Hilari Bell,
The Farsala Trilogy,
#2: Rise of a Hero

(Simon & Schuster, 2004)

In a field crowded with dark lords, orphans of unusual parentage, magical gizmos and the ever popular magic/deus-ex-machinas, Hilari Bell's thoughtful, smartly paced and well-characterized young adult SF/F novels are a breath of fresh air indeed. Disregard the cover; Rise of a Hero is far from your average hack-and-slash fantasy epic.

The middle book of the Farsala Trilogy, Rise of a Hero starts right where Fall of a Kingdom left off, in the aftermath of the Hrum invasion that killed or enslaved almost all the nobles ("deghans") of Farsala. Jiaan, a fallen deghan commander's bastard son, is now the leader of a small peasant army. Soraya, his noble half-sister, searches for her enslaved mother and brother with no tools at her disposal except her wits and a small amount of magic. And Kavi, the peasant whose hatred of the deghans led him to betray them to the Hrum, has changed sides: envisioning a Farsala freed from both deghans and Hrum, he now uses his position as a Hrum spy to Farsalan advantage, deviously undermining the Hrum and joining Jiaan in supporting the besieged city Mazad. If the city can withstand the Hrum for a year, the Hrum will make terms with Farsala. Though their methods differ, both Jiaan and Kavi act toward this goal under the name of Sorahb, a King Arthur-like hero who promised to rise again in a time of great Farsalan need. And so he has, in a way.

But their Sorahb is headed for trouble. Jiaan's army is woefully inexperienced and unprepared -- as is their commander. Kavi, not surprisingly, has trouble convincing his countrymen of his change of heart and is nearly hanged for his pains. Even worse, Jiaan, who admires the anonymous "Sorahb" who has been plaguing the Hrum, has sworn an oath to kill the man who betrayed his father and Farsala, ironically unaware that both are Kavi.

The tangible, if not excessively gritty, realness of the world and its conflicts denies any simple good vs. evil binary. At times, the three well-rounded and thoroughly convincing main characters are almost as much each others' antagonists as they are all the protagonists of the trilogy. Alternating viewpoints make Kavi's resentment of the deghans as understandable as Jiaan's anger toward Kavi. Even the Hrum are neither stupid nor sadistic, and like the deghans, peasants and everyone else, are considered on an individual basis.

Equally impressive is the way Bell redefines heroism: it doesn't lie in the ability to wave a sword around, but in Jiaan's concern that his men are going to injure themselves the first time they practice with bladed swords, in Kavi's desire to deter the Hrum without killing anyone and in the haughty Soraya's willingness to be a kitchen servant if it means finding out where her family is being kept. Though Rise of a Hero is set in an imagined world in which magic exists, it is one in which people, cooperation and compromise -- not magic -- make the real difference.

All this is very unusual, both in and outside of children's fantasy fiction, and though Rise of a Hero contains plenty of excitement, its real value lies in its characters, their conflicts and the thoughtfulness with which everything is depicted. Little is resolved in its nearly 500 pages, but it's hard to mind when there's so much interesting stuff going on. Rise of a Hero is an ambitious, tightly written and highly intelligent fantasy -- and best of all, it promises even more to come.

by Jennifer Mo
28 October 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.