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The Usurper's Crown: A Novel of Isavalta    by Sarah Zettel order for
Usurper's Crown
by Sarah Zettel
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This prequel to the author's superlative first Isavalta novel, A Sorceror's Treason, is just as good. Which surprised me a little as I generally dislike tales in which I know the ending. But, though relatively new on the SF scene, Sarah Zettel has quickly moved high on my must read list for her excellence in storytelling and world building.

We meet a young Medeoan as a passionate, foolish sorceress/princess-heir who craves freedom from her high destiny and falls for the honeyed tongue of the husband arranged for her, Prince Kacha of Hastinapura. Unfortunately he has his own agenda for the Empire, backed up by the fell magics and foul plans of his father's bound sorceror Yamuna.

Medeoan's sorceror/tutor Avanasy, half in love with his lovely pupil himself, warns her clumsily, is branded a traitor and exiled. He crosses the Land of Death and Spirit to our world, where he joins the fishing community of Sand Island, Wisconsin. There he meets the engagingly omniverous Nanabush, and helps Ingrid Loftfield to free her sister Grace from ties that bind her to a ghost, after her near drowning. Ingrid and Avan fall in love and plan to marry.

Almost too late, Medeoan discovers that Avanasy told her the truth. She flees in the soul-deep disguise of a half-caste servant, after commanding Avanasy's return to her aid. Ingrid accompanies him, but her encounter with a ghost has left her vulnerable, and sensitive, to the powers of this new world, and she is soon embroiled in a conflict between the Vixen and Baba Yaga.

There's a battle against demons, imprisonment and a thrilling rescue in the Heart of the World, a love triangle, and the great magical working that unleashes the Firebird. New regions of the world are revealed to readers, in particular Hung Tse with its oriental culture, silent Emperor and Nine Elders. We develop a sympathy for Medeoan as it becomes clear exactly how she evolved into her later embittered persona.

The Usurper's Crown is a brilliant prequel, which left me curious to re-read A Sorceror's Treason with the new insights gained, and anxious to spend time again in Isavalta with the forthcoming Firebird's Vengeance. Can't wait!

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