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Sword of the Deceiver: A Novel of Isavalta    by Sarah Zettel order for
Sword of the Deceiver
by Sarah Zettel
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Sword of the Deceiver is the final volume - following A Sorcerer's Treason, The Usurper's Crown, and The Firebird's Vengeance - in Sarah Zettel's enthralling and romantic Isavalta series, set in a parallel world. The story opens on a delayed but joyous womanhood ceremony for the heroine, nineteen-year-old Princess Natharie of Sindhu, after which she will be ready to marry the young, kind, considerate and handsome King of Lohit. Natharie is 'as tall as most men', hardened by fighting with the female guards.

But it soon becomes clear that Natharie's life will take a much different course than anticipated. The celebrations are rudely interrupted by the arrival of a free running pure black horse, followed closely by a priest, a sorceror, and soldiers of the Hastinapura Empire, to which - having lost to them in battle - Sindhu owes fealty. Traditionally, the horse is loosed after an Emperor on the Pearl Throne dies - everywhere it roams for the following year must pay extra tribute and send hostages. Then the horse is sacrificed. The delegation is led by Prince Samudra, younger brother to the new Emperor Chandra, who's reputed to be 'shiftless and lazy'. Accompanying it is the fanatical priest, Divakesh.

In Hastinapura, each member of the royal house has his or her own sorceror, bound to them since childhood, to protect the imperial line. In Sindhu, sorcerors study and pray in forest monasteries, kept from 'the temptation and corruption of power'. Hastinapurans worship the Seven Mothers, while in Sindhu, the Buddha-like Awakened One is revered. To protect the rest of her siblings, especially her youngest sister, Natharie takes her courage in her hands and offers herself as hostage, despite her fear of Divakesh. After the delegation leaves with her daughter, 'the sun set in Queen Sitara's heart.' She journeys to the forest monastery, puts the sorcerors of Sindhu in play, and contacts Hastinapura's enemies. She learns that 'It is the smallest act and the greatest love that will turn the wheel to peace again.'

Natharie is taken north to Vaudanya, capital of Hastinapura, Samudra's sorceress Hamsa accompanying and attempting to reassure her. The Prince returns home to the bitter news that the army he previously commanded (till his brother's whim put him in charge of the horse sacrifice) has been defeated by the Huni in the mountains, and close friends killed. The peace he himself made with Lohit was broken by his brother, whom he tries hard not to despise. Chandra's sorceror is the powerful Yamuna (who also had a role in The Usurper's Crown), while Hamsa is weak. The Emperor is manipulated by Yamuna and by his beautiful wife Bandhura who rules the harem, though the emperor's dying mother Prishi exerts her own influence. Natharie negotiates these perilous politics carefully, though perhaps not warily enough, studies with the palace drama master, and reluctantly spies for Bandhura.

Urged by an army faction to overthrow his brother, Samudra refuses. He encounters a goddess, the Mother of Destruction, and seeks his path, as Hamsa does hers. Then treachery strikes from many directions, sending prince and princess in flight, as armies clash. Sword of the Deceiver, which reads more like a stand-alone fantasy than other series episodes, is a gripping tale of convoluted politics, war, treachery, sacrifice, and love that survives hard tests.

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