves the day. Then it’s mimosas and brunch for everyone!
Meanwhile, there are a bunch of dead guys on the battle field and probably a whole host of folks on the bad guy’s side got roped into a bad situation and now they’re dying, too. The production capabilities of the countries in question were converted to wartime footing since arming and feeding the armies was of paramount importance and that left a lot of people with decaying infrastructure and no food. Even though the good guys won the day, they left a trail of wrecked lives behind them on their march.
That’s the fundamental reality of warfare: It wreaks havoc civilian populations who really couldn’t give a rat’s ass that Evil King Rottenbastard was insulted by Good Queen Gorgeouscheeks. Or that Good Queen Gorgeouscheeks repeated called King Rottenbastard a lard ass on the more than one occasion even though he repeatedly and politely asked her to knock it the hell off.
Good guys and bad guys. Kinda boring if you stick to the formula.
Eric Lewis understands this. He understands the toll war takes and he understands that the best stories aren’t the ones about Good Queen Gorgeouscheeks fretting away from her ivory tower. The best stories are the ones on the ground. Move a few pieces around on a map, worry about the outcome, and then retire for brandy by the fire. Way less interesting than the poor schmuck who’s sleeping in the mud because Good Queen Gorgeouscheeks’s army set fire to his house when they needed to stay warm.
The Heron Kings is a tale about royal courts going to war, but it’s less about the courts and more about the boots on the ground. Or, more specifically, the folks who not only weren’t soldiers but actively didn’t care who won. This is the story of the forgotten people of war, the ones pressed into corner and doing anything that can to survive another day so they’ll have the opportunity to survive another day. It’s the story of how far down the rabbit hole they go and the decisions they choose to make. And let me just say, that is way more interesting than which dress the queen chose for the ball.
Lewis threw me a curveball. I was basically expecting another gleaming armies bashing each other story. What I got was not only an exciting change of pace, but a well-thought pondering of the human condition in times of extreme stress. He doesn’t pull punches, either. And to make things even better, Lewis takes human nature into account. There aren’t many high-minded ideals in this book nor are there any people you can point to and say, “That’s the good guy.” This book is a shot of whiskey and a punch in the gut and it is worth every damned minute I spent reading it.
After a warlord slaughters her patients, Sister Alessia quits the cloister and strikes out on her own to heal the victims of a brutal dynastic conflict. Her roaming forest camp unwittingly becomes the center of a vengeful peasant insurgency, raiding the forces of both sides to survive. Alessia struggles to temper their fury as well as tend wounds, consenting to ever greater violence to keep her new charges safe. When they uncover proof of a foreign conspiracy prolonging the bloodshed, Alessia risks the very lives she’s saved to expose the truth and bring the war to an end.
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