Reviewing Through the Time Machine: The Wolf Within, by Pamela Belle

Reviewing through the Time MachineIt’s all been very current around here lately, and although I’m desperately trying to reign in my impulse to post (because twice a week is really enough) I’m also conscious of things I said I wanted to review at the start of the year, and haven’t yet. Top of that list is The Wolf Within, which will always have a place in my heart, and deserves to be better known. Let’s start the show!

Title: The Wolf Within
Author: Pamela Belle
Series/Standalone: Book two of the Silver City Trilogy
Genre: Fantasy
First Published: 1995
Edition Reviewed: 1995
Hb/Pb: Hardback
Awards: British Fantasy Society Award nominee
Price: N/A Out of print, but available from £4.57 (pb) and $10.76 on Amazon Marketplace at time of posting.
Read my review of book one, The Silver City, here.

Cover Art

The Wolf Within, Cover

I have to start with the cover art, as this is what originally drew me in. I saw it from across the library, and it called to me in every way, hitting all the right notes to capture my wombling heart. Cover art is so important. It has helped me to find some of my very favourite books and added to the atmosphere and feel of the reading experience. I value my Kindle, but one thing it truly does lack is cover art, and I think it’s a great shame so many ebooks skimp on providing eReader suitable art. I mean, just take a look at this:

Admittedly, the choice of colours for the typography is terrible. Although it does pick up on colours within the painting you can barely read that red title on that orange background, and that bright blue writing stamped right over the top of the ghostly wolf’s head in the sky is just awful. But the cover art itself is pretty good. I love that kind of sunset light. We see an arid, desolate landscape that somehow, despite its openness, manages to create a sense of claustrophobia – of encroaching night. You just know, looking at this image, that that ghostly wolf is going to be fucking over those two people in the foreground.

And let’s take a look at them. We have a hot Christian Slater look-a-like who seems in a pretty bad way, being watched over by a hot black lady. That snaking river in the background speaks of a journey – they’re going somewhere, and they’re all alone. And why does he look so fucked up? What happened to these people?

Now, I’m not going to lie to you, part of the reason this book jumped off the shelf at me is that the guy looked really hot. I must have been 14? 15? Well… sex sells. And sexy men with angst sell to 15-year-old girls. I wasn’t really in to vampires, but this was right up my alley. Plus, I was just starting to get really fed up by the way that all the smart strong women in Anne McCaffrey novels always ended up falling for even stronger men. You don’t know much about who that woman is on this cover, but you can tell just from how she’s holding herself that she’s strong, and it’s pretty clear that she’s the one who’s looking after him. AWESOME. Target demographic achieved.

Also, let’s not gloss over this, given the white-washing scandals of recent years: this is an inter-racial couple, and that black character still looks black. That stuff shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t be a big deal that there’s a black woman on the cover and she actually looks black – the cover itself isn’t making a big deal out of it, after all – but the world is what it is. Having read the book, it would have been equally representative if he’d been shown standing protectively over her, as so many fantasy novels do. Especially given the dark lighting, it would have been easy for the artist to maybe pale her out a bit and at least make her race appear ambiguous. But they didn’t. This is a cover that isn’t drawing on stereotypes for male/female relationships, and it isn’t assuming that I’ll be less likely to buy the book if, *gasp*, I know in advance that not all the characters are white. I like that about it.

I can’t tell if this cover was done by the same artist who did the cover for The Silver City, as my copy is the very same one I first saw in the library and later bought, and I think whatever credit there may have been must have been cut out, but it looks like the same style, and its equally worthy of praise. Well done to you, unknown artist!


Bron is a young boy with immense magical power. He was bred for it in a world where most people believe that magic can only be obtained through taking the drug Annatal. Under the control of the priestess D’thliss, his father, Ansaryon, a prince of Zithirian, was coerced into raping his sister, and Bron was the result of that union. Bron was raised by D’thliss in secret, as she used the boy’s power to enhance her own. She planned to overthrow the city, with the help of Ansaryon’s brother, Tsenit, and the fearsome warrior tribe, the Ska’i. Both D’thliss and the Ska’i worshipped the death god, Ayak, and D’thliss dedicated Bron to him as a small child. Realising Bron’s power, the Ska’i kidnap the child and his foster-brother, but in trying to force Bron to use his power for them, they kill his foster-brother, and Bron reacts with anger and grief. He kills them all.

