Lorna Freeman,
(Roc, 2004)

Covenants is a fascinating, stellar fantasy novel that will have many readers scrambling to find all of Lorna Freeman's previous novels -- but there are none. The book reads as if it is the work of a master craftsman in the genre, but Covenants is in fact the author's first published work. This novel is so engaging that I actually read it twice.

The action takes place in a world divided into two kingdoms, one human and the other Faena. The Border kingdom is made up of "magical" creatures of all shapes and sizes -- dragons, fairies, sprites, elves and so on. They once called the land of Iversterre home, and they trounced the human army of Iversterre once before in the not-too-distant past. Mysterious forces at work threaten to bring war to the land once again.

Rabbit is a regular soldier in the Royal Army of Iversterre, a self-described farmer's son who left the Border in order to see the world; when we meet him, he and his entire troop are lost, right on the outskirts of their base in Freston. Up in the hills, Rabbit encounters a Fae cat named Laurel, and a meal covenant between the two sets the stage for a grand adventure that takes the reader to the heart of the royal palace in Iversterre and then all the way to Elanwryfindyll, a coastal city deep within the Border kingdom itself. Laurel has come from the Borderlands on a mission of peace, and Rabbit soon finds himself playing a crucial role in preventing another war between Iversterre and the land of his birth. A number of secrets are revealed as Rabbit and his fellow troopers accompany Laurel to Iversterre, including the fact that Rabbit is actually a cousin to King Jusson of Iversterre and family to many of the leading members of the human aristocracy. Rabbit holds an even deeper secret than that, though -- one that has everything to do with why he left the Border kingdom in the first place.

War appears to be imminent; raiders have plundered the Borderland, killing significant numbers of its sacred residents and turning them into staffs, furniture, armor and the like. It turns out that significant conspiracies -- against both King Jusson of Iversterre and the High Council of the Borderlands -- are afoot. The novel takes a number of twists and turns, staying ever fresh, exciting, and unpredictable. Even Rabbit's commanding officers are much more than they seem. The whole novel is in fact filled with all manner of fascinating characters, human as well as "magical," and the complexity of the interpersonal and professional relationships keeps this story zooming along in a highly addictive manner.

Things can be confusing a bit early on, especially when Rabbit begins seeing men in their translated (magical) form, but all is made clear when the reader learns just who and what Rabbit actually is. For his part, Rabbit is a remarkably normal, likeable character who wants nothing more than to be an anonymous soldier but is compelled to become a hero by the remarkable circumstances of his heritage.

Covenants easily secures a spot on my list of "must read" fantasy novels. Freeman has written a fast-paced, highly entertaining, refreshingly original story that proceeds at a fast pace, introduces us to dozens of unforgettable characters (not to mention spirits), and takes us to a world brimming with fantastical possibilities and intrigues. There is also a lot of humor to be found in these pages. The plot itself is rather complex, but Freeman's writing is so polished and well-nigh perfect that few readers should have any problems keeping up.

The story is told in the first person, from Rabbit's viewpoint, so the reader feels as if he is right there each and every step (and surprise) of the way. It takes a special kind of writer to make a first-person fantasy novel work, and Lorna Freeman shows herself to be more than up to the challenge. Covenants is an extraordinary debut by a rising star in the fantasy genre.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 26 February 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.