Running a fantasy kingdom isn’t all unicorn rides and meat pies – there’s the actual process of levying taxes, dealing with peasants, cementing alliances with foreign nations and preparing for war. Talking about trade routes and alliances may be sleep-inducing, but it’s the kind of stuff that decides the fate of kingdoms, and it’s always interesting when fantasy stories try to deal with a fantasy bureaucracy, as L. Blankenship does in the fourth book of her Disciples series, Salt in the Wound. L. Blankenship manages to largely do the impossible in making this sort of ‘between the wars’ diplomatic business interesting, by adding doses of domestic drama, action, and mystery.
We’re still following Kate Carpenter, now Kate Bockman, after marrying royal bastard Anders. Kate’s coming into her own, with a new husband, a new job as an Elect (a sort of high-level wizard), and a new baby – her son, Rafe. Motherhood transforms Kate and she’s full of worries about her male child growing up and going off to war. That sort of fear must have been felt by every medieval mother when they had a son and it was nice to see it displayed here. Kate gets involved in the negotiations with the neighboring nation of Carcoed, with its all-female warriors. Carcoed saved Wodenberg from the invading Arceal Hordes, and now King Kiefan is going to marry a Carcoed royal to cement their alliance. Kate’s still in love with King Kiefan (who is Rafe’s real father) and the resulting love triangle creates all sorts of grief.
But the diplomatic meeting gets even more fouled up – as one of the Carcoed warriors takes a liking to Anders. Then a Carcoed noble is murdered and Anders is blamed. This murder mystery was something that hadn’t appeared in a Disciples book before, and I was hoping that some mystery-solving medieval monk – Cadfael or William of Baskerville from The Name of The Rose – would show up to catch the murderer. No such luck, as the murderer is quickly revealed to be a shape-shifting Arceal spy. The climax involves more Arceal assassins sneaking in to murder King Kiefan during the wedding, leading to a violent battle and a tragic ending.
I enjoyed Salt in the Wound a great deal, but it was not without flaws. The murder and the mystery took a long time to happen, and it felt like the plot treaded a lot of unnecessary water before the Carcoed diplomatic meeting. Also, while the world-building was great, I think a culling of the story’s characters would have been helpful. I got a little lost with all the pseudo-Germanic and pseudo-Welsh names, though our main characters remain recognizable and appealing.
Most troubling is that the Arceal Empire are completely one-dimensional villains. In this story, they’re literally a bunch of child-murdering monsters, and it’s confirmed that they’ve got brown skin – pretty much declaring that they’re meant to be counterparts for Arabs or the Ottoman Turks. Now, I don’t want to say that the Ottoman Empire was some paragons of virtue, but the Christians they fought against were not noble knights like Kiefan and Anders. One particular devoted champion of Christendom and Turk fighter comes to mind – Vlad the Impaler, who enjoyed impaling his enemies and inspired Dracula. Having monstrous Turks and no monstrous Europeans does a pretty big disservice to history. I hope L. Blankenship will correct this in later books, either by showing some villainous, Vlad the Impaler-style Wodenberg folks or sympathetic Arceal men.
But overall, Salt in the Wound is another excellent chapter in a very good medieval fantasy series. The prose and dialogue remain top-notch – having the feel of a medieval saga while still being descriptive and readable, and the characters remain sympathetic and complex. This volume ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, with a major character’s fate uncertain and Wodenberg preparing to go on the offensive and take the Arceal Empire head on. It’s an intense, rousing ending, and I’m excited to see what will happen next.