This is the terrible secret that lies in Bron’s past. He’s taken to the beautiful hidden city of Sar Dyenyi to recover and grow up in peace with Ansaryon’s cousin, Kefirri, whom he loves and trusts. But he is haunted by what he has done, and by visions of the wolf god, Ayak, who tries to persuade him to use his power again. During a visit from his father, now King of Zithirian, Bron falls from a high tower and, in front of everyone, slows his descent with magic to save his life. Although their king is a sorcerer, magic has long been viewed with suspicion by the people of Zithirian and Sar Dyenyi, and it is clear that Bron can no longer stay in his mountain seclusion. Ansaryon takes him back to Zithirian to train him, making it known to all the people just what Bron can do, and, indeed, what he has done.

Bron has few friends in Zithirian, but he does renew his acquaintance with Herris, son of Kaydi, a leader of the resistance under Tsenit’s rule. He reluctantly accepts training in magic from his father and grows into a man. He decides to enter the Bridal Race – a test of endurance seen as right of passage in Zithirian – a year early, but as he does so, tragedy strikes. Part of the race involves swimming across the Kefirinn, the river that runs through the city. As Bron goes to cross he sees a large log that is being swept downstream, and which is going to hit a man he knows. He calls out to the man, but because of past rivalry, Gorseth ignores him. Bron goes in to save him, but is hit by another log, which he hadn’t seen following the first. Both of them die… except that Ayak is not willing to accept the death of such a prize as Bron, yet. He calls to Bron’s half-brother, Hommen, and guides the child to where Bron can be found.

Realising that Bron is still under Ayak’s control, and concerned for his other children, Ansaryon decides that Bron must be sent away – to his wife Halthris’s people. But Bron knows that this will not be good enough. He makes a plan in secret to escape the city, with Herris’s help – to head south in the hope of somehow finding away to the semi-mythical island of Jo’ami, ancient island of sorcerers. He hopes that once there he will be able to find help to free himself from the wolf within.

Bron’s journey is far from straightforward – there are no easy routes to Jo’ami, and as a young man travelling through strange countries on his own, Bron still has some growing up to do, which is somewhat complicated by his peculiar talents, and by Ayak’s constant threat. He travels through wilderness, finding the ruined city of Tyr. He passes through Kerenth, land of women, and unwittingly attracts the attention of the young ruler, Inrai’a. She wants him for her consort, but he is rejected by the goddess Sarraliss, who can see the mark of the wolf upon him.

At last he makes his way to Toktel’yi, seat of the empire, and most dangerous city in the world for Bron. Unlike Zithirian, sorcery is openly embraced in Toktel’yi, and Bron is aware that he would be very easily detectable if he should draw attention to himself with his magic. His magic makes him a prize in his own right, but he is also the son of the northern king Ansaryon. The ruthless young emperor, Ba’alekkt, has been looking hungrily towards the silver city, and to have Ansaryon’s eldest son in his possession would be a coup.

Bron finds work as a musician in the Golden Djarlek, and attracts the attention of the proprietor, Mallaso – that formidable lady you see on the cover with him. Mallaso is a former slave, captured in the Toktel’yan conquest of Penya, saving up her money in the hopes of one day retiring to Tekkt with her daughter, who is living there with a kind family under Mallaso’s pay, away from the dangers of the capital city. They begin a tentative romance, but when Bron reveals his magic in anger in the middle of the race day crowds, they are forced to flee the city.

Mallaso longs to rejoin her daughter on Tekkt, but Bron must still complete his journey to Jo’ami, and now the emperor knows he is alive and within the bounds of the empire…

Why do I love it so?

