The Heir of Night (2011) is the debut novel from Helen Lowe, and the first book in a projected four book series (whatever happened to trilogies?). Although the story is set up in a familiar way, The Heir of Night brings a few twists to its telling: some of which are more successful than others.
The Keep of Winds is up on the far side of somewhere, a military bastion on the outskirts of civilisation. The Keep is the ancestral home of the family of Night, one of the many Houses of the Derai people. The Night, at least, from their perspective, are one of the most ancient and honorable of the houses: foremost in war, foremost in tradition and foremost in the eternal battle against the Derai's Darkswarm foe.
Malian is the teenage heir to the House of Night. Although she's fine with the war stuff, the traditional lore bits are a bit grinding, and she'd rather spend her days exploring crumbling ruins than learning her endless lessons. Kalan, another teenager, is from the House of Blood. Raised as a warrior, he was eager to follow his family's own military tradition until he started busting out magical powers. As such, he got chucked out of the military and into the priesthood. Now he's doing his own book-learnin' at The Keep of Winds.
Although the two teens are the focal point of the story, Ms. Lowe also scatters in another handful of characters - the head of the House's elite guards, an aging steward and a pair of magical rangers. (Of course they're magical, and mysterious and misunderstood and heirs to long and noble traditions. Tolkien has a lot to answer for.) One of the most successful points of distinction to The Heir of Night is that most of the characters - major or minor - are female. There's no self-conscious rationalisation to this (à la Anne McCaffrey), it just is. The Derai make no professional or social differentiation between the sexes, and both men and women are up for every task in the book - warrior, ruler, ranger, steward or mage. This applies throughout the book as well: women are both the heroes and the villains. Although the characters aren't always as fully developed as they could be, their motivations, good or evil, never have to do with men.
The one exception would be the budding friendship between Malian and Kalan, but the inequality between them is a matter of the plot. Malian is the chosen of this, that and the other. (Many prophecies, ancient evil, dream-sequences with legendary good, etc. etc.) Kalan is, unsurprisingly, a little dwarfed by Malian's chosenness, even above and beyond her actual temporal political position as the titular Heir. But his magical talents soon prove invaluable, and the pair are better as a team than they alone. As another nice twist on gender roles, Kalan's ability is to hide - Malian's talent is the aggressive one.
As far as the plot goes, The Heir of Night has a conventional fantasy structure. The Houses are declining and no longer pay close enough attention to their ancient enemy. When the Darkswarm strike, Malian and Kalan meet, discover the depth of their powers, stumble upon Malian's chosenness and, with the help of mysterious allies, eventually stumble out out of Keep, ready to save the world. In another Tolkien trope, there's not a lot of geographic movement in the first book of the series, with the vast bulk of The Heir of Night taking place in Malian's own back yard. Here Ms. Lowe adds another twist. In Tolkien (or Eddings or Brooks or...etc), the formula is that the evil starts arriving in ones and twos. The hero (reluctant / orphaned / etc) finds the evil in his (always his) home town, battles it off with some external help ("that storyteller was a wizard?!") and then hastily departs in the dead of night. It is the hero's first sacrifice: the decision to leave the town of Happy Vale before the rest of the evil comes searching.
Ms. Lowe effectively reverses the trope. There are no harbingers of evil, no isolated demons - a veritable legion of Darkswarm come rushing into the keep in the early pages, effectively truncating any skeptical sneering. The Keep is not infiltrated, it is besieged. The latter portions of the book continue this inversion of the trope. It is not Malian's heroic choice to leave, it is the family that (with love, and with the weight of tradition), pushes her out into the world. Malian ends the book pursued by evil, on the borders of familiar country and just beginning to recognise the enormity of the task in front of her.
The Heir of Night also veers from genre tradition in its use of world-building. Here, the book is perhaps the most ambitious and the least successful. There are some very big ideas going on - a genetic aristocracy and its recessive magical traits amongst them. The Derai themselves are described as strangers to the world; our hero race are invaders (refugees, more likely) from a distant world, with the Darkswarm equally alien. Malian's world is one of tradition and magic, but Ms. Lowe implies that there's a science-fictional sort of rationality under the surface (one that, like Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun, I would anticipate becoming more explicit as the series progresses).
All of this is fascinating, but, throughout Ms. Lowe errs on the side of minimal explanation. Combined with the book's rapid introduction of a Darkswarm army, The Heir of Night chucks the reader into the deep end of the pool. Fortunately, Ms. Lowe isn't a fan of nonsense words - using colloquial English where she can - but there are a lot of big concepts given short shrift, and both they and the characters suffer because of the book's deliberately cryptic detail.
Generously, this may be because the The Heir of Night is drawing on a young adult tradition. The two teen protagonists are not particularly robust characters, but that makes it easier (theoretically) for readers to find themselves. Similarly, the gamble of the sink-or-swim world building is more frequently found in contemporary teen literature. The books establish the text's ground rules (the good guys, the oppressive traditions, the big evil, the mystery), with the actual mechanics of the world left to the imagination. I don't have a problem with it (in fact, I'm generally for it), but in this case, the reader is shoved through the world too rapidly to appreciate the significance of what is happening. Ancient legendary warriors and lost magics are less impressive when you've only heard about them the chapter before.
The curious thing about The Heir of Night is that, when it does something right, it does so effortlessly. The gender politics are almost uniquely progressive in epic fantasy, and Ms. Lowe demonstrates perfect equality as a matter of fact (belying generations of authors that insist on an [inaccurate] picture of medieval sexual politics as essential to the genre). Yet the approach to world building is more forced: a frustrating decision to remain as enigmatic as possible, where, as many other fantasies have shown, it is almost too easy to infodump.
The Heir of Night is a bit thin in some places, and a bit clumsy in others, but, at its heart, there's a clear hunger to tell classic stories in new ways. Some of the changes are merely aesthetic, but others go much deeper than that, and, as a result, this series is down as one to watch. Now, if we can only ditch the rangers and the prophecies...