Backlist Review: The Ruined City by Paula Brandon

Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Author: Paula Brandon
Genre: fantasy, steampunk, horror
Series: The Veiled Isles #2
Pages: 384 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: February 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

Paula Brandon’s epic and captivating trilogy continues as magic and mystery wreak havoc with the very fabric of existence.

Reality is wavering. Soon its delicate balance will shift and an ancient force will return to overwhelm the Veiled Isles. Now those with the arcane talent forge an uneasy alliance in hopes that their combined abilities are enough to avert an eerie catastrophe. Yet it may be too late. The otherworldly change has begun. The streets of the city are rife with chaos, plague, and revolt. And it is here that Jianna Belandor, once a pampered daughter of privilege, returns to face new challenges.

The dead walk the streets. The docile amphibian slaves of humanity have taken up arms. Jianna’s home lies in ruins. Her only happiness resides in her growing attraction to Falaste Rione, a brilliant nomadic physician whose compassion and courage have led him to take dangerous risks. Jianna, stronger and more powerful than she knows, has a role to play in the unfolding destiny of her world. But a wave of madness is sweeping across the land, and time is running out—even for magic.

Once again returning to the simmering pot of trouble and magic that is the fantasy land of the Veiled Isles, Paula Brandon's second effort in the series is a sadly rather mixed one with The Ruined City. A larger worldview and a focus outside of main character Jianna certainly allows for more options and ideas, twists and turns, all to varying degrees of success. With plagues, intelligent automatons, revolution, amphibian humanoids, the walking dead, star-crossed love, betrayal and the prophesied return of an alien race looming, it's easy to feel that the author bit off a bit more than she could chew in this genre-blending exercise. While some aspects do better in the frame of the second novel (the Faerlonnish resistance versus Taerleezi occupation plotline gets much more traction than previously seen), others felt ignored or simply tedious in their execution, like the interminable journey Aureste/Innesq/Vinz are on together for 300 out of 384 pages. This is a resundingly second novel in a series - plotlines advance, there's little to no true resolution to anything and as a result, large chunks of this can come across as filler. Whatever else it may be, The Ruined City is definitely an ambitious fantasy novel - one with an author totally unafraid to try and incorporate new ideas to varying degrees of success.
Even the title of this direct sequel is a clue that this series isn't just going to focus solely on the eponymous character of The Traitor's Daughter, Jianna Belandor. The Ruined City is a novel that is more concerned with illustrating the upheaval this world is undergoing as its unpredictable magic shifts and changes; a novel with more attention paid to the emergence of the evil Overmind than with the personal storylines of many characters. This may be a benefit in disguise because, on the whole, I found the cast here to be rather stifling and uninspiring. With the exception of a few delightfully flawed individuals, there's not a whole lot of originality to be found this second time around the Veiled Isles. Jianna's story is important and featured but not to the extent it was in the first novel. Jianna herself still has a lot of growing to do as a person. As a character, she is serviceable (moderately smart, reasonably capable) but her tendency to try to maneuver and manipulate others (instead of just being honest) got old. She also needs the personal growth to realize she is not the center of the world. Aureste's characterization was mystifying here as well (the woman that abducted and held his daughter for months, whom Aureste has still not yet seen, is with him for the whole book and he says/does nothing? That's not the Aureste of The Traitor's Daughter.) The previous minor antagonist of Dowager Magnifica Yvenza is still present but less of a force - I found her addition to the expedition story and her machinations while there to be entirely obvious, ham-handed and rather frustrating to read. The deterioration of her malevolence is quick and disheartening - what was the point of her at all?

I do have to give props for all the strong female characters shown in the two books thus far published. This is a world where women are subservient, expected to adhere and obey any and all of their husbands/father's wishes and they are regarded as possessions to be bartered and traded at will. However in the middle of all this patriarchy, Paula Brandon goes out of her way to illustrate many different forms of strong female characters. Some are evil, or wronged (like Dowager Magnifica Yvenza), some are spoiled but resourceful and determined (Jianna), some are quietly unyielding and steadfast (Sonnetia), and some are zealots and patriots (Celisse). Whatever the case may be, it's a rare fantasy series where the women are as equally impressive and rounded out as their men - I mean, for much of the novel it is the "maidenlady" Jianna is trying to save Falaste instead of the typical other way around. As I've said before, both characters of Jianna and Yvenza were sadly underutilised here in round two, but their respective continued presences add family drama and unpredictability to the plot. Yvenza may not be truly necessary as a secondary foil with the Overmind stepping up antagonism and zombification as the novel progresses, and her cruelly manipulative "talks" with Vinz felt more like filler than most else in the book.

This is very much a middle-of-the-trilogy novel, with all the implied problems that such books inevitable encounter - it is solid but not spectacular and often tepid and bland in execution. The worldbuiliding shown here is still on par with the best I've come across (So complete! convoluted!) but now lacks the originality that helped it stand out in The Traitor's Daughter. Much less action-packed than its immediate predecessor, I even found the final conflict herein to be entirely underwhelming - so much so that I knocked this down from a 3.5 to a 3. While I found the first book's narrative cut off at a near-perfect spot, with resolution of some plots and an overarching problem that easily lent itself easily and naturally to the sequel, the same cannot be said of The Ruined City and its final conflict and denouement. A bit unsatisfying and lacking the original oomph that was so alluring in the first book, The Ruined City suffers a bit from its place in the line of publication but there is enough here to keep fans of the first engaged and reading.


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