Come on, a hot man with god-like magical powers, cursed by a terrible thing he did in his past – when he was a child and didn’t know any better – who also happens to be a bastard prince (the fruit of an incestuous union, no less), forced to conceal his identity? You know why I liked this. Add to that the plentiful strong women, a rich world that unashamedly departs from the standard western fantasy tropes of faux-feudal Europe, a good mix of races, plus several gay characters to boot… this book really has a lot going for it beyond the fact that it hits my personal sweet spots. No wonder it was nominated for the British Fantasy Society Award.

Not that it’s perfect. The first couple of chapters really struggle under the strain of info-dumping as the author fills us in on the considerable back story of the first book. The nice thing about this is that it means you can jump right into The Wolf Within even if you haven’t read The Silver City – just as I did. On rereading, however, its somewhat torturous. Just take my word for it that things really, really pick up.

Bron is an intensely charismatic character. Even though we view most events from his point of view, he remains somewhat enigmatic in his quiet reserve. This is a person who has grown up with the burden of intense self-control and the knowledge of what could happen if he allows his guard to slip. He doesn’t make friends easily, as a result, and I’m not sure how well I could sustain a conversation with him if I were to meet him in real life, but as a character he’s deeply appealing.

Mallaso, although we don’t meet her until half-way through the book, is a wonderful character in her own right. So much more than a love-interest – full of goals and intense emotions of her own, many of which have nothing to do with Bron. In fact, it’s fair to say that he does nothing but wreak havoc in her life. As a former slave and prostitute she could have been the worst cliché of a whore with a heart of gold, but her past forms a rich tapestry that contributes to both her strengths and her sorrow. She is never ashamed of her sexuality, and it becomes an expression of strength when she performs the dances of her people. Here we see how erotic dancing can be integrated into a character and the customs of a people without reducing the performer to a sexual object (Mr Martin, take note!).

Of course I adored the tense moments of revelation as Mallaso learns more of Bron’s past, that he is a sorcerer, and then the extent of his sorcery when he reveals too much at the race course. This book is full of moments that tickled my Secret Identity Angst button, but it has many other wonderful moments besides. One hidden treasure is Bron’s discovery of the ruined city of Tyr. With the modern obsession of cutting out anything that isn’t integral to the action, I wonder if this would have made it past the editor’s cut. In many ways, this is ‘just’ colour, but it fills in the rich background of this world. And, I love a good ruined city. I love a mystery. I loved this.

Some of the best moments of the book occur further down the line from where I had to stop my plot summary. I would hate to spoil it all for you. In truth, I adore the ending. I am denied the opportunity to discuss the wonderful character of Al’Kalyek, Ba’alekkt’s High Sorcerer, and friend of Ansaryon from the first book. The interactions between Al’Kalyek and Bron, and Bron and Ba’alekkt, are compelling. The ending is haunting and satisfying.

Where The Silver City was over-long, The Wolf Within is tighter and stronger. The opening chapters are a little awkward, but I would urge you to read on – you will be rewarded. Where the antagonists of The Silver City lacked depth, Ba’alekkt is complex, terrible, and charismatic.

The wealth of different societies and cultures is also a joy. Belle is adept at evoking the atmosphere and feel of her different settings. On earlier readings, I was not overwhelmed by the depiction of Kerenth. I found Inrai’a childish and annoying, and the gender role-reversal a little simplistic, but on rereading, I found it more nuanced. Inrai’a is young and foolish, but not without strength. The exploration of sexuality and how we read sexual attitudes in terms of vitality and weakness also has some interest. In a land where a warrior class is not needed due to the protection of a goddess, it makes sense that the physical strength of men could be seen as suited to more menial, physical tasks, whilst women take care of the more cerebral business of ruling and politics.

This is a book with much to offer on top of a rollicking good story. It deserves to be rediscovered in the new millennium. Go find yourself a copy and have a read!

