Review of The Golden Hills of Westria – Book 8 of the Westria novels by Diane L. Paxson

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I’ll be honest – a lot of high fantasy doesn’t do it for me. But I was intrigued by the premise that Westria is California many years in the future after some terrible disaster ripped through the land. This Cataclysm has forever altered the people and their relationship with their environment, as it awoke the spiritual entities guarding the land, forcing them to take a more active role in events.

Prince Phoenix was always a bit restless, never quite measuring up to the expectations of his heroic father, King Julian, who is goldenhillsofmagically attuned to the four powerful jewels of Westria. After being sent away in disgrace for his part in a stupid prank that went tragically wrong, Phoenix is snatched by a band of slavers.

Meantime there are increasingly troubling reports of a fanatical sect emerging, led by a charismatic leader, Mother Mahaliel. They are on the march, apparently seeking a place where they can settle and worship in peace.  Lux, childhood companion of Phoenix with a strong magical talent, is torn between the need to control her powers and her wish to be of some service to Westria during this time of increasing crisis. However, as events take a critical turn, Lux finds herself unexpectedly right in the middle of one of the greatest and most critical times in Westria’s history since the Cataclysm…

Told in third person multiple viewpoint, the story clips along at a good pace and I quickly became engrossed in the characters. For me, one of the abiding problems I tend to have with this story structure, is that there is generally one story arc I far prefer to the other sub-plots, so tend to skim through them to get to my favourite. However, Paxson’s deft handling of the different protagonists meant that wasn’t a particular issue, as her control of the narrative pace, and building of the action to the climax was skilfully executed.

Paxson’s previous Westria novel was published in 1992, so this book which was released in 2006, is very much revisiting a blast from the past. In her Afterword, Paxson mentioned that with the current upsurge of religious extremism, she felt it would be an interesting theme to examine within this particular world, and it certainly worked well. Despite the fact that this is the eighth novel in the series, it wasn’t a particular problem because of a jump in the timeline and while Paxson alludes to previous happenings from time to time, I didn’t find it particularly irksome or felt that my reading experience was compromised by not having read earlier books. Which makes a pleasant change, in these days when ‘The Story So Far’ prologues have fallen out of favour…

Fans of high fantasy won’t be rocked or wrong-footed by the themes running through this book. These include the struggle for moral certitude in a time of building crisis; the epic nature of the battle between good and evil – which in this case certainly starts as more nuanced than is usual in this genre; and the sense of fulfilling a destiny that initially overwhelms the character. In Phoenix’s case, he finds refuge in an interesting survival trait that Paxson uses in her heroic depiction of the spirituality that permeates the relationship between the land and its inhabitants.

Overall, I found this a well-executed, highly readable book with some original and pleasing touches that distinguish it as novel that not only entertains, but also provides food for thought.
8/10

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