Jane Yolen,
The One-Armed Queen
(Tor, 1998)

In the newest Chronicle of Great Alta in nearly ten years, Jane Yolen once again elevates high fantasy above the average in The One-Armed Queen.

The central character is Scillia, White Jenna's daughter adopted as a baby when her own mother is slain on the battlefield. Scillia, thirteen at the beginning of the novel, is strong willed, stubborn, and ambivalent about being the heir to the throne as well as the daughter of her country's national hero. She chafes at her brother Jemson's taunting about being adopted, and is desolate when she finds out the truth about her birth mother.

Jemson, in turn, is to go to Garun-over-the-sea, The Dales' former enemy, in an exchange of princes who will serve as hostages for peace. Instead, he is trained as a pawn in a long range Garunian plot to recapture the Dales. When he returns, he becomes a willing participant in the treasonous plot.

Circumstances thrust Scillia into the role of Queen far sooner than she anticipated, and she struggles to overcome self doubt and rally her people to fight the Garunian invasion.

It has been said that heroes should never grow old, and woven into the story is White Jenna's struggle with her own aging, with being a warrior Queen in a time of peace and prosperity. She also struggles with the delicate dance of motherhood, when to clasp her children to her in protection and when to let go. As ever, her dark sister, Skada, emerges from the shadows to provide blunt counsel and balance.

The narrative is what raises The One-Armed Queen above the typical high fantasy plot. As in the previous novels Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna, Yolen breaks the chapters into sections with headings: the Story; the History; the Ballad; the Legend; the Myth; the Song. Each provides a different take on the same story.

The bulk of the narrative is told in the Story sections. The History is set in contemporary times and consists of correspondences detailing scholarly rivalry over the "truth" of what actually occurred, as well as sections of fictitious writings about the Dales. Legends, myths, ballads, and songs parallel the story yet take on their own life -- just as they do in other cultures.

The result of this device is a much more complex, thought provoking and textured novel, allowing the reader to view the story as if through a prism. It also allows the book to stand alone well; while knowledge of the previous books would certainly enhance the reading experience, Yolen conveys the essential information without resorting to straightforward recap or tedious exposition through dialogue.

Furthermore, the story never bogs down. The desire to find out what happens next pulls the reader from section to section, yet each interlude in the story amplifies, rather than distracts or interrupts the plot. The characters are also complex and lively; Yolen is not afraid to give them failings and frailties.

The ballads, written by Yolen and scored by her son, Adam Stemple, are an additional treat, as the music is included in the back.

While the end of the story seems to indicate that this is the last of the Chronicles of Great Alta, there can be no doubt that Jane Yolen has many more stories to tell.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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