The bloody first installment in Steven Atwood’s Prophecy of Axain series feels less like a first act and more like an extended prologue to its more substantial sequel, The Book of Axain.
It succeeds in establishing the gritty fantasy tone and laying the foundations for what’s to come, but this is more than just groundwork – Ravenward is a captivating story in its own right, if a little on the short side.
“This was her first battle. After years of training, would Thea cower in the face of a real opponent? Would she run away as they all expected her to?”
Whatever excitement lies in store in future books – by the closing pages, it’s clear that the story is only just beginning – the ballad of Thea the Loyal, the Kingdom of Axain’s first and only female knight, stands a good chance of being a highlight of the series.
We’re thankfully past the days when women heroes were the exception in fantasy adventures, but Thea’s story strikes an interesting balance between the masculine and feminine as she strives tirelessly to prove her equality to her peers on the battlefield and in the taverns before finding her maternal calling to protect the royal bloodline from usurpers at all costs.
The consequence of devoting so much time in a relatively short book to a single character is that the others don’t have the same chance to be fleshed out. The royal family, their allies and their enemies are all fundamentally pieces on the author’s chess board as Atwood puts his own spin on a classic plot of murder and betrayal, with a couple of surprises along the way.
The political intrigue and unflinching melee combat should satisfy young adult readers who’ve already devoured the works of George R. R. Martin and are looking for their next epic fix in a vividly detailed world, right down to the tapestries and chamber pots. The standard fantasy elements are there – elves and orcs, magic rings, coffee in medieval times – but the emphasis is on the evil that men do in their thirst for power, and why it sometimes takes a woman to stop it.