Poetry in Fantasy

So, this is a divisive thing. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about random poetical interludes in fantasy writings. The use in fantasy is no surprise, really. Much early fiction we know about was poetical. That’s how you got your story remembered. The metre helped your verse steep in a performer’s brain, back when people hadn’t moved to see that writing could be used for fiction as well as accounting. And even when fiction became a genre divorced from both the performative and poetical aspect, if one wrote epic, one could not help but think of Homer, Virgil, and (later) Milton. Not to mention the folk music in which the fantastical continued to breathe in the shared consciousness to preserve aspects of celtic culture, and other magical tales: fairies, druids, dragons and other lore*. (See, for example, the Ballad of Tam Lin, which inspired Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock.)

Verse is embedded in fantasy.

However, I don’t know about you, but I can’t write poetry for toffee. And neither can many much more successful fantasy authors. I have no fixed opinion on Tolkien’s verse, but at least half the people I know who call themselves fans readily confess to skipping the ‘song bits’. (I can’t bring myself to skip any of it, personally, but I can’t deny it wasn’t the main draw on the books.) I’ve heard the same about Watership Down, but I have to say, on rereading, I found the rabbit epics both captivating and spine-chilling. (But then, that is a book very carefully and subtly tied to the Homeric root.)

In the average fantasy, though, what is your opinion? Love? Hate? One can’t blame an author if they aren’t a natural poet, but then, why try if you know you suck? And yet…

And yet some poems of fantasy and SF poetry genuinely catch me. Take but one piece from Anne McCaffrey’s song-rich Pern books:

Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,
Harper, strike, and soldier, go.
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes.

I know this rhythm is yanked from some famous poem, but I can’t for the life of me think what it is**. I just know that if I start out intoning the original I usually end up wanting to finish with the one from Pern. And that’s OK – every poet is a thief. Churchill stole rhythms from classic literature to create some of the most powerful and iconic speeches in history, and I think that’s a good thing.

Or take John Brunner. I remain in profound awe of his achievement in Stand on Zanzibar, not least the folk poems and dirty limericks that add colour to the ‘Tracking with Close-ups’. Oddly, on a random flipping through of this rather lengthy book I only found the dirty ones about the woman who attacked the super-computer, go figure (e.g. one of 5 poems given in ‘Tracking with Close-ups’ 17):

The case of Teresa’s instructive-
It shows how extremely seductive
A shiggy can be
If her an-atom-ee
Is first rendered super-conductive

I also find Pamela Belle’s sparsely but powerfully used poetry profoundly moving. Take this, describing Sar D’yenyi, and giving us a first, personal glimpse into Ansaryon’s heart, as he quotes it:

Though skies may fall, and put an end to dawning:
Though seas run dry, and fiery mountains roar:
I once saw Sar D’yenyi in the morning,
And my heart is filled with joy for ever more.


Some fantasy poetry sucks bottom, I think most people would agree to that, but some of it is profoundly beautiful, moving, and effective. Do you have a favourite bit? Is there some fragment of made-up epic you want to hear the rest of? These are just some of my favourite SF&F fragments, what are yours?

*Of necessity I realise I’m giving a woefully brief and hopelessly anglocentric account.

** I remembered. Try this on for size:
Double, double, toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes…

Oh, wait now, I’ve done it again…

Reviewing through the Time Machine: The Silver City, by Pamela Belle

Reviewing through the Time MachineYou may have heard me tweeting about this one-off and on since the Autumn, when I started rereading it. Here are the vital stats:

Title: The Silver City
Author: Pamela Belle
Series/Standalone: Book one of the Silver City Trilogy
Genre: Fantasy
First Published: 1994
Edition Reviewed: 1995
Hb/Pb: Paperback
Price: N/A Out of print, but available from £0.01 + P&P on Amazon Marketplace at time of posting

Cover Art

The Silver City: Cover Art

The Silver City: Cover Art

I don’t always review the cover art along with the book, but sometimes it’s either relevant or worth it for its own sake. If you want to know more about the plot before deciding to give your attention to the whole review, feel free to scroll on down to the ‘Plot’ section. I usually find, though, that having a look at a cover can help in deciding if something is my sort of book. I used to think judging a book by its cover was a bad thing, but I don’t anymore. Judging by the beautiful Michael Whelan artwork that used to adorn the covers of The Dark Tower led me to one of the most influential books in my life. But that’s another story. The point is that books can be wonderful objects as well as wonderful stories, and a good cover conveys information as well as added entertainment.

