It's been two weeks since the election, and I am back to reviewing literature. Political alliances, plots, shifting of allegiance are timeless topics. Today's book is Avelynn: the Edge of Faith, Marissa Campbell's standalone historical/military romance set in the Dark Ages.
It's the year 871. Charges of treason, murder, and witchcraft follow
Avelynn into exile as she flees England with Alrik. Arriving in Wales,
they find refuge among Alrik's friends in the Welsh nobility. Cast out
by his half-brothers, Alrik seeks to regain his honor and earn favor
with the gods. When war threatens, Alrik embraces gold and the
opportunity for his crew to become mercenaries, aiding the Southern
Welsh kings in their fight against Rhodri the Great.
return home, Avelynn seeks to find a way to prove her innocence, but
she is pitted against Alrik as their desires for the future clash. With
battle looming, Avelynn's faith in their relationship is further tested
through a bitter struggle with Marared, a jealous lover from Alrik's
past. Marared's threats turn deadly, and Avelynn runs afoul of magic and
sorcery, causing her to question her beliefs and role as priestess.
Avelynn and Alrik are betrayed, Avelynn is captured and Alrik is
charged with regicide. The two become separated, a chasm of greed,
deceit, and ambition driving them apart. In an act of harrowing faith,
Avelynn will stop at nothing to find her way back to Alrik and break
them both free from Wales's bloodthirsty grasp.
I am very finicky about larger-than-life female characters being used as vehicles for advancing feminist agenda. There are so many historical/speculative novels out there featuring pagan warrior princesses, who are nothing more than talking heads spouting cliche anachronisms. Luckily for me, AVELYNN: THE EDGE OF FAITH is not one of those novels. It's a skillfully balanced, multifaceted, genre-defying work of fiction that combines the graphic historical grit with magical realism.
Campbell's religiously ambivalent Avelynn treads a fine line between an iconic Dark Ages high-born damsel (think Guinevere in the more orthodox interpretations of the King Arthur legend) and Xena the Warrior Princess, who dismembers her foes with one flick of her wrist. Blessedly, the author does not lapse into any of those extremes or rely on staple cliches. Avelynn is someone who can handle weapon and deflect unwelcome sexual advances. At the same time, she does not engage in lengthy tirades about gender equality. Her integration into the world dominated by warriors of various heritages - Celtic, Saxon, Viking - is effortless. Her relationship with her Viking lover Alrik is charged with raw, nonchalant sensuality, free from inhibitions and prejudices. At the same time, they discuss matters of life and death as equals. After torrid love scenes, they discuss politics and alliances.
The novel explores the timeless subject of vindictive, vengeful ex-lovers. Marared, Avelynn's arch-rival for the affections of Alrik, is one of the most memorable female antagonists I have encountered in historical fiction. The infamous "psycho ex-girlfriend" is an eternal archetype. Physically and intellectually inferior to Avelynn, Marared relies on more traditional feminine tricks like fabricating pregnancy stories and threatening her rival with curses and spells. Despite her hatred for the protagonist, Marared is a sympathetic villain. She is a pawn in a much larger political scheme. Her rage is that of a discarded woman. Her heart is filled with fury, but at least she still has a heart - unlike her mother Sigy.
White magic is benign and useless, more of a placebo. Dark magic renders violent short-term effects but is sure to backfire. Ultimately, her heroine must rely on her own intellect and physical endurance as well as her ability to build alliances in order to triumph over her numerous ill-wishers. The author does not abuse the deus ex machina gimmick to advance the plot. Even though spirituality and magic play a major part in the novel, in the end, it is a combination of brain, muscle and iron that win.