This book is pretty much where White did the least amount of cribbing from other sources and, overall, the least awkward job in characterization. Overall.
The Redemption Character in this one is Wesley, Lisa, and Kurt’s younger cousin, Mary McNab. For once, White put some actual goddamn effort into detailing Mary’s background of general parental neglect and body issues (being overweight and having pimples) and her overcompensation with arrogance about her high intelligence, which just divides her further from her peers. We actually see Mary’s (step)mother in flashbacks, showing more and telling less than White has done up till now.
On the flip side, though, one of the minor-er characters has a backstory of abuse that is completely fucking glossed over. Everybody in the goddamn palace knows how this kid is beaten and abused by his father, but nobody did a goddamn thing about it. This kid is apparently a good friend of the crown prince, but the king did fuck-all to protect the kid. Seriously, Kardia, fuck every single one of those fingers you didn’t lift to help even though you were in the best position to do so. Jesus Mithra Odin Hare Krishna fuck.
Anyway, the story. Mary McNab was shipped off to her Uncle John’s house because her mother’s new boyfriend didn’t like her. She does have reasons to have issues, yay characterization, and Uncle John makes a point to Wesley, Lisa, and Kurt to be nice to her, with mixed success.
One night, Mary has a dream about a man named Gaal who gives her a message for her cousins and the Sword of Geburah for Wesley. She tells her cousins about it the next morning, but right then a crazy great-aunt makes an appearance, and Mary is whisked away by the TVs while hiding from her. Wesley, Kurt, and Lisa are too late to go with her, but they go into the TV with a picture of the Anthropos council room.
It turns out that while they were away for about six months, it’s been forty years in Anthropos. There is a witch, the Lady of Night and the Empress-to-Be of the Darkness that Swallows the World, who is trying to take over the world with snow and night, and she accomplishes that by breaking the sceptre of the ruler of that country. Six countries have already fallen to her, and Anthropos-Playsion (merged by Kardia’s and Sunedeisis’s marriage) is the only one left on the continent to withstand her. Kardia shows the kids the iron sceptre that Gaal gave him just a few weeks after they left (forty years ago).
Meanwhile, Mary is in an igloo prison, taken capture by a grizzly bear. The artic foxes are snappy and angry, the ermines are snobbish and rude, but the artic hares are nice and show her how to put on some parkas and fur trousers so she doesn’t catch cold. I think it’s pretty interesting that White uses Inuit stuff here rather than more medieval European stuff like the rest of Anthropos is.
Anyway, it turns out Mary wasn’t supposed to have been imprisoned, and she’s treated fairly well by the polar bear captain of the guard, but she stumbles out in a blizzard out of dumb curiosity and then stumbles across the entrance to the three circles of the Lady of Night’s realm. Instead of Lewis, we got more Dante going on, with the Circle of Bodily Yearnings, the Circle that Dazzles the Eye, and the Circle of Blasphemy. Except Mary only makes it to the first, where she is tempted out of her kayak by a giant dish of chocolate fudge ice cream with walnuts, her favorite.
Yeah, there’s a solid bit of “hur hur, fat people eat a lot” humor in this book. Not a fan, but at least White only does it a couple times in passing. Granted, it’s nowhere near the worst temptation scene I’ve read. And Hare Krishna fuck, there’s a lot of terrible temptation scenes to choose from.
And back at the palace-ranch, the one abused kid I’ve already bitched about shows up to deliver a letter from his father telling the king oh yeah, I’ve joined the witch and we’ve got the queen and prince now, bitches. There’s some talk about whether the kid was in on the plot, but the fact that he was abused lends some credibility to his claim that he wasn’t.
And here’s what I think of White’s cheap use of abusive backstory in this instance:
Anyway, Strongbeak the talking eagle arrives to tell of the queen and prince’s capture and of a message he received from Gaal, directing the otherworldly kids to a journey north through the mountains. They’re chased by more traitors, but something weird happens, and they’re caught up in the mythic Goldcoffin’s Meadow and vanished to the Low Way.
