01/02/2012. Contributed by Jennifer Howell
pub: TOR/Forge. 383 page hardback. Price: $25.95 (US), $35.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-76530-746-0.
check out website: www.tor-forge.com
After 2004's 'A Daughter Of Exile', Isobel Glass's follow-up, ‘The Divided Crown’ isn't quite the fluffy and inconsequential fantasy it could have been, even if that does sound like damning with faint praise. Like its predecessor, it still doesn't even nearly live up to the utterly gorgeous cover art by KY Craft on the hardback edition that's intentionally reminiscent of Patricia McKillip or indeed the cover quote from McKillip herself, which is something of a shame. It's still not really mythic or remotely haunting, but it does manage more of a story than the first book. The main characters, Angarred and Mathewar, have actually been allowed to age and grow a little older, with fourteen years passing between the two instalments (because fantasy protagonists don't often get to be actual grown-ups, with actual lives) so that makes a nice change.
In terms of story, it starts off simple and gets slightly more complicated than might be absolutely necessary. After years living at the isolated college of magic and raising their children, Angarred and Mathewar have to return to the capital for a mysterious ceremony as requested by the supremely annoying boy-king Jerret. What should be a short trip back to civilisation swiftly gets more complicated as great swathes of the palace servants appear to be a little, well...zombified. It can't just be a coincidence that a fairly obviously evil nobleman and his family seem to be holding sway over the impressionable Jerret – even after Jerret has apparently banished them from court. If you can see where this is headed (Angarred and Mathewar have to stop the evil nobleman from taking over the kingdom via magical zombies), you wouldn't be far off the mark. To its credit, it does get a little darker and more grim than the first book, but considering the amount of sheer slaughter (and, indeed, zombies) that fill a lot of the fantasy genre these days, it's difficult to do anything really memorable.
It's not that there isn't absolutely a place for this kind of slightly simplistic fantasy in the market, it's more that it needed something more unique than it actually has to warrant that place. And it just...doesn't! The writing, while perfectly fine, has an over-simplified tone that perhaps belongs in unambitious YA rather than something being aimed at the adult market, there's little room for ambiguity or reading between the lines when the situation is being spelled out that clearly. It really doesn't quite work when the situation is blindingly obvious to the reader and yet somehow not to the supposedly intelligent main characters, which does unfortunately happen on occasion.
Having said all that, a little digging reveals why this and 'Daughter Of Exile' have both just appeared in e-book format under the author's real name, Lisa Goldstein – that would be the Lisa Goldstein with a fairly long and illustrious backlist and previously nominated for the Hugo, Nebular and World Fantasy Awards. As it turns out from a more recently penned forward to the e-books here: www.brazenhussies.net/goldstein/ig_introduction.html
She wasn't thrilled with the books being marketed as 'romantic fantasy' or that using a pen-name actually prevented her from doing any publicity herself to explain why exactly they didn't belong to that particular bit of the genre. All of which puts things in a slightly different light. All the tribulations and the fact that Goldstein seems genuinely to regret the terms under which the books were released, seems to warrant a little leniency perhaps. It's a perfectly undemanding, fairly readable book, if you just want something light. But 'The Divided Crown' especially is not romantic fantasy as such. Just as the writing is too plain to be properly mythic and the page count and scope too slight to fit into the norm of high fantasy and outside of those categories and their target audiences, it simply doesn't offer much to catch the eye apart from that really quite lovely cover art.
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