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The Hidden Stars: Book One of the Rune of Unmaking    by Madeline Howard order for
Hidden Stars
by Madeline Howard
Order:  USA  Can
Eos, 2004 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by Ricki Marking-Camuto

The Hidden Stars: Book One of the Rune of Unmaking is a strong entrance in the fantasy genre for Madeline Howard. While the influence of other authors is visible in many of her plot conventions, Howard offers her own spin on these tried and true devices, delivering a wonderful read for fans of epic fantasy.

The story begins with the birth of a princess and the death of her mother. The death of this child of prophecy is sought by her aunt, evil Empress Ouriána. The baby is immediately whisked away to the North for safekeeping by a Master Wizard and a nursemaid. The Empress sends out six disfigured priests to stop them. The clash between Master Wizard and evil priests leads to an avalanche which crushes wizard, nursemaid, princess, and three priests. Nineteen years later the world is still at war against Empress Ouriána, when word comes that the princess is alive. A small search party of two wizards (a Master Wizard and his daughter), a prince, and three men-at-arms sets out to find her. At the same time, Empress Ouriána orders her remaining nine priests on the trail.

Like many of today's fantasy writers, Howard is influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien. Many important plot elements are similar to those found in The Lord of the Rings. In particular, the sought-after princess is powerful becauses she possesses a ring that can not only do wondrous deeds but also cause great devastation – very similar to Tolkien's 'One Ring'. The disfigured priests who hunt the search party all through this first Rune of Unmaking episode are reminiscent of Tolkien's ringwraiths (although Howard's creations are more human, creating a stronger sense of hope in the reader). Also, just as the wizard Gandolf seemingly dies while sacrificing himself so the Fellowship may continue their journey, Master Wizard Faolin allows himself to be shot so his companions can escape in The Hidden Stars.

While Tolkien is Howard's main influence, there are also traces of L. Frank Baum in her story. Empress Ouriána acts a lot like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. She constantly monitors the search party's progress and sets obstacles for the travelers at each step of the journey. And her 'Nightmares' (tiny, winged, monkey-like creatures that she created) could be mutated descendents of the Wicked Witch's flying monkeys. Overall, The Hidden Stars makes a great addition to the epic fantasy genre. Fans of fantasy with strong female protagonists will enjoy this book.

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