Saturday 10 January 2015

The Ragnor Trilogy

The Ragnor Trilogy: Irina the Wolf Queen, Irina and the White Wolf,
Irina and the Lost Book by Leah Swann (XUOM Books)
PB RRP $14.99 each
ISBNs: 9781922057112; 9781922057082; 9781922057136 respectively
Reviewed by Anne Hamilton

This fantasy trilogy begins with the abduction of Irina, firstborn child of King Harmon and Queen Chloe of Ragnor. In revenge for a taunt, Chloe once carelessly inflicted on the executioner’s son, Vilmos, he artfully (pun intended!) gains access to the queen’s chamber by posing as a portrait painter. After stealing the baby, his plans quickly go awry when he encounters a savage wolf while fleeing pursuit.

Irina is taken by the wolf and, although she is believed to be dead, she is suckled by the vixen. Growing up with the wild pack, she learns the ways of wolves. One day a bear attacks the wolf cubs and her wolf-brother, Durrel, sacrifices himself to allow Irina to escape. She comes to live with a farmer and his wife, and so at last learns the ways of humans.

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring kingdom of Pavel, Vilmos is fostering war. He’s learned a few dark spells from a sorcerer and he’s insinuated himself into the good graces of King Niklas, best friend of King Harmon. Gradually he’s feeding Seely, King Niklas’ wolf-guardian, magic-dusted meat to muddle the animal’s instincts. The wolf is slowly coming under Vilmos’ sway and bringing the allegiance of the entire wolf-clan with him.

War is imminent and only one person can intervene to stop it—Irina. If she can break the hold Vilmos has over the wolves.

Although this is classed as ‘children’s fantasy’, the storytelling style is much closer to fairytale. It has the omniscient viewpoint, the rapid-fire hopping from one character’s thoughts to another, even the split-second scene changes that are more in keeping with old-fashioned fairy story narration than with the canons of the modern fantasy genre. ‘Point of view’ and ‘show don’t tell’ are not in evidence anywhere.

For all that, this is a steadfast and charming adventure, full of clear-cut black-and-white characters. There is no ambiguity about the villains or the heroes.

The writing becomes increasingly confident in the second book in the series (which had the misfortune to feature one of my least favourite spelling mistakes. I only point it out here because I am on a personal crusade: the electrical bolt that occurs during storms is ‘lightning’ not ‘lightening’.) That irritant aside, I found the storyline in Book II to have increasing focus. It was a delight to see the development of Andor, son of King Niklas.

While Irina has grown up in these books, by contrast Andor has matured.

As the book opens, Irina has spent nearly two years alone with the wolves she is trying to save. As a result of the enchantments they suffered while in the control of Vilmos, they have forgotten how to hunt, how to wrestle and play, and how to bond as a pack. The females are barren. It’s the end of the Wolves of Ragnor.

But then Irina meets Baruch and regains hope for her wolf-kin. If she can travel across the sea to the Valley of Carmine Cliffs and persuade the white wolf, Gunda, to come to Ragnor, then there is the potential for re-building the pack.

But something Irina doesn’t know is that there is a prophecy about a child of a holy woman riding a white beast, a child who will usher in the Age of Peace and defeat the vile magicks of the Venerated Dragon.

So of course there are those who will stop at nothing to ensure Irina does not meet her destiny. These include the increasingly dark-hearted villain, Vilmos, and his masters, the sorcerer Iniko and the monstrous Venerated Dragon.

This book effectively leaves the light, charming touches of the first behind. The black-and-white characters are murkier and more realistic. Vilmos was almost a comic caricature in the first novel but now he’s moved to outright malevolence.

If this trilogy were a triptych of paintings, the first volume would be bright, folksy naïf, the second one of the moody Romanticists. And the third—different again: it’s almost got a baroque complexity to it. Swann has hit her stride in a big way with this book and it’s much more meaty and intricate than its predecessors.

The good guys are no longer lily-white. The bad guys have moments when they deserve pity rather than condemnation. Doubts start to emerge about the motivations of several major characters. The prophecy of the ‘rider on the wild beast white’ might just have been misinterpreted.

All in all, the stark black-and-white of the previous books has greyed up in a serious way. Thus there is a stirring finale to the series which is suitable for teen readers.

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