Rare indeed is the sequel that can live up to its predecessor. In Harp of Winds, Maggie Furey, having gotten all of her backstory, major character development, and mushy stuff out of the way in Aurian, throws you into action, action, and more action at a pace that is rarely slower than breakneck. Such is the energy and momentum of her storytelling in this entertaining volume that it never gets boring even during a lengthy stretch in the middle when all of our heroes are either imprisoned or recovering from massive wounds. Furey has a knack for high-adventure escapism that puts her head and shoulders above most of her contemporaries, even though her ideas aren't necessarily any more original than theirs, and her fondness for jumping into melodrama with both feet knows no shame.
Picking up right where Aurian left off, the story has our gutsy redhead and her friends narrowly escaping death in the desert at the hands of Eliseth, the Weather-Mage, only to find themselves stuck in a forest plagued by a magically induced winter, all too close to the lands of the hostile Xandim and the corrupted Skyfolk. Aurian's magic powers have deserted her in her advanced pregnancy, and she is unaware of the curse the deranged Archmage Miathan has placed upon her unborn. Only Anvar, Aurian's former servant who has since learned he is a half-breed Mage himself, the hated bastard son of Miathan, is able to use the Staff of Earth, one of the four long-lost Artifacts of Power that Aurian needs to battle Miathan and his wanton use of the highly destructive Old Magic. But careless use of the Staff can wreak havoc as well, as Anvar nearly finds out to his doom when he tries to clear the party's way through the blizzard by causing an avalanche.
As if enough hadn't already gone wrong, it turns out that the fugitive princess of the Skyfolk, Raven, has been seduced by Miathan, who has found a way to possess the body of the Khazalim prince Harihn. Raven leads Aurian and Co. right into a trap at the remote Tower of Incondor. Everyone is promptly captured, except for Shia (who escapes with the Staff) and the loyal Yazour, who gets away despite a nasty crossbow wound. Miathan, who has also corrupted Blacktalon, the high priest of the Skyfolk, has Anvar held hostage in one of their inaccessible aeries to ensure Aurian's cooperation in his rise to absolute power. But before Aurian can be of any use to Miathan, she must first bear her child and recover her magic. So a desperate race against the clock begins. Only Shia can rescue Anvar in the short time remaining before Aurian's baby comes, but can she make it to the Skyfolk city of Aerillia in time?
The story races along in high gear and rarely downshifts, a most commendable choice on Furey's part. (So many VLFN writers forget that adventure stories are supposed to be, well, adventurous.) Also, solidly developing subplots give the story a lot of depth and add to the often breathless tension of the narrative. Having devoted almost all of her character development in the last book to Aurian and Anvar, Furey begins to flesh out the supporting cast, much to the benefit of the series as a whole, and she introduces some fascinating new players. Most fantasy epics (even Tolkien's, to be honest) focus with navel-gazing intensity upon their heroes, but Furey takes the time to show how the depradations of Miathan and the corrupted Magefolk are affecting the lives of everyday people. An excellent subplot involves Jarvas, the owner of a refuge for the poor in the city of Nexis, and how he runs afoul of the city garrison under Miathan's control. The scene where the refuge is attacked is perhaps the most exciting and tragic in the book.
True, Furey cannot resist falling back upon melodrama or convenience when she wants to, and sometimes it's obvious that she's doing some really blatant emotional button-mashing. (The aforementioned refuge scene does feature an orphan child and his puppy, after all.) But good grief, she does it well, and with such chutzpah that it's just more fun to go with it than to nitpick it to death. As a fantasist, Furey doesn't convey the textures, the nuance, or even the range of writers like Martin and Kay, but when it comes time to start the old adrenaline pumping, she's certainly in their league. And she's also capable of flights of pure fancy and imagination that are beyond her more conservative colleagues.
To be truthful, I never would have expected these to be the sorts of novels I would enjoy as much as I am. But that just goes to show you. Maggie Furey is one of the top talents in high fantasy today.
Followed by Sword of Flame.