The Crowded Shadows by Celine Kiernan is the second in a trilogy about the medieval-fantasy, semi-political adventures of Wynter Moorehawke.
Blurb: Brother. Ally. Enemy. Who would you trust?
Every tyrant who ever threatened the Kingdom is gathering to Alberon’s table, and the forest is alive with spies, wolves, and bandits. Within these crowded shadows, Protector Lady Wynter Moorehawke travels alone and unprotected, determined that she shall find the rebel prince and heal the rift that has come between the King and his legitimate heir. But who is an ally and who is a foe? In this, the second volume of The Moorehawke Trilogy, old friends and even older enemies ensure that Wynter is never certain of who she can trust.
The book picks up where the first novel ended; Wynter, alone on the road, hoping to somehow find the hiding Prince Alberon. Fortunately she almost immediately stumbles on the two people she most wants to see, Christopher and Razi, who are secretly traveling in the woods for the exact same purpose. Together, they travel on and soon encounter more than one element from Christopher’s past.
The Crowded Shadows is my favorite volume in the trilogy. Just picking it up to refresh my mind on one or two parts of the story was difficult as I kept finding myself sucked into the narrative. Firstly, unlike The Poison Throne which all took place within the palace grounds, this part of the story involves their travels. The setting, mainly surrounded by trees and around open campfires, the occasional stop at an inn, and various encounters with different enemies and friends, made for a much different vibe. Almost carefree despite the constant danger, after the stifling atmosphere of the court.
The second reason, and the main pull for me, was halfway through the book when they meet up with a Merron tribe. Although not Christopher’s specific tribe, they are still his people, and it was fascinating to encounter such a unique people group. Their culture and beliefs were well developed and, while not always pleasant, believable. I am always intrigued by culture and the nomadic Merron’s similarity to Vikings was fascinating. We also learn a great deal more regarding how Razi and Christopher met, and Christopher’s backstory. It’s horrible but finally sheds light on one of the mysteries in this tale filled with unknowns.
As before, the relationships drive the story. Away from the strained politics of the court, the friendship between the main trio deepens as does the romance between Wynter and Christopher. The blurred physical boundaries continue on in much the same vein as before, and while the line is never crossed, it isn’t due to Wynter’s unwillingness. But in the context of the story, it made some sense. Away from society, living without pretense, it can be easy to forget the rules and just focus on the principles underneath them. As Wynter puts it, “We have made our promises to each other, Razi.”
The slight fantasy elements are not as apparent in this volume. Except for two seconds in the very last chapter, they don’t encounter any ghosts or cats so the realistic medieval environment settles around the characters. There is constant talk of the Loups-Garous as wolves but I was never sure how to take that – a description of their evil ways or something literal. There are also some other uncomfortable elements regarding the Merron. Homosexuality is accepted in their culture and the narrative, while not explicit, does not hide the fact. And while the Kingdom has always been painted in a way that made them seem somewhat “Christian” in their beliefs, the Merron are not and their pagan beliefs and practices caught me off guard. (Though had I been a little more familiar with Vikings…) The story is still violent and doesn’t gloss over many details but it doesn’t revel in them either.
Despite the fact that the story ends without meeting Alberon, it doesn’t feel like wasted filler as many middle books do. The main trio go through quite a journey to arrive on Alberon’s doorstep; not just physically, but in every other regard. And their purpose slowly transforms from just “find Alberon and figure out what’s going on” to “not just the Kingdom is at stake.” The next volume entices with the promise to finally reveal all.
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