I’m not sure if L. Blankenship’s third part of her Disciples series, entitled Embers on the Wind, is a climactic conclusion or just a stepping stone to something bigger. It does provide a fitting conclusion for healer Kate Carpenter, Prince Kiefan and royal bastard knight Anders and an action-packed climax to the previous two volumes. While Part I was mostly a quest through snowy terrain and Part II was a medieval domestic drama and romance, Part III is all about war — a brutal siege of the city of Wodenberg in particular. The Arceal Army, with its magic-forged composite monsters, is on the attack and Kate and her friends have to help the city defend itself while they wait for the newly allied Carcoed soldiers to come to the rescue. For Anders and Kiefan, that means putting on armor, grabbing broadswords and hacking up some foemen. For Kate, it means using her magic healing powers to fix up all the wounded coming in from the battlefield.
Medieval sieges are a pretty neat hallmark of fantasy. Historical sieges boast a ton of odd and horrific weapons — burning oil, trebuchets, plague-infected bodies — that Fantasy can plop down and mix with its own magic elements. Blankenship does a great job of this. The siege of Wodenberg features earthly weapons like trebuchets and archers, but it’s also got the super-powered magic-users called Saints slugging it out with magic shields and thunderbolts, along with the composite creatures like minotaurs and centaurs. The battle goes from outside skirmishes to smashing through the walls to brutal fighting in the streets. Blankenship perfectly captures the violence, confusion and earth-shaking horror of such a situation. Poor Kate is right in the middle of it, working as a surgeon to heal up the ambulance-loads of wounded. She gets an up close view of the battlefield a few times, which is nice, but watching her and the other nurses and surgeons trying to save the wounded is a horrific and fascinating part of a war that many fictional stories neglect.
Unfortunately, Blankenship’s skills falter when it comes to the Arceal enemy. Very little time is spent on them and they end up being a generic Other. They could be a horde of mindless orcs or goblins, instead of human combatants. The one time we do get an up close view of them is when Kate is kidnapped by a bunch of brutish centaurs and threatened with rape (with a centaur’s horse-sized cock), a scene which didn’t sit right with me at all. Wodenberg is clearly supposed to be Germany and I kept on flashing to the historical 1683 Siege of Vienna (as featured in a Robert E. Howard story and Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver) by the Turks — who Westerners love to portray as a marauding, monstrous Other. But then again, maybe the Arceal aren’t the Turks. The one time we meet one of them, he has a name which sounds vaguely Italian. This is one of the reason why I don’t like fantasy counterparts of earthly cultures — thinking about what country is supposed to be what detracts from the story and some cultures end up being stereotyped as inhuman monsters.
Besides that (and some tedious exposition about the magic system), Embers of the Wind still managed to hold my attention and entertain. The three main characters find themselves gaining new power and taking on new responsibilities as the battle progresses and the casualties mount. By the time the story ends, Kiefan, Kate and Anders are poised to play some pivotal roles in this fantastic world’s history. Blankenship conveys the fears that come from these new responsibilities, but Kate and her friends seem up to the task. Even Prince Kiefan didn’t annoy me this time — probably because he’s focused on defending his people instead of lusting after Kate. The siege action and character development, as well as Blankenship’s excellent pseudo-medieval prose, combine to make a very cool climax to a neat series. If you enjoy some epic siege action, then you’ll find plenty to like in Embers on the Wind. And if a Disciples: Part IV is lurking around somewhere, I’ll be happy to check it out.