The Lady of the Sorrows, by Cecilia Dart-Thornton (Warner Aspect, 2002)

In The Lady of the Sorrows, the second book of the Bitterbynde series and sequel to her stunning debut novel, The Ill-Made Mute, Australian author Cecilia Dart-Thornton returns to the magic-soaked world of Erith, and the mysterious tale of Imrhien.

In the first book, we learned how Imrhien, a nameless, mute amnesiac, horribly disfigured by the poison of the paradox ivy, left her home, embarking on a quest to regain past, face, name, and memories. Tempest-tossed and beset upon by pirates, monsters, and treacheries, she ultimately won through, discovering a vast treasure, gaining the friendship of stalwart travelers, and finally discovering someone capable of healing her physical wounds, if not her mental ones. As our story unfolds, Imrhien has regained her features and voice. Furthermore, she has a small hint of her true origins: her golden hair bespeaks her as one of the Talith, a people once powerful, now in decline, rarely seen. Her quest is barely begun, though. Both to facilitate this, and to deliver a valuable message regarding the nature of the treasure trove she stumbled across, she journeys to Caermelor, the royal court.

There, her hair dyed black and calling herself Rohain, our heroine struggles to maintain the facade of a wealthy, noble widow from the distant, mysterious Sorrow Isles, while she waits for the return of the King-Emperor, the only one she dares trust with the knowledge that has already claimed the lives of several of her friends. But Court is a dangerous, duplicitous place, and she is ill-prepared for the games of manipulation and intrigue that go on there. In the end, she has to flee for her very life, lest she be betrayed and discovered. This leads her back to Isse Tower, where she was once nothing more than a mute, scarred servant of the lowest regard.

Continuing the complex, ever-unfolding tale of Imrhien-Rohain, she survives the deadliest of magical perils, discovers true love and joy, and is just as rapidly catapulted from blissful safety to yet more unthinkable dangers in the wilderness, as forces beyond her ken target her for death, or worse. Who’s after her, and why? What secrets of her past have marked her in such fashion? The truth is far stranger than anyone could have imagined, and as the memories begin to return, we, along with Imrhien, are plunged into the past…

Dart-Thornton takes a drastic, inspired gamble, packing so much into one book, and this the middle of what I believe to be a trilogy. The last hundred pages of a four hundred plus page book are almost entirely given to a tale that could easily have been spun off into a volume all its own. To say too much about it would spoil the mystery, and mystery does abound. We do learn a great deal: how Imrhien lost her voice, and her face, her memory, and her previous life, so that she might be reduced to almost nothing by the time her story began to unfold in the first book. The truth, it seems, is centuries old, and intertwined with the fate of the Talith, and the destiny of a kingdom. It’s part fairy tale, part court intrigue, woven from the threads of any number of traditions. Riddle games, epic quests, vile treachery, enchantments, loyalty and love and longing, all the elements are firmly in place. What looks at first to be a retelling of the Pied Piper fairy tale soon escalates and evolves into much, much more, revealing just who wants Imrhien out of the way, and what’s at stake should she fail. Her story is far more complex, and far more fantastical than we’d ever have originally guessed.

Gifted with the return of her memories, and the knowledge of what has happened and what must happen, will Imrhien succeed? That, unfortunately, will not be revealed until the next book, The Battle of Evernight, coming out in April 2003.

There’s so much more I wish I could share. Hints I could drop, characters to discuss, things to dwell upon. The Lady of the Sorrows is an immensely rich story, packed full of rich detail and dripping with a lush love of words. Dart-Thornton has a rare gift for the details and descriptions, able to linger upon scenery and people alike, weaving in Celtic-inspired folklore and riddle games seamlessly. Erith is bathed in magic, seelie and unseelie wights lurking in every shadow, ready to do a bit of good or a spot of harm at the drop of a hat. Monsters stalk the shadows, and even the benevolent creatures are to be respected. Dart-Thornton invokes the capricious, alien nature of the fey world, giving it the majesty and unpredictability it deserves. This is high fantasy, epic without resorting to vast armies or magical artifacts, powerful without slinging fireballs or dragons around, and multi-layered. Read this book, then go back to The Ill-Made Mute and see where the hints were there all along.

I’m hard-pressed to find any objections to this book. If anything, it’s perhaps too detailed. I’m so used to simpler language that something like this comes across like a triple chocolate cake: inordinately rich, a treat you can’t eat all at once, something to be savored. The author is one of those people blessed with a talent for words beyond the norm, drawing upon the entirety of the English language. The highest of praise: I wish I could write as well as that, and even thinking about it intimidates me.

I admit: I’m easy to please. I love a great many books, and I can be seduced by good writing. The Lady of the Sorrows, like its companion, is an excellent, gorgeous read, and worth picking up. I’m almost embarrassed to lavish such praise, but it’s not without cause. I can hardly wait for the next book.

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