Unfortunately, my scanner squiffed the colours substantially, and try as I might I couldn’t get the silvery blue of the city at the same time as the fiery red of Halthris’s hair. This is an unfortunate compromise. To see what the colours should be like, please refer to the slightly blurry image here at Library Thing. (Neither version reflects the fact that the author’s name is actually in gold-coloured metallic lettering, but that’s the sort of thing scanners can be forgiven for struggling with.)

I like this cover. It’s maybe not the most exciting cover you’ve ever seen. It hasn’t got a man with a sword, or a dragon, or a wizard, or all three. But even though I like men with swords, and wizards, and dragons, I like this cover not only in spite of their absence, but because of it. This book doesn’t have a dragon, but it does have men with swords, and some wizards, and you could easily have slapped them on the front and made it look like all the other covers with men and swords and wizards on them. The protagonist is a woman, but there are a lot of other significant characters, including a love interest who is a wizard who sometimes uses a sword. In a lot of other book covers you might see the female protagonist depicted, but in the embrace of her lover, and surrounded by the other significant features of the book. Take a look at this cover for Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight – a deliberately feminist novel that (despite the problems a modern reader might find) was pretty significant in its day, and that I still rather like. I like this art, too. But can you see Lessa in this picture? Oh yes… she’s way down there underneath the dragons, being embraced by F’lar.

I’m not saying that all covers of books that contain women have to have a woman dominating their cover art, but it does say something about this book that it does. And that’s what the cover should do: tell you something about the book at a glance. I look at this book and I instantly feel a little more included. It’s possible that others will look at it and feel a little more excluded – I understand that – but there are plenty of other books out there without (fully clothed) women on their covers, and I think it’s good to have a bit of variety. If I’m browsing a bookshelf in a bookstore (those bookstores that are left!) my eye is caught by those that look a little different. The pale background amongst all those blacks and dark blues on the fantasy shelves probably helps, too.

Well, enough of that – it clearly can’t have been that good a marketing tactic; the book’s out of print! But I liked it. There are other things that are more prosaically good about this cover, too. First thing is that I can tell the artist was actually given a fairly detailed description of the character. The only things that’re missing are the tattoos, and it’s implied that most of those are in less visible places, anyway. The artist has also used those details, along with the background, to tell us a lot about the story. Here’s this strong woman, but she’s clearly tribal, and she’s out of place against the pale city in the background. Yet she’s not ill at ease – her stance is one of readiness and strength. She’s a warrior, and she’s not intimidated by her unfamiliar surroundings. Her splash of colour over what we assume must be the towers of the Silver City is a contrast that speaks of breathing new life into something old and staid. Yet she’s gazing off into the distance, not down at the city, thinking about some problem that they will both face that comes from the outside. That’s a pretty good introduction to the central enigma of the book. I’m intrigued, aren’t you?

Well, then: on to the plot!


Halthris is a warrior of the Tanathi, a nomadic people who wander the plains and steppes near Zithirian, the Silver City, famed for its wealth and pale stone buildings. Whilst out hunting with her tribe, Halthris stumbles upon a massive army of the terrifying Ska’i. The Ska’i have always been vicious raiders, but, like the Tanathi, they were composed of wandering tribes who rarely came together with one purpose. A fearsome new chief, Quenait, has somehow joined them together. Reasoning that Zithirian is too juicy a temptation for the Ska’i to pass up, Halthris and her band decide that the city must be warned.

