Aurian is a highly entertaining story that, with a boundless sense of "sky's the limit" confidence, unapologetically runs the gamut from heroic high adventure to bodice-ripper (which is, I'm told, a very pejorative term amongst the romance set, but hey). It may well be the greatest guilty pleasure the fantasy genre has produced in the last decade. Don't think I'm belittling this book, people. Sure, it's about as arch and melodramatic a novel as you're likely to find without the Silhouette imprint on the cover. But Maggie Furey, in her debut, works it like a seasoned pro. Aurian is perhaps the ne plus ultra of the current trend towards fantasy-romance crossover. I enjoyed myself immensely the whole time, in the way one only can when confronted with entertainment so shameless in its sentiment and energetic in its appeal to your limbic system that your only two choices are to set the thing on fire or give in. I said "the hell with it" and gave in. Furey is, after all, a good writer. And this is the kind of book that, poorly written, would be simply risible but, well written, is fine popcorn entertainment.
What makes Aurian work as well as it does is that Furey writes the story with much self-awareness. There's always a knowing wink that accompanies a well-worn trope, and Furey also has impressive skill in making her characters real and sympathetic enough to rise above their stock roles (and to be honest, everyone in the book is a stock character). Women readers who follow romance may want to notch the rating upward. Men looking for the grittiness and seriousness of Martin or Kay or Turtledove should probably steer clear. I don't know if a steady diet of books like Aurian would be the best thing, but even the most health-conscious dieter caves in and has a little ice cream once in a while.
Our heroine is one of only a handful of Magefolk, living deep in the woods with her cold and distant mother. Into her life wanders the mortal swordsman Forral, who is determined to help raise the young girl out of respect for her father, a powerful mage who died in a spectacular, accidental (or was it?) cataclysm involving Fire-magic. The remaining Magefolk are held in both fear and barely concealed contempt by the mortal humans over whom they rule.
Forral wins over the often violent protests of Aurian's mother and helps to raise the girl into a strong-willed young woman; he also teaches her the art of swordsmanship, if only to distract her curious mind from the further study of the hazardous Fire-magic that claimed her father. (As you might have guessed by now, magecraft in Furey's world is divided along elemental lines.) But when a sparring accident comes close to killing Aurian, and Forral's only chance to save her is to ride to the city of Nexis and fetch the Healer from the Mage's Academy, Aurian's existence comes to the attention of the Archmage, Miathan.
To be brief, it goes like this: Miathan, a corrupt swine who naturally wants to rule the world, lusts after both Aurian's body and her power. But Aurian and Forral have become lovers, a grave no-no in the minds of the Magefolk (breeding with a inferior). When Miathan discovers — from his Healer, before even Aurian and Forral know — that Aurian is pregnant, he makes secret plans to abort the child. But these plans are overheard by Aurian's loyal servant, the boy Anvar (who, unbeknownst to himself, is Miathan's own half-breed son!). The fecal matter hits the fan in a big way, and Aurian and Anvar find themselves fleeing for their lives from a vengeful Miathan, who in his rage has unleashed powerful demons using one of the forbidden Artifacts of Power that were responsible for a great devastation ages ago.
I have to admit I loved the way Furey combined the tropes of both fantasy and romance so that the one effectively served to comment satirically upon the other. Where else would you find a villain threatening to destroy the whole world out of sexual frustration? Sex as a metaphor for power runs as a thematic strand throughout this whole novel, sometimes subtly, often brazenly. It's not a nuanced and mature handling of the topic, a la Jacqueline Carey, but it certainly reflects a savvy wit on Furey's part. Best of all is the scene where Aurian and Forral first consummate their love, in a sweaty coupling following a swordfighting match. The real sex scene is, of course, the swordfight itself, in which both lovers unleash their pent-up passions with much heavy breathing, sweat, mutual drawing of blood, and, of course, Aurian ending up the conqueror, raising her sword (phallic symbol) in salute to her vanquished opponent before leading him off to the bedchamber. It's actually pretty goddamn hot, and Furey certainly seems to have no qualms about going all out with this kind of thing when the story calls for it.
This subtext influences the supporting players, as well. When Miathan first captures Anvar, he recognizes (although the boy doesn't) Anvar's latent, half-breed magic powers, and prompty places a spell upon him inhibiting those powers — castrating him, if you will. And Anvar has a misbegotten love for a girl named Sara, a shallow and manipulative bimbo whom Furey uses in the most overt of ways to demonstrate the corrupting nature of playing the sex-is-power game. She's your standard issue soap opera hussy, I suppose, the token Heather Locklear character.
In the second half, Furey, having gotten ample mileage out of the story's sexual dynamics, settles things into a more traditional high-adventure mode without losing a bit of her epic's entertainment value. Furey tosses in everything but the kitchen sink: pirates, slave traders, high seas adventure, and even Aurian making like Xena times ten in a brutal gladiatorial arena. Granted, there is less subtext and thus less depth in the latter parts of the book, and this makes a few scenes seem a bit rich. The way Aurian survives being mauled in the arena by a fearsome beast strains credulity, as it is too easily comparable (and unfavorably so) to the earlier scene with Forral. But mostly, Furey keeps her story fast-paced and strongly focused on her characters. The developing friendship between Aurian and the hard-done-by Anvar is often touching. These are two people who are to the point where they have nothing left, but each gives the other reasons to keep fighting.
I have often heard books like Aurian dismissed on forums and newsgroups as "female wish fulfillment fantasy." But that's a bullshit, sexist criticism. What is Conan the Barbarian or John Carter of Mars if not male wish fulfillment fantasy? Fantasy as a genre is a wish fulfillment exercise. Why do we read stories of lowly underdogs taking up swords to vanquish dark lords, if not for the cathartic thrill of wish fulfillment in its most atavistic form? While there are fantasy novelists who impress by raising the literary standards of the genre, we should not, in our admiration of their work, lose sight of the genre's simpler, fairy tale, wish fulfillment roots. And Maggie Furey is an author who understands the magic in fulfilling a wish.