Though it took me a few chapters to warm up to her sometimes quirky writing style, Australian fantasist Jane Routley's first novel under the Rebecca Locksley pseudonym is a remarkable and often startlingly grim tale that turns the very notion of romantic fantasy inside out. The plot is in some ways a pastiche upon Homer's Iliad, and is set into motion with the abduction of Elena Starchild, a noblewoman of the magical and quasi-mythical Tari race.
The island of Yarmar belongs to an archipelago in the process of being overrun by the imperialist Mirayans. Many years before the novel opens, the Tari cut off all relations with the non-magical Seagani when the Seagani betrayed three Tari mages to a demonlord during a fierce war. The demonlord was eventually destroyed, and in the aftermath, the Seagani city of Olbia was also destroyed by a wrathful Tari magewoman. But the Tari cannot take life casually, as they are so attuned to the life spirit that permeates all things that when a Tari does kill someone, they empathically experience that person's death agonies for themselves. This is precisely what happened to the Tari magewoman who destroyed Olbia; one by one, she experienced the deaths of every living thing in the city. And though she did not survive the experience, her unborn daughters — three of them, Elena, Yani, and Marigoth — were saved. And while the rest of the Tari ensconced themselves in their mystical homeland of Ermora, the sisters' grandmother spirited them away from Yarmar altogether, for a disturbing Tari prophecy could spell danger for the girls.
As you can see, The Three Sisters has a backstory as involved as any VLFN fan could hope for. Where Locksley rises above the pack, however, is in the way she makes her myths matter. She imbues what in the hands of a mediocre writer would have been boilerplate fantasy formula with real emotional and intellectual weight. She makes you care about this stuff, which is half the battle won in this genre.
Years pass and the sisters are now grown, except for Marigoth, who, for various issues of her own, has chosen to stunt her own growth at the tween age. Yani has entered into the service of a queen whose bodyguards are all warrior women, but Yani, conscious of the price Tari pay for taking a life, enjoys swordcraft merely as an art. And Elena, the most beautiful of the three, said indeed to possess a magical "fatal beauty" that causes men to get into (or start) all kinds of trouble, lives once again on Yarmar where she has happily married a prince of the nomadic Mori. But when the rampaging Mirayans invade Mori land, killing Elena's husband and absconding with her, Yani and Marigoth return to Yarmar to do what they can to rescue her. Little do they know the extent of the chaos that is to follow.
The crossover between fantasy and romance has proceeded apace in recent years; a new fantasy imprint has even been launched by the publisher of Harlequin Romance, of all things. But The Three Sisters is nothing like those books. It is practically an antiromance. This is a book set in a cruel and unforgiving world where the promise of happily ever afters has long since been trampled under foot. Part of Marigoth's refusal to grow up is simply due to the fear and distaste at having to deal with the horrors of adult existence. But much of the story's cynicism is offset by the inspired conceit of making the protagonist a warrior who cannot kill. While even the best fantasy epics think nothing of throwing readers into colossal battle scenes where tens of thousands die, Locksley keeps the notion that all life has value at the book's thematic core.
When Yani and Marigoth arrive at the rebuilt seacost city of Olbia, now under the rule of the Mirayan Prince Scarvan and his henchman Duke Wolf Madraga, Yani (traveling as a man) chooses to participate in a tournament to win Elena's freedom. But their presence has such an effect on the native Seagani people — who have conflicting feelings of resentment and remorse about the rift between themselves and the Tari — that a full scale revolt is triggered, and Yani and Marigoth find themselves suddenly in the midst of an all-out war, with Elena in even more trouble than she was in before.
Like the best writers, Locksley isn't afraid to hurt the ones you love. Things go from bad to worse to utter shit for our heroines. Smart character development and multiple plot threads give the story richness and depth. Scarvan and Madraga have fallen out over Elena, both men desiring her. And what's worse, not only are the remaining Tari holed up in Ermora unwilling to rescue Elena, the most influential among them are actually working behind the scenes to ensure she ends up in Madraga's clutches, for the fulfillment of the aforementioned prophecy. In the midst of an unspeakable ordeal, Elena emerges as a character of phenomenal heroism. She makes sacrifices that are truly awe-inspiring, and Locksley's skill at giving her readers a real stake in the story is impressive.
The book is far from perfect. (Though its most glaring problems aren't Locksley's fault at all. Eos needs to hire a competent copy editor, like, yesterday!) The pacing can go from languid to breakneck and back with whiplash-inducing abruptness. One key scene drags inexcusably. At one point Yani and Marigoth, at a loss as to what to do next, travel to Ermora for the first time in their lives to implore the Tari for help. I liked how Locksley depicts Ermora as a kind of anti-Rivendell, where years of isolation have turned this once proud and altruistic ruling race into a decadent, soft bunch of losers who lie around in the grass all day and care about nothing. (Indeed, some are even drug addicts, indulging in the dream-inducing nectar of a rare flower.) On the downside, this scene, positioned at a crucial juncture in the story, somehow brings the book's momentum to a crashing halt. What should have been a lynchpin scene in the development of the narrative is dramatically inert. But Locksley regains control in time to bring the book to a bravura climax.
With The Three Sisters, I can safely say that Rebecca Locksley/Jane Routley is someone to place on your list of writers to watch. She does have rough edges as a writer, but interestingly, those rough edges are precisely what make The Three Sisters a little diamond in the rough.