Upon reaching the city, however, Halthris is caught up in courtly intrigue, and fears that her message will not get through. At first it seems that she’s had the worst possible luck. When she first comes to the palace she is taken to meet Prince Ansaryon – second of the king’s three sons, rumoured to practice forbidden magic, generally reviled by the populace, and unpopular at court. Although he says he is keen to help her, and seems concerned at her words, the pace of ceremony at court is frustrating for the forthright tribeswoman, and she wonders if he is deliberately obstructing her. Would it have been better to have met first with the youngest Prince – the healthy, active, handsome, and popular Tsenit? The crown prince (if you were wondering) is a drunk and largely irrelevant, except perhaps for the fact that his death would advance the ambitions of either of his brothers, should they be murderously inclined.

Finally, she is heard, but the king doesn’t sense any urgency – he suspects that she is exaggerating, or that her ‘uncivilized’ mind has multiplied the Ska’i numbers in fear. Unsurprisingly, the Ska’i appear on the scene before the king comes to his senses, but with enough time for him to close the city gates once they have been seen. The king is belatedly terrified and demands that the Tanathi warriors who have come with Halthris to the city bolster his personal guard. And then: treachery! Someone opens the gates in the night, not only to the city, but to the palace. The Ska’i butcher most of the royal family, and it seems likely that either Tsenit or Ansaryon is in league with the Ska’i and has made a play for the throne.

Much of the tension of the first few chapters is probably meant to be about whether Ansaryon or Tsenit is truly EVAL. If you don’t want to know the answer to that, look away now, as most of the rest of the book assumes knowledge of this. I don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler anyway. This is a fantasy novel. Strikes me that the target audience is most likely to be rooting for the dark, mysterious, bookish social outcast over the handsome, jock-like Tsenit. Ansaryon’s character becomes progressively more interesting as the book progresses, and we’ve seen from the get go that he’s complex and troubled. I’m going to put my hands up and say that I actually read the second book in this series first, by mistake, but I really don’t think anyone else is likely to be fooled. Belle gives Ansaryon too my screen time and sexual tension with her protagonist for me to have much doubt in my mind.

So, by fortune, Ansaryon ends up with the Tanathi as they flee the palace. The Tanathi have personally seen his sister, the king, and the crown prince die, which leaves just Ansaryon and maybe Tsenit as immediate heirs. (Oh yes, there’s a sister – didn’t I mention her before? She’s sad, and probably mad, and that’s about all we need to know about her. She is important, but why isn’t revealed until the very end, and it really is a spoiler.) But the suspense as to who’s the evil one doesn’t stretch out much further. Everyone’s a bit freaked as Ansaryon reveals that he is indeed a mage (it’s illegal in Zithirian for anyone save the priesthood), but he uses his magic to save their lives and guide them to the secret city of Sar D’yenyi that guards the mountain mines from which Zithirian draws its money. He keeps it together just long enough to reach the city and tell his cousin to avenge him and the rest of his family, before keeling over. At which point it’s pretty clear that he’s a goody.

Fortunately, he doesn’t die (this is still fairly early on in the book, so is hopefully not too much of a giveaway). It turns out it’s not just getting stabbed up by the Ska’i that’s ailing him. One of the more interesting things about this book is that to do magic you need to take the drug Annatal. But once you take it you’re addicted and you’ll die if you stop. (Yes, yes, the drug/magic link that that Buffy storyline made tiresome, but Belle honestly doesn’t harp on that aspect.) Ansaryon left Zithirian with a horse, a sword, and not a lot else. He’s in withdrawal. Fortunately, Halthris has a rare natural ability to thought-link, which she has only used to communicate with her hunting cat prior to this point, but whilst sitting vigil over Ansaryon, he is able to reach out to her via this link, and she keeps him alive. He becomes the only known person to survive Annatal withdrawal, and, miraculously, keeps his powers.

Having recovered, Ansaryon reveals his powers to the shocked populace of Sar Dyenyi, but they grudgingly accept him as ruler over the usurper Tsenit, especially after he uses that power to repel an attack by the Ska’i on the mountain fortress itself. He then sets off on a trip to garner support from the local kingdoms and the Empire of Toktel’yi. Halthris goes with him, leaving his cousin Kefiri behind to man the fort and stay safe as the last heir to the throne if Ansaryon dies.

