And so, dear reader of reviews, my journey into revisiting cheesy ’90s epic fantasy that I may or may not have read as a kid continues. Last year I dipped into The Far Kingdoms to keep myself company with a broken elbow. This year, with a pandemic stalking close, I decided it was time to return to that universe with The Warrior’s Tale. Allan Cole and Chris Bunch place Rali Antero in the narrator hot seat.
Several years have passed since Amalric Antero returned from finding the Far Kingdoms. Orissa prospers, but it is also on the verge of war. Rali Antero leads her all-female Maranon Guard into battle against the Lycanthians alongside the regular Orissan army. What should have been simple cleanup—chase down and dispatch the last Archon of Lycanth—turns into a years’ long quest worthy of Homer’s Odyssey. Along the way, Rali will fight pirates, wizards, demons, and her own internal turmoil. Is she a warrior? A wizard? Something else?
Some praise for this book: for the 1990s, it’s progressive in terms of sexuality. Rali is openly lesbian, and there’s no hint of disapproval from the authors or titillation. Granted, she is still a lesbian written from the perspective of two dudes, so take this praise with the large shaker of table salt that accompanies it. But it really is nice that the hero of this book isn’t some burly white dude warrior, and it is very amusing that Burch and Cole reward Rali with the kind of scenes we might expect from such a protagonist: she gets the love-making, the praise for her prowess, and to butt heads with the less savoury leaders of the mercenaries and other groups she must align herself with. Yes, there’s a fair amount of, “It’s tough being a woman in a man’s world” to the book, and that might start to sound repetitive after a while. Also, the cringey sexytimes descriptions do not stop in this book just because Rali et al boink their own sex.
That’s what all the different battle sequences are for.
This is an adventure tale, and it lives up to that promise. Rali & Co. lurch from one scrape to the next, yet Burch and Cole remember to give us enough time to breathe between each chapter. Along the way, Rali develops as a character. At the beginning of the book, she perceives her responsibilities very narrowly: she is the commander of the Maranon Guard, and she is responsible for the lives and honour of her women. As the journey to find the Archon, and then to return to Orissa, continues, Rali realizes she has to widen her perspective. She must take into consideration the entire ramshackle fleet under her command, and she needs to use everything at her disposal—that includes magic, and also guile. Rali at the beginning is merely a soldier; by the end, she is truly a warrior.
The structure of the story might start to feel repetitive, but I consider it reassuring. As with the first book, there isn’t much here if you’re hoping for a fantasy novel that shakes up the status quo. There are glimpses of something greater—towards the end, Rali meditates on how power corrupts and how the Archon’s attempts to elude death mean he must constantly expand his appetite for power. These are themes and ideas better explored in other fantasy series. Similarly, some of the episodes in this story are a little predictable, like the whole debacle with the Sarzana. There is a methodical and therefore mediocre quality to the plotting here, and it’s nothing to write home about.
This series continues to be the kind of tonic I like in my ’90s fantasy revisit. It’s not going to surprise you, but it won’t disappoint either.