Hilari Bell,
Farsala #3: Forging the Sword
(Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Sword and sorcery fans beware: Hilari Bell's ambitious young-adult fantasy trilogy doesn't contain any of the flashy magic, slick heroism or over-the-top villainy usually associated with the genre. Ignore the cover art. The Farsala Trilogy has no shortage of swords or sorcery, but neither proves capable of singlehandedly solving problems in a world in which there are no moral certainties. This is epic fantasy on a human level.

Although there are parallels between Farsala and ancient Persia and the Hrum and Roman empires, no historical knowledge is necessary: Bell's troubled world stands well on its own. Forging the Sword, the final installment of the trilogy, opens where Rise of a Hero ended. Eight months have passed since the cataclysmic Hrum invasion decimated Farsala's ruling class. Just four months remain until the all-important anniversary at which, if the Farsalan resistance cannot be subdued, the Hrum will acknowledge Farsala as an independent ally instead of a captured territory. Time is running out for both sides. The outcome rests partly on the besieged city of Mazad, troubled by constant Hrum assault and internal treachery, and partly on the external peasant resistance led by the mythical hero Sorahb.

But Sorahb is nothing more -- or less -- than the combined, desperate efforts of several young Farsalans: Jiaan, bastard son of a fallen deghan lord, his noble half-sister Soraya, and former blacksmith apprentice and current guerilla tactician Kavi. All three protagonists have grown up considerably since the first book, but still face more trials: Jiaan, commander of the ragged peasant army, struggles with the responsibility he bears for himself and his men, not only in defeat, but also, unexpectedly, in victory. Soraya, having survived being a Hrum slave, reluctantly resumes her identity as a noble deghass -- in order to spy on Mazad's corrupt Farsalan governor. And Kavi must develop the magical affinity for metalwork he thought was destroyed through a deghan's careless cruelty. If he can discover the secret of the strong, flexible watersteel used by the Hrum army, the Farsalans might just have a chance in battle against them. The efforts of the three protagonists are complicated by the fact that both Jiaan and Soraya, regardless of their personal differences, have good reason to want Kavi dead.

More growing up ensues. All three characters face hard questions -- the most prominent of which is, are the Hrum really worse for Farsala than the overbearing deghans were? Despite the occasional presence of magic, this is a determinedly unglamourous, grittily real world of moral ambiguities. The inclusion of the legend of Sorahb, written far after the events of the trilogy, comments ironically on the distance between heroic myth and reality. But not all is doom and gloom: wry humor and snappy dialogue make the pages fly by.

Obviously, this is not a good place to start reading the trilogy; the conflicted relationships between the three main characters evolve over the series, and by this last book, peripheral characters and plot lines abound. With the exceptions of the Hrum officer Patrius and Kavi's mule Duckie, minor characters remain somewhat undeveloped, but everyone acts through understandable, if not always excusable, motives. Inevitably, high drama is somewhat compromised by such moral evenhandedness, but plenty of effective action scenes remain.

Don't expect any definite answers to the difficult questions this book and its predecessors raise: the compromises and ironies they offer instead are surprisingly satisfying.

by Jennifer Mo
31 March 2007

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