Naturally, Kefiri, being 17 and foolish, doesn’t like being told to stay put, and she sneaks away to try and help build a resistance in the city of Zithirian, which, fortunately for her, a woman named Kaydi was already doing. This gives the opportunity to reveal the last (and in some ways most important) significant character of the book: Bron. Bron is a small waif of a child who first appears to Kaydi’s son, Herris, in Zithirian. Then to Kefiri and Halthris in Sar Dyenyi, apparently as a refugee… then shortly afterwards in one of the kindgoms Ansaryon goes to for help, at about the same time that Kefiri is meeting him again in Zithirian; and lastly in Toktel’yi, in the heart of the emporer’s palace, a place he couldn’t possibly have been. How can he be in so many places at once?

There’s a darkness that surrounds Bron, a darkness that stinks of socery. Yet he’s also just a little boy, apparently terrified of his ‘grandmother’. In some ways, The Silver City is more about the mystery that is Bron than it is about the political intrigue of Zithirian and the menace of the Ska’i. Which is probably a good thing, as he’s a much more interesting character than the generic menace of the Ska’i whose motivation seems solely founded on greed and their worship of the death god Ayak.

This is a book with plusses and minuses. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Wolf Within, its sequel, is a much better book, and in many ways The Silver City would work better as a prequel. I don’t think that’s just because I read the second book first, not realising it was part of a series. Although the focus of the action is on Halthris, wherever you go (both figuritively and literally) there’s Bron. If you wanted to regard it as an origin story, it’d make a very good one. A haunting one.

Naturally, I like this book because it has a lot of strong women – it’s like a balm to my soul. But what I really like about it is the gender balance. Yes, Halthris is a strong warrior woman, but there are plenty of strong men, as well. We also see a strong mother, in the form of Kaydi, and a strong woman who very definitely isn’t good, in the form of the High Priestess D’thliss. And then there’s Kefiri, who… pretty much performs the traditional role of the feisty princess that the Evil King seeks to subdue. I think we’re meant to see Kefiri’s role as important, too, but I can’t think of a single thing she does that actually helps the resistance. And that’s… OK. There should be crap women as well as crap men in a book that really reflects reality. There’re role models enough in Halthris and Kaydi.

Some of the characters are not as well-filled out as they could be. The Ska’i, D’thliss, and Tsenit, whilst they all have personalities and motivations, are fairly stock fantasy Evil. If you see the real baddies as Ayak and emperor-in-waiting Ba’alekkt, you can find some much more interesting hints, but they don’t really come into fruition until the second book.

This is a long book that could be shorter. Belle excels at creating vivid impressions of differing societies and their customs, but I did sometimes find myself looking ahead to where the next dialogue was. The action doesn’t really get going until after the Ska’i attack, and most of the really good shit happens in the last third. However: this is also a woman who can write passion, and who can craft a punch.

The love story between Halthris and Ansaryon is a slow build, sublimated to much of the other action. But that’s OK. It’s surprisingly realistic. It’s rare to read a book where the protagonists get together in a way that would amount to anything more than a one night stand in real life. But not only that, when they finally realise and reveal the full extent of their feelings for each other on a hot Toktelyan night, the tension between them is palpable and vibrantly real.

As for punch, well. I can’t give too much away, but it’s quite an ending. I knew what was going to happen, rereading it, but it still managed to sock me one good.

It’s not a perfect book, but you can get a second-hand copy for practically nothing. This is not a YA novel – it’s long, it’s not about teenagers, and it’s barely about love – but if you know a teenage girl who’s looking to move on from Anne McCaffrey to some role models with real bite, you wouldn’t go far wrong with this. And for adults, too, if you like a fantasy novel that does something a little different, then I think, despite the cookie-cutter bad guys, this could be one for you.

If, on the other hand, I’ve put you off with the negative side, let me say this: the sequel to this book is one of my all time favourites. I don’t feel I suffered much by starting there, but I don’t think you’ll suffer by starting at the beginning either. I promise to review The Wolf Within soon, but in the meantime, spend a penny (plus P&P) on The Silver City – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.