Review of Darkening Skies – Book 2 of The Hadrumal Crisis by Juliet E. McKenna

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So we were on our way to Fantasycon 2014 and as we were arriving a day early, which book would I take with me to tuck into, before all those new offerings tempted us once more to wallow in our book addiction? It was a no-brainer – a collapsing TBR pile uncovered this offering I’d intended to read during the Christmas break…

In Halferan, Captain Corrain is hailed as a hero, but he knows all praise would turn to anger if the Calalhrians knew the truth. The darkeningskieswizard who supposedly saved them has merely claimed the corsair island for his own, and no one knows what his next move will be. Corrain has good reason to fear the worst, as he confides in Lady Zurenne. He knows he can trust her, now that still more perilous secrets bind them together. But what will the Archmage do now, once he discovers Corrain’s part in the mess? And what of his claim as Baron Corrain to secure Halferan? Will the Parliament ratify his title – or will the widowed Zurenne find her family and holding once more at the mercy of greedy neighbours?

That is, more or less, the blurb on the back of the book. While it is the second book in this series, it could also be described as the fourteenth book as all her books are sited in the same wonderfully complex, vibrant world – see my review of Dangerous Waters here. Again, we have a variety of viewpoints – Lady Zurenne, Captain Corrain and the mage Jileth feature heavily – while poor desperate Hosh, left behind to the mercy of the corsairs while his comrades managed to escape, particularly tugged at my heartstrings.

As ever, McKenna’s clever, nuanced writing drew me in and wouldn’t let go until the tale was over. She wasn’t on the Worldbuilding panels at Fantasycon 2014 (see my writeup here) but she easily could have been, given her books are a masterclass in how to denote the political and social norms in differing societies without holding up the action or boring the reader. It’s a far trickier feat to pull off than McKenna makes it look…

I particularly like her magic system. There is a price to pay for having such power, which will regularly kill the unwary or untrained magic-user, and the ability is far more widespread in the general population than is officially recognised. However, when the likes of the Aldabreshi brutally murder anyone showing the smallest sign of magical talent, it won’t be a surprise to learn that those with magical ability tend to completely supress that aspect of their personality. Even the magical community of Hadrumal are at pains to keep any scrying into Aldabreshi affairs secret for fear of retribution – for all their power, mages can still be torn apart by a mob…

It was a treat to watch Corrain continue to mature and adapt in the light of his experiences. His tendency to act first and think later has cost him dearly in the series so far – and it was enjoyable and interesting to see him develop. Whereas Jileth paid a high price for her intervention during the first book – and is still counting the cost at the start of this volume. As ever, mage politics features heavily in the story – and I enjoyed the twists McKenna introduced that kept me engrossed. If you are a Robin Hobb fan and enjoy intelligent, well-crafted fantasy that doesn’t revert to elves and goblins, then track down McKenna’s writing – each series is standalone – I’m betting you won’t be able to resist a return visit…
9/10

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