In Halls of Law, V.M. Escalada (a pseudonym for fantasy author Violette Malan) drops us into a fantasy world in which a Rome-like empire has extended its rule across a continent, supported and strengthened by a society of magic users called Talents. Thanks to an unexpected and sudden manifestation of magical powers, a young soldier-in-training is forcibly to change careers, leaving the military to enter the Halls of Law to be trained as a Talent, like it or not. At heart, this is that soldier’s story.
She is Kerida Nast, and like her sisters, like her mother, like everyone in her family line, she is devoted to a life spent rising up the ranks in the military. The Nast family has a reputation in the Faraman Polity for turning out generations of leaders. It is therefore a shock when, years after the typical age where talents would be detected, Kerida’s magical gifts manifest themselves. She is beside herself, as it means the end of her military career—if you are determined to be a Talent, you must join the Halls of Law, and give up the sword (or any other career) for the life of a mage, reading objects and people, acting as an agent of the government. Oh, and you must also sacrifice the company of your family.
It is in the midst of Kerida’s early Talent training that a seaborne invasion from a hitherto unknown enemy rocks the Faraman Polity, quickly plunging the Empire into chaos. The Luqs—the woman who serves as the head of the Empire itself—is under threat: possibly captured, maybe even slain, leaving the line of succession succession and chain of command unclear. The invaders also seem to be hunting and killing any Talents they can find, so Kerida soon finds herself on the run, relying not only on her abilities, but on her upbringing and military training to survive, and hopefully find a way to rally her land to unite against this new foe. Along the way, she’ll make discoveries about Talents, the army, outcasts from her society, and a prophecy that seems to be all about her. Oh, there’s also one awesome young Griffin also convinced of her importance.
The richness of the world is reason enough to immerse yourself in this book. The typical historically based fantasy empire is given a makeover; this is a culture with abundant opportunities for women to wield power, political and otherwise. The Halls of Law provide an interesting evolution of the idea of magical societies and judges, weaving them expertly into the frame of the world. The logistics of civilization are also a factor: once the invaders advance and start disrupting the empire to claim it for their own, Escalada takes care to organically consider the strain institutions and people undergo when under pressure. The view into the culture of the empire’s military units, especially as they react to, fight, and sometimes buckle under the control of the invaders, is fascinating. A group of outcasts, whose strange powers have made them from the Polity for generations, add a layer of history and mythology. And Kerida learns griffins are far more than just a legendary heraldic symbol of the Halls.
The worldbuilding, plotting, and action beats are strongest when focused on Kerida. The tension of her plight—she was someone who also knew her path in life, only to see it crumble away before her— alongside the other burdens thrust upon her make her an interesting and engaging heroine. The other points of view we encounter, valuable as they are in fleshing out the action and the world, never quite engage on the same level—though even when one of them seems to be there only as a way to show life under the invaders’ yoke, we eventually learn this person, too, is much more special than he ever suspected. Still, Escalada’s strength is exploring her protagonist, and doing it well. Kerida is a worthy one, and comes to life—imperfect, all too human, and yet willing to rise to the challenges set before her.
I look forward to the continuation of Kerida’s story, and to discovering the fate of the Polity, in the next volume. And, no surprise, more of the griffin too.