“The Challenge” is the first volume in the “Circle of Conspiracy” trilogy and the fourth book in Cas Peace’s sweeping “Artesans of Albia” cycle. Positioned in the middle of this epic, it does a good job of holding its unique place in the notable hierarchy, although it is not a stand-alone novel.
This book is on a smaller scale than earlier novels of the series. No sweeping battle scenes and dramatic duels here; much of the conflict takes place in whispered rumour, innuendo and political machinations. The battleground is mostly the human heart. Bribery, envy, and coercion are the order of the day, and the challenge for the heroes is to come out victorious at the end without compromising their virtue or stooping to the depths the villains are happy to inhabit.
This author does an excellent job of creating scenes wherein characters are forced or lured into situations that require them to act contrary to their better natures. Clever turns of phrase and false impressions create the sand that causes the cogs of human interaction to grind to a halt. And into the cracks that result, the evil and ambition insinuate their greasy fingers.
This book, like others in the series, has a complex plotline involving treachery and intrigue at several levels. It also contains a good helping of fine swordplay and medium-scale military action, all described in exciting detail.
I do have one concern about this novel that may or may not bother other readers. I think the heroine is too strong. Oh, certainly she is a well-rounded, empathetic character who makes her share of mistakes, but in general, she is simply held in too high esteem by all the others in the story. This makes it very difficult for the other characters to hold up their part of the story arc. Dissention between positive characters is one of the necessary conflicts in a well-written novel. If one character is too good, then in order for there to be conflict, the other guys have to be idiots. And I like the other characters far too much to want to be told that.
Maybe by book four I’ve just been pulled into the story too far and I’m taking sides, but this volume leaves me with some very pressing unanswered questions. I hope my curiosity will be satisfied in the next book in the series, “The Challenge.” So as not to keep you in suspense too long, I will be reviewing that novel next week.
Recommended for Epic Fantasy and Romance readers. Four stars out of five.