Warprize by Elizabeth Vaughan
(Tor, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-765-35264-8
*****
Warprize is one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read, and the enjoyment is all the sweeter because I didn’t think I’d care much for it based on the back cover blurb. Dish me up a big helping of crow, and I’ll happily eat it while waiting for the next book in this trilogy. Tor grabbed itself a winner with Elizabeth Vaughan.

Xylara is of noble blood, and her half-brother is the king of Xy. Their relationship is strained, to say the least, and rather than sit around waiting for an arranged marriage, Lara has trained as a master healer. This comes in handy when the kingdom is besieged by a strange people known as the Firelanders, who fight from horseback, among other things. Lara tends to the wounded enemy soldiers and learns to speak enough of their language to be understood. Events are set in motion when she treats a large black soldier named Simus, who appears to be a general in the enemy army.

Unbeknownst to Lara, she catches the eye of the enemy Warlord, Keir, who sneaks into the walled city to find out what happened to his trusted general. A peace is offered – if Lara agrees to become the “warprize.” As her brother gloatingly explains to Lara, she will become a sexual slave to the Warlord. Lara, knowing that the kingdom cannot withstand the siege much longer, agrees for the sake of her people. She is given to Keir and taken to the enemy camp.

Yet Lara’s life with the Firelanders does not begin with a brutal rape, as she fears. Instead, her healing talents are called into play and she quickly earns the respect of the enemy soldiers for her skill. Indeed, her name seems to be officially “Warprize.” Keir and his manservant, Marcus, treat her with care, and the more Lara gets to know Keir, the more she is drawn to him. But the peace agreement appears to be on fragile ground, and someone is apparently out to kill Lara. And if the warprize dies, the peace is broken. The Warlord will show no mercy.

This seems to be a bit extreme given that Lara is a slave who hasn’t even been intimate with the Warlord, but Lara is in for a few surprises as to just what it means to be the warprize. Readers are going to love her journey. It’s told in first-person, and Lara is no silly heroine looking to be rescued. She’s a spitfire when it comes to caring for neglected, wounded people, but smart enough to keep her head down and her mouth shut when necessary. And Keir, the Warlord, doesn’t quite know what to make of her, even as he vows to protect her with his life.

The secondary characters in the story are lively, especially Joren, a soldier whose real ambition is becoming a Singer – sort of a professional balladeer. Xymund, the half-brother king, is appropriately smarmy and evil. Atira, a female warrior, becomes a fast friend to Lara after an initial unpleasant episode. Hopefully many of them will reappear in the second book, which continues Lara and Keir’s journey.

I did have some problems with the age chronology in the book. At one point, Lara, who is twenty-five, mentions that Xymund “had reached his majority” when she was born. This would make him a good twenty years older than she, at least. Later, when trying to figure out how old Keir must be, she muses that he is “older than Xymund.” This would make him almost fifty, and that didn’t seem to fit. Another side character is Gils, a “young lad” with a “piping voice” who wishes to apprentice himself to Lara and become a healer. But the Firelanders have a rule that nobody may serve as a warrior unless they have borne or fathered five children. It’s mentioned that Gils had “two sets of triplets.” The images didn’t mesh. Is he a kid? Or an older teenager with an early sexual history?

But I read a review copy, and perhaps these issues were addressed. At any rate, they weren’t enough to provide more than a momentary distraction from a terrific story. I’d hesitate to call this a futuristic or paranormal romance; it’s more like an alternate-reality, with medieval overtones. Lara reads and writes, and books are one of her pleasures, a concept with which the Firelanders are unfamiliar. She mixes herbal remedies, rides on horseback, and has lived in a walled fortress. No plumbing, either – it’s privies and chamber pots. The setting was vivid, but definitely more of a medieval feel.

Warprize is a book with mass appeal to romance readers, and it’s great to see Tor, a publisher better-known for science fiction and fantasy, expanding into books with a romantic theme. Given their track record, it’s perhaps not surprising that they can do it so well. Elizabeth Vaughan has penned a winner. Don’t miss it.

--Cathy Sova


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