Goldcoffin, once Goldson from The Sword Bearer, now lives in a palace under the mountains, surrounded by treasure like a really tiny, elderly dragon—nevermind, that just makes him sound lame. Like an evil Midas? I guess that works—like an evil Midas with demon henchmen. Some more temptation junk, and again it isn’t super-facepalm awkward. Hooray!
Back at the Mary-ranch, Mary is being beguiled by the witch, and it isn’t lame or awkward because we know how much Mary wants acceptance and warm-fuzzies, and she’s willing to stay with the witch despite the creepy factor because the witch showers her with affection and promises to make her beautiful.
The witch gives Mary a little crystal ball that allows her to travel via fire to anywhere she wants to go. She sends Mary to the Anthropos palace to see if she can steal the sceptre. Because the sceptre has a constant, weird magnetic-like attraction to the king, Mary ends up telling him, as instructed by the witch, that Gaal told her, Mary, to tell his majesty to invade the Ice Kingdom and conquer the witch. The king is a bit puzzled because Gaal’s message from Strongbeak specifically told Kardia to stay put in Anthropos, but he’s rarin’ to go and do something.
Blahblahblah, Mary is temporarily made magically beautiful, and it’s as good as she could ever have wanted, but she finds out that it was beauty borrowed from a shade, which will soon consume her. Blahblah, the creepy’s built up enough that Mary wants out of Dodge (as soon as her beauty is made permanent). Gaal comes to her in a dream to have a mild come-to-Jesus talk with her, but she still wants the magical beauty and the magical power of her little crystal ball.
Next, the witch sends her to the queen and prince’s prison at the bottom of the sea, guarded by the goddess Medusa, to wait for her cousin’s arrival. She gets to know Queen Suneidesis and Prince Tiqvah, and she decides she wants to be on Gaal’s side, buuuuut she still wants the power and beauty the witch offers. I’m not sure I like how it’s played out, but at least it’s trying to be subtle. I kinda like the sheer humanity of wanting to keep some little, little thing that has a bizzarely deep-seated importance to you, but I know those types that guilt you about giving up everything for Jesus. I can acknowledge that the magical beauty and crystal ball were bad for her, but it was set up very black-and-white, as if anything Mary tried to do to alter her appearance, like using makeup or something, would be an offense to Gaal. There are people in the wilds of Fundieland that go to that extreme, and I don’t want to give them even a subtext’s worth of foothold, because that’s only the tip of the Madonna-whore iceberg and fuck those assholes.
Anyway, Gaal shows up, anoints her with his blood to complete the redemption arc, and has her destroy Medusa with the little crystal ball.
And Kurt, Wesley, and Lisa journey-blahblah to the bottom of the sea, have a run-in with Poseidon, blahblahblah, find Mary, the queen and prince (Gaal’s gone to do other stuff by then). And Kurt has to face his biggest fear, fighting a giant rooster. This one is kinda cheesy, because he has help with Wesley reading from a letter from Gaal to reassure him, but at least Kurt needed plenty of reassurance and not just a brief “because Jesus.” Because Jesus isn’t a magic word that automatically fixes everything, like some Christian fiction apparently believes.
Kardia is sailing through the witch’s kingdom, most of the rest of the ship asleep, and passes through the various Dantesque circles. This time the sceptre tries to tear itself away from him, and there’s scrambling to recover it and keep it safe and so forth.
Blahblahblah, the witch is pretty well defeated and her kingdom crumbles, but apparently she got away at the very end, and she’s going to come back to kill the king.
Two years later, there’s a big-ass dragon ravaging the countryside, and it’s the witch. The king faces her in battle, but is mortally wounded. It’s Wesley who delivers the finishing blow with the Sword of Geburah. And then they attend Kardia on his funeral barge, and then they arrive at Heaven Allegory and Gaal resurrects Kardia in a Caspian-in-Silver-Chair kind of thing. Then the kids go home.
I did say this one was my favorite, but it’s probably obvious that I’m pretty well aware of its flaws. It’s more inventive and more natural-feeling than the rest of the series. Mary is a pretty well-developed character, and the gang of three we knew before show some more development.
Unfortunately it’s going to get worse from here. I’m sorry. Next up is The Quest for the King, which isn’t bad, but it’s just not as good.