Australia has been importing female fantasists like nobody's business lately. Joining Sara Douglass and Rebecca Locksley is Jennifer Fallon, whose invasion of these shores commenced in mid-2004 with two simultaneous series: The Second Sons trilogy from Spectra, and the double trilogy The Hythrun Chronicles from Tor. Medalon, the first volume of Hythrun's initial Demon Child trilogy, was Fallon's debut and a finalist for her country's Aurealis Award.
Though it presents itself as yet more extruded fantasy product, Medalon is itself a very simple story peopled by very simple characters. Sure, it's formula fantasy from the ground up and from the roof down on the other side. But Fallon gets away with it because, unlike so many other fantasists, she tells an unpretentious, escapist story that isn't intoxicated by its own mythology. Medalon is a well-crafted little nugget of entertainment, confident of its intent and commendably free of delusions of grandeur. It moves like lightning, gives you protagonists that — while archetypes — you can care about, and then proceeds to hurt them tremendously. Though it's never exactly unpredictable, it holds your attention skillfully and only rarely resorts to any kind of implausible "author's convenience" to move the plot ahead. You might want to make sure you have some Jiffy Pop on hand before you get stuck in.
R'shiel Tenragan lives in the tiny country of Medalon, where she is a Probate in the ruling Sisterhood of the Blade. Her brother Tarja is a popular captain in the Defenders, who has nonetheless been assigned to unpleasant border duty because of an insult to the old First Sister. There is potential conflict all around Medalon, a tiny country surrounded by several much larger ones. To the south, the polytheistic Hythrun await their savior, the Demon Child. To the north, the vicious monotheistic theocracy of Karien is in a position, due to their greater military might, to dictate policy to Medalon. Medalon has a treaty with Karien that has led to the persecution of all pagan polytheists in their borders, many of whom have fled to Hythria. There are some interesting real-world parallels to be drawn here, but Fallon does not make a big metaphorical issue out of them.
R'shiel's mother Joyhinia is a cast-iron bitch who has designs on the office of the First Sister herself. When Joyhinia learns that Karien is displeased with the lenient treatment of pagans by the new First Sister Mahina, leniency that potentially violates their treaty, Joyhinia sees her chance and machinates a coup. She doesn't even think twice about offering R'shiel to the Karien priest Elfron, who has taken an unusual interest in the girl. When Mahina is impeached and Joyhinia made First Sister, Tarja and R'shiel flee, eventually hooking up with a rebel movement that wakes them up to exactly how many pagans still live in Medalon and how horrendously persecuted they are.
Why is Elfron so fascinated by R'shiel? Well, Tarja has found out that his sister is not who she seems. There is a possibility R'shiel is a Harshini, belonging to an ancient magical race long banished from Medalon by the Sisterhood. So, do you think she's the Demon Child the Hythrun are praying for? Give you three guesses.
Wicked and corrupt rulers, rebels trying to fight them, young valiant heroes on the run and battling insurmountable odds. Nope, not a lot that's exactly groundbreaking here. Nor is it hard to see the novel's big revelations coming, as they tend to hurtle toward you like a runaway train. It's true I've panned a lot of fantasies in the past for never veering far from the familiar, and will do in the future.
But in those instances, the authors in question have tended to treat those moldy old chestnuts as if no one had ever eaten them before. And as writers, they lack Fallon's skill at keeping the pace up and telling their stories with economy and wit. Indeed, there's a character in Medalon — the Harshini mage Brak, working with the pagan rebellion undercover, and who talks directly to most of the gods, none of whom he treats with a shred of respect — who could be viewed as a declaration of Fallon's own disdain for mythic pretension. There's a freshness to Fallon's writing that helps to remind us that myths are meant to be cracking good stories first, and it's a welcome contrast to many of the bloated, dull and self-important faux epics out there whose writers seem to think they are the second coming of Homer. Fallon seeks to entertain where other fantasists seek to impress. I was both impressed and entertained with the way Fallon kept everything racing along, and especially by the way she put R'shiel and Tarja in worse and worse trouble, staying true to Hitchcock's dictum that you must hurt the audience as much as possible.
I'd have liked Fallon to add a little more depth to some of her supporting characters. R'shiel and Tarja are fine, drawing plenty of sympathy from readers (especially after enduring chapter after chapter of cruelty). At times Fallon even gives R'shiel a coldness that is alarming, as it indicates a little of her hated adoptive mother has rubbed off on her after all. But Joyhinia is sadly two-dimensional. Why she is so evil isn't really explored. She's just, you know, Evil, because a saga like this needs an arch-villain. I was reminded of a similar character, Cersei Lannister from George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga. I just thought of another: Livia from the BBC miniseries I, Claudius. Both women are corrupt, duplicitous and power-mad to the core. But Martin devotes plenty of time in his story to peeling away the layers hiding Cersei's many neuroses, and Livia, despite murdering almost her whole family, actually wins you over after a while. Fallon doesn't seem to have given Joyhinia many layers at all. A shame, because it keeps her from being a truly great villainess. Another baddie, Loclon, is a similar boilerplate bad guy. His main function in the story seems to be to give readers someone they want to see die in agony.
I think fantasy fans will take to Jennifer Fallon like ducks to water. Her straightforward adventure storytelling stands to build her quite a following in the States.