Intriguing, but confusing second volume in Russell's restrained and—rare for epic fantasy—crisply written saga of the Wynnd, a vast river in a medieval, pseudo-Welsh setting, and the river's eerie hold on creatures human and otherwise. The One Kingdom (2001) ended in disaster, as what was hoped to have been a wedding uniting the warring Renné and Wills clans brought betrayal, murder, and a great deal of chaos that does not abate here, as far too many characters hiss about betrayals and struggle to figure out who did what to whom, and what side of an ancient conflict they’re actually on. The bride, Lady Elise Wills, believed drowned, emerges intact, dressed in a man's clothes. It seems that she contains some of the reincarnated essence of Sainon, a member of a family of royal sorcerors. Alaan, a somewhat mysterious trickster who drew magical powers from the River Wynnd, heads for the dismal swamp of Stillwater, where, wounded, he discovers that he is the reincarnated essence of Sainth, brother of Sainon. Hot on his trail is Hafydd, an evil, overwhelmingly powerful knight with a flaming sword, who is not only part of the same unhappy family, but caused the original betrayal that has brought little but misery along the River Wynnd's muddy banks ever since. Writing in a clear, fluid prose, Russell reveals a dank, treacherous landscape whose natural dangers and wonders are as compelling as the magical elements. Alas, Russell muddies his own waters by bringing in far too many humans, ghosts, giants, and other fantasy folk, most of whom aren't quite sure of themselves and each other. One major revelation is cleared up here: Hafydd's reasons for causing war between the Renné and Wills clans over the Isle of Battle, a piece of disputed territory in the River Wynnd, is rooted in a bargain he's made with Death itself.
Hard to follow in its scope, but beautifully told, with numerous characters whose cleverness, uncertainty, and derring-do build up a powerful narrative flow.