Lynn Flewelling,
Luck in the Shadows
(Bantam Spectra, 1996)

Stalking Darkness
(Bantam Spectra, 1997)

Alec of Kerry is desperate. The young hunter and trapper is orphaned in his 16th year when a wasting disease claims his father's life, and then on a trapping expedition into the lands of Lord Asengai he is arrested as a spy and tortured until his rescue by Rolan Silverleaf, an unimpressive fellow of surprising abilities. As the pair make their way across the Barrens, an almost featureless region Alec knows well from his travels, to the town of Wolde, Alex learns that Rolan Silverleaf is really Seregil of Rhiminee, a talented prestidigitator and thief who is secretive, knowledgeable and very urbane. For reasons Alec doesn't quite understand, he agrees to become Seregil's apprentice.

And so begins Lynn Flewelling's story of the Nightrunners. Seregil is an Aurënfaie, one of the almost legendary, long-lived magicians who reside across the Osiat Sea and the mountains from Rhiminee, the capital of Skala, where Seregil now lives. He is related to the Queen of Skala (at least closely enough to offer entrée to the upper classes) and leads a double -- or perhaps triple -- life as Lord Seregil of Rhiminee, high profile bon vivant; the Rhiminee Cat, a notorious burglar; and one of the Watchers, a secret group headed by the wizard Nysander. The Watchers are, in all relevant aspects, spies and sometimes agents provocateurs, waiting for a final confrontation between themselves and the minions of Seriamaius, the Empty God of Plenimar, Skala's historic rival.

Flewelling's universe building is idiosyncratic enough to be interesting in its own right. While she quite unashamedly bases her world on the sort of timeless maybe-early-medieval-with-necessary-anachronisms universe that is more or less standard in the genre, there are enough wrinkles to establish a separate identity for the world of Skala, Plenimar, Mycena and Aurënan. She does have a gift for bringing settings to life, from the wilds of the northern forests, where Alec and Seregil meet, to the glittering city of Rhiminee, with its shallow, corrupt nobility and seamy docksides.

Her handling of character is adroit in terms of her ability to draw real people and allow them to grow within the story. Seregil is secretive about his past, and upon meeting Alex gradually finds himself emotionally entangled as their relationship becomes closer and closer, which allows us, if no one else, to see his vulnerabilities as well as his strengths. Alec, very young and more than a little clueless about matters of the heart, finds his affection and respect for his teacher and friend growing into feelings he can't quite name. There are, of course, the requisite missed signals and misdirected honor, but the final resolution of their feelings toward one another is both welcome and true to character.

We see this as well in secondary characters, such as Beka Cavish, daughter of Seregil's old friend and fellow Watcher, Micum. Beka yearns for a career in the army, and through Seregil's influence, she gains a commission in the Queen's Horse Guard, an elite troop. In Luck in the Shadows, we see her as a recruit and newly commissioned officer, willing to fight but aware of the consequences. In Stalking Darkness, she grows from a brave though green lieutenant to a canny and resourceful commander, wreaking havoc behind enemy lines, with a human dimension that earns the enthusiastic loyalty of her troops and the respect of her superiors -- and the reader.

Flewelling is less successful at portraying the bad guys. Duke Mardus of Plenimar, committed to his quest for power, is believable, if somewhat overdrawn. The necromancer Vargûl Ashnazai, his henchman, is too close to enjoying evil for its own sake, which seems to be stock in trade among fantasy novels and cartoon shows, but not real life. It sometimes seems as though authors think readers cannot deal with an evil character who is not somehow perverted.

On the whole, however, the first two books of the Nightrunner series are certainly worth the time. Under the overarching stories of Nysander and the Watchers in their surreptitious war against Duke Mardus and his minions, as well as of Seregil and Alec's growing bond, there are enough subplots and intrigues to hold our interest. The character development, particularly Seregil's, is absorbing on its own, and Flewelling even handles dream sequences well, which is all too rare. This is a solid offering and an enjoyable read.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 4 December 2004

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