Myrren’s Gift by Fiona McIntosh

When I first saw Myrren’s Gift, the first book of The Quickening, in my local bookshop, I did not think it was a fantasy novel. The cover art showing a towering castle in a mountainous region suggested a historical epic or perhaps a medieval romantic saga. A quick read of the blurb, however, was enough to convince me to give this book by an unknown Australian author a try.

Wyl Thirsk is the king’s general. When he witnesses the execution of Myrren, a girl accused of witchcraft, he shows her compassion and mercy. In return, Myrren promises Wyl a gift but he quickly dismisses the notion, thinking the doomed girl had nothing left to give. He is to find, however, that his simple act of kindness would trigger a series of events that will change his life forever.

Myrren’s Gift does not have dwarfs, elves, wizards or talismans of magic. On the surface, Wyl’s world appears “too” Earth-like and ordinary, inhabited by mere humans and everyday animals. The ferocious ekons are the only species I remember that are entirely from McIntosh’s imagination. In fact, Wyl’s sidekick and loyal companion is an inconspicuous dog and not a fire-breathing dragon or even a mischievous halfling.

A few chapters into the book, however, and you will see that Fiona McIntosh has nevertheless created a rich and satisfying world to please any seasoned fantasy reader. Instead of electrifying showdowns between powerful magicians, she gives us intriguing conflicts and edge-of-the-seat situations. And where other writers would attempt to dazzle readers with both wonderful and hideous creatures, McIntosh instead offers us unforgettable human characters who are easy to like and care about.

Wyl is one of the most believable protagonists I have come across – brave but not perfect. Liryk, Lothryn, and Cailech the mountain king are also three-dimensional characters who aren’t obviously copied from other novels. And Elspyth and Valentyna are two strong female characters who will no doubt deliver much in the next books in the series. Only the character of Celimus – the power-hungry king and main antagonist to Wyl – is predictable and one we have seen many times before.

The story is fast paced and easy to read. The plot never thins and new, minor characters are constantly introduced to keep up the momentum. McIntosh is adept at springing surprises at just the right moments and the twist at the end will have you crying out for the next instalment. My only complaint is that the tone of the novel was generally serious throughout. The book would have been a stronger one had McIntosh injected a bit of comic relief here and there – there was no token humorous character that’s so common in fantasy novels.

Despite this, I am looking forward to Blood and Memory, the next book in the series, which unfortunately is not published in the UK until July 2005. McIntosh is a fantasist to watch out for.

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