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The King's Name    by Jo Walton order for
King's Name
by Jo Walton
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The King's Name is the sequel to The King's Peace, which told of the early years of warrior woman Sulien ap Gwien, and her deep friendship with king Urdo. That story detailed her growth as an individual and a ruler, so that she willingly gave up a long-sought vengeance, in order to support the just peace which was Urdo's vision and his legacy to the island of Tir Tanagiri ... 'our honor lay in how well the Peace was kept, breath by breath, all our days.' Urdo rebuilt civilization after the withdrawal of the Vincans.

You can tell from the cover (which I love) how much the genre has matured - not only a warrior woman, but one who is fully clad and getting on in years; what a change from the early years of speculative fiction! Tir Tanagiri is a land in which women are equal, holding positions as knights and kings. The tale is introduced by a purported future historian, who is an advocate for its authenticity. Then the first sentence grabs you and does not let go as Sulien begins 'The first I knew about the civil war was when my sister Aurien poisoned me.'

At this stage in her career, Sulien is King of Derwen, under High King Urdo, whom she sees about once a year. She trains and maintains an ala of mounted knights in the high king's service, and to defend her own land from the occasional Jarnish incursion. There is a loose correlation (in the style of Guy Gavriel Kay) between Walton's Tir Tanagiri, and Arthur's Britain, with the Mordred equivalent Morthu stirring up sorcery and civil war right on cue. 'He just wants death and destruction and everything broken to pieces.' As Sulien's story develops, the reader continues to sense undercurrents of Camelot beneath its surface.

However, Walton gives her readers more depth of fantasy than in a typical re-telling of the Arthurian legend (which is only glimpsed in some of the larger events here). There is magic in the land itself, which chooses its rulers and communicates with them. Gods, old and new, intervene from time to time, and healing charms and death curses are both effective. People, including Sulien's son Darien, are turning to the White God, while Sulien still holds to the older gods 'and the beauty there was in darkness' and remembers that 'My darkness was not an attack on the light but something else real and good.'

The civil war plays out with battles and treachery, shifting alliances and black sorcery. Walton's world-building includes her seers' insights into a panorama of parallel worlds ... 'Not even oracles know what's going on somewhere else, only what happened to people in other worlds' (this makes them engagingly mad as evidenced in the elderly Inis, an intriguing addition to this second volume). Evil is finally defeated after many sacrifices, and after Sulien wrestles with despair, arguing with the Lord of the Slain (her companion on the cover) while 'time hangs upon the moment.'

Looking back on events, Sulien reminisces 'What it is to be young is to wake up in the morning with the belief that today can be better than yesterday.' In this duo, Jo Walton has given us true heroic fantasy, with protagonists who work hard to preserve civilization in an age of legends, and to make today better than yesterday. The King's Name is even better than the first book and I can't wait to enter whatever world this author builds for us next.

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