Review by Lela Michael
Fans of epic high fantasy are a resilient bunch, having decided long ago to reply to detractors of the genre with, “You read in your world, I’ll read in mine.”
Cephrael’s Hand is Book One in a series called A Pattern of Shadow & Light and is the first novel by Melissa McPhail. Our story is set in the mythical realm of Alorin, three centuries after a massive war which almost wiped out an entire race called the Adepts. A three-continent map of Alorin is included, as are a Glossary of Terms and Dramatis Personae.
I consulted the front matter frequently throughout my entire reading. The plot is lengthy and complex, which tends to be the case with epics. I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I was half way through the book before I understood what was basically going on.
We have a trio of main characters. Prince Ean is tortured about making decisions of great consequence as he becomes a leader; Trell of the Tides from the desert wonders if his hidden past will reveal his true identity and purpose; and Duchess Alyneri has self-righteous, indignant retorts for anybody and everybody as she struggles to remain unmarried and professionally independent. These three are kept busy with their seriously serious tasks, so the narrative relies on their individual ‘sidekicks’ to provide diversion and humor, with dozens of additional characters of various races, talents, and motives to keep the reader engaged and the plot thick.
I enjoyed the symbolism McPhail employs, especially Trell’s relationship with the water goddess and his intriguing encounter with her daughters. Colors are mentioned often and let me tell you, their outfits are very important to the characters in this story. Magic is always a factor in high fantasy, but McPhail gets very creative here with a depiction of six types of energy work (it’s complicated).
In keeping with storytelling based loosely on Middle Age epics, the narration is in a formal voice and there were only a few minor slips. I thought the level of violence was appropriate to the story but found the third act pretty intense. I couldn’t agree more when, in chapter 49, Ean declares, “I’m tired of being bounced around from one near-death situation to the next, harassed and prodded and captured and freed like someone’s bloody pawn.” We are also treated to a bevy of arched eyebrows, leanings on one elbow, and shootings of withering looks.
Of course, no epic would be complete without a treatment of the themes of antithesis, death and immortality (with a reincarnation twist), loyalty, courage, fate and free will, friendship, and loss (there was one farewell scene that actually choked me up a bit).
An author doesn’t wave a magic wand to invent an imaginary realm. Thoughtful crafting of fictional geography yields descriptive data such as the physical challenges of particular mountains, rivers, deserts, and seas, and the made-up history provides plot lines and explains the goals, values, and motivations of the characters. Last but not least, the proper execution of high fantasy involves the selection of what language which characters speak and how important use of language is within the story (“In the desert, as in the language itself, there were nuances—huge disparities, actually—in what was said and what was understood”).
With all of this in mind, I pronounce Cephrael’s Hand a resounding success. Fantasy fans will want to read the entire series and Melissa McPhail deserves a round of applause for her achievement. Five stars.
I wrote this review for the online magazine Self-Publishing Review. Links to the author’s website and to preview/purchase the book are available there (click on the book cover).
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