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Review © 2002 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Jerry Vanderstelt.


In her first novel, Dawn Cook creates a pleasant and unpretentious story whose appeal lies primarily in good attention to character, moreso than in its plot, which has its share of story holes and implausibilites. Alissa Meson is a teenage farmer's daughter growing up in a land where prejudice runs deep amongst the peoples of various regions (plains, foothills, etc.). Alissa's mixed blood makes her particularly unpopular. Though Alissa, like most people, doesn't believe in magic, her long-gone father believed she is a Keeper, destined to learn magic from the Masters at the faraway Hold. And as First Truth opens we see Alissa literally being thrown out of the house by her mother, having reached the age where she must journey westward to the Hold to fulfill this goal.

On her way she meets Strell Hirdune, a young musician who has been travelling for years, and just returned home only to learn that his family was tragically killed in a flash flood not long after he left. Guilt-ridden and embittered, he decides to head back west to start his life anew...and when he first meets Alissa (quite by accident; she's sprained her ankle slipping down a ravine) the two of them don't get along at all. But as they travel together, a bond naturally grows...particularly once Alissa begins suffering from fainting spells that are immediately followed by her body being possessed by an obviously very powerful Master from the Hold (whom they call Useless) warning them to stay far away.

We learn that Alissa's father was long ago given possession of the most important book of magic the Masters own, the First Truth, for safekeeping. Safekeeping from what exactly Cook doesn't make clear, nor the reasons why the Masters felt this book would be safer hidden in the well of some distant farmhouse than in their own fortress where it could be shielded by magical wards. But we soon learn the Masters are none too bright. It transpires that a corrupt Keeper named Bailic wants the First Truth for himself. And towards this end he has — get this — tricked every single Master (but for Useless) into leaving the Hold on a wild goose chase for some mythic lost colony, a journey on which all of them die! Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but if the Masters are this stupid they deserve to lose their #$!!*@ book.

Having tossed a good chunk of her plot's credibility to the four winds early on, Cook's story is left to coast on the appeal of its characters. Fortunately, Alissa and Strell have some. It would have been all too easy to make their dialogue cutesy-poo and cloying, with a heavy-handed, obvious approach to the old will-they-or-won't-they formula. Cook impressively resists this. Alissa and Strell do their share of bickering, but for the most part they are a pair of believable not-quite-adults. Their growing trust and friendship is depicted convincingly as they are more or less thrust together into a hazardous situation that neither of them is terribly well-equipped to deal with, but they must all the same. And Cook is consistent in carrying her theme of racial prejudice as a subtext without lapsing into the sort of overt message-mongering that a first-time writer might fall prey to.

The second half of the story holds your attention very well, though it doesn't offer up too many surprises for experienced fantasy readers. And sure enough, the ending sets up a sequel. I think that Dawn Cook has a natural talent for writing pretty good if not exceptional fantasy, and as her plotting skills improve she has every bit as good a chance at establishing a fan following as any of the genre's prominent women writers. Followed by Hidden Truth.