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Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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[Mild spoilers.]

Harlequin Books set up the romance/fantasy crossover imprint Luna to give romance writers an opportunity to find a new audience among fantasy mavens, and — obviously — to cash in on a growing crossover market. Susan Krinard has published several para-romances, largely, I understand, to do with werewolves, whose carnivorous flesh-rending habits I must admit I never before thought of as terribly romantic. But hey, different strokes and all that. One person's horror is another's kink. This is the 21st century, after all. One must be tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Maybe there will be a Wolfpack Mountain in Krinard's future writing plans.

Shield of the Sky is an alternate-historical fantasy adventure that, like many of Luna's releases, is a qualitative mixed bag. Krinard's prose is both meticulously crafted and yet eminently readable, without much of the pomposity of verbiage one usually sees from writers essaying epic fantasy for the first time. I really, really admired the first half, a character-driven saga about three unlikely companions undertaking a quest to save their lands and their gods from encroachment by evil. Their journeys are as inwardly personal as outwardly visceral, as they each find their perceptions of the world and preconceptions of others challenged in strong ways. The second half, regrettably, descends into a bottomless well of clichés from which even good action scenes can hardly rescue it.

The setting corresponds to the years following the death of Alexander. Our heroine is Rhenna of the Free People, a race of women warriors patterned after the Amazons. The Free People propagate themselves by choosing certain women to mate with the Ailuri, a race of man-to-panther shapechangers living in the titular mountain range that protects their valley. Rhenna has been a pariah among her people for defying law and tradition and venturing into the mountains despite not being one of the Chosen. Now, years later, the Ailuri are disappearing, and the mountain spirits — devas — that protect the Free People from attack have either deserted or been destroyed. Raiding parties of barbarians have massacred outlying towns. Though very few think that these acts are retribution for Rhenna's sins, she is sent into the mountains to see if any of the Ailuri are still around, and return with them if so. Seeing this as a way to atone for her past, the still-embittered Rhenna sets off.

Along the way she meets Tahvo, a shaman and healer from a Scandinavian tribe farther north, who has left her lands to investigate visions of doom she's been having. The two women eventually rescue Cian, the last remaining Ailu, and discover that the rest of his race has been captured by followers of the Stone God, from an aggressive and rapidly growing empire to the south led by a ruthless and fanatical monotheistic faith. This god's powers are contained in glowing red gems carried by (and sometimes embedded in the flesh of) its followers, and they are so great that literally all the devas and nature spirits that have watched over the lands from time immemorial are falling like ninepins in its path. Tahvo, who can feel the spirit connection to the land most strongly, is devastated by the revelation. Cian, as a spirit being himself, finds he is all too easily controlled by the presense of the stones.

This part of the book is terrific. It starts slowly, but the time is spent in careful and sensitive character development. At first it's a little hard mentally to separate Rhenna from previously received images of women warriors from popular culture. But it doesn't take long for her persona to get fleshed out. Like Rhenna, Cian is a rebel among his own people. There is tension between Rhenna and Cian at first that, rather than being presented as a checklist romance trope, is given a believable narrative context. The mating instinct between the Free People and the Ailuri runs deep. Tahvo, meanwhile, serves as the foil between the other two, tempering their impulses toward and against each other by always reminding them of the peril the land and its spirits are in.

Their travels lead them south, first to Athens, then Karchedon (Carthage), bustling capital of the Stone God's empire. And this is where the freshness on display in Krinard's story up to this point deserts her utterly, to be replaced by hackneyed storytelling in which every overdone epic fantasy chestnut is dug up and re-roasted for the ten thousandth time. Sure, there's good action, and the tale never loses your interest. But it all just becomes the latest "been there, done that, ate the Happy Meal" experience for readers.

The Stone God turns out to be your basic dark lord dressed out in a different cape. Earlier scenes had given me hope Krinard would use the concept as a way of thematically exploring how indigenous traditions of native peoples have historically been bulldozed by the militant expansionism of the church. Oh well, not to be. Ol' Stony has its high priest, Baalshillek, who's as hissable as you'd expect anyone to be whose name has three l's, two a's, and ends in a k. And its evil rule is resisted by a stalwart underground band of rebels, helpfully supported in secret by the emperor's chief consort. We meet some prominent new characters, most notably the impetuous young fighter Quintus, and his mentor, Philokrates, who mostly exists to impart dire prophecies and dispense the kind of sage wisdom you get from bearded old men in robes.

Both of these characters get good development, particularly Quintus, who has the power to dampen the magic of the red gems. But we then learn some "secret past" stuff about both men that tips us right back into cliché again, and the disappointment grows. By the time we're moving towards the inevitable quest to locate several magical weapons lost through the ages which are the only means to vanquish the Stone God — well, hell, is there any reason to go on? Let's just slap a Dungeons & Dragons logo on the cover and go home.

This book encapsulates most of what has disappointed me about the Luna line so far. I admit I've only sampled a small portion of their catalog. But as far as I can tell, their editors don't seem to be encouraging much in the way of originality from their authors. They'd rather recycle well-worn, bankable formulas. Considering this was the very brief Harlequin gave editor Roger Elwood back in the 70's when they launched their short-lived and widely mocked Laser Books SF line, we shouldn't be surprised. From epic fantasy dot-following, to "women-who-run-with-the-wolves" wish fulfillment, to urban paranormal attitude — if it's been done before, you can bet Luna will line up to do it again.

Harlequin doubtless assumed that the fantasy readership would be as undemanding as the readers of their disposable series romances. But such creative bankruptcy wasn't as easy to get by on as they thought. Originally planned as a trilogy, Luna suspended this saga after two volumes, mostly to concentrate on where the money really is: urban fantasy. A shame, because without the editorial shackling Krinard had to work under here, this could have been a noteworthy epic indeed. The lush settings, historical authenticity, humanity and depth of the first half of Shield of the Sky more than demonstrated Krinard was capable of aiming higher. Instead, Rhenna's tale ends up among fantasy's long list of could-have-beens.

Followed by Hammer of the Earth.