I'm often more pleased to find a good debut novel than I am to see another book by an author whose work I've read. It's just something about the thrill of discovery. The River Kings’ Road: A Novel of Ithelas by Liane Merciel is a low fantasy novel set in the crumbling borderlands between two not quite warring lands. This isn't a grand and epic quest with great heroes. This is a humble tale where most of the poor author-abused characters and hapless victims get to slog along in the muck and mire with the maggots, the missing teeth, the scars, the gallows trees. There's no clash of gleaming blades or well equipped armies, no tall and shiny city walls. There are murdered children, an alley brawl with cheap knives and cudgels and shabby walls of wood and stone with a spike filled muddy ditch in front of them for reinforcement.
The River Kings' Road of title is a relic of a long-ago empire of higher magic. That empire set up a system of stone roads that glow gently in the moonlight so that no traveler need ever fear the dark. Yet if anyone tries to chip off a sliver of the road, the light flickers and dies in his hand. The remaining magic is limited and comes with a price. There's a noble paladin of a god of light who commands some magic, yet must pay for his strength in unbreakable religious vows. If he breaks a vow he loses his power forever. There's another goddess that gives power in blood, pain and death. There are some barbarian tribesmen who have a little beast magic. Most people in this world go a lifetime without seeing magic. Given some of the darker magic in this world they should probably be glad of it. Even the kinder magics have a price. A desperate mother who leaves her baby on the steps of one of the temples of light gives up any hope of that god smiling on her again. A lifetime's worth of hope and luck must be forfeited to have your baby raised as a temple orphan, ensuring him enough to eat, an education, and a chance at being a priest someday. Only the most desperate pay that price.
There's a "knight" who appears to have gained his status not by birth or training, but because he's a strong fighter and a lord somewhere gave him a medallion. He's really just a mercenary who swore an oath to serve for a term of a few years. His lord is assassinated by treachery and dark magic, along with the lord's wife and all the inhabitants of the village where they were staying. The knight survives the initial attack and a mortally wounded serving maid hands him his lord's infant son. The knight manages to escape the village with the baby, fleeing the unnatural bloodmist and the screams of the doomed. He finds a woman of the village in the woods with her baby boy and takes the two survivors along with him as a wet nurse for the infant heir.
The author has set up an interesting world. It's the standard medieval Europe-like setting without the common cleaning up of life and surrounds to make it more palatable and familiar to the modern reader. It's a broad enough world that I can see the author using the setting for many more stories. I thought she also did very well with both her heroes and villains. I kept turning pages because I really wanted to see what happened next. Hopefully this author has another book in the works - I'd happily read another.