Dawn Cook, First Truth (Ace, 2002)

Alissa is perfectly content with her life in the foothills, living alone with her mother, an accomplished weaver.  After all, her status as half-breed (mother from the plains, father from the foothills, combining the best and worst of both worlds, belonging to none) makes her ill-fit to mingle with either of the two xenophobic, antagonistic communities she knows of.  She's naturally quite surprised, then, when her mother suddenly forces her out into the world with appropriate supplies and a rank bag of dust that is supposedly her dead father's last gift to her.  Alissa, it seems, has inherited a legacy of magic and power from her father, one she must now embrace.  She has to journey to the Hold, a near-mythical center of learning, a fortress where Keepers serve the enigmatic Masters, learning magic from them all the while.  Without any choice, Alissa thus sets out.

Strell is a wandering minstrel and explorer, who's returned home to the plains after years away, only to discover a terrible tragedy has wiped out his family.  With no one left but himself to carry on the name, and nowhere to go, he sets off again, looking for....?   What he finds, though, is a kindly woman in the foothills who gives him shelter in trade for a precious map, legacy of her dead husband.  Thus does Strell set forth into the world.

Before long, Alissa and Strell meet up, forming an unlikely partnership reminiscent of the Odd Couple, the plainsman and hillsgirl squabbling even as they're forced to rely upon one another.  Together, they seek out the Hold, their only hope of refuge before the winter storms set in.  They don't necessarily like or trust one another, centuries of distrust between their two peoples proving hard to overcome.  But faced with adversity, they come together.

The Hold proves to be a greater disappointment, and greater mystery, than they could imagine.  The Masters are gone, the Keepers all slain, and one man alone, the Keeper Bailic, holds sway over the fortress.   His power is absolute, and Alissa and Strell have little choice but to go along with his capricious, unpredictable, oft-frightening ways.  For he seeks The First Truth, a book of unimaginable power, hidden years ago by none other than Alissa's father.  Bailic is convinced one of his two guests holds the key to finding the book, but whom?

As winter drags on, Strell and Alissa are instructed in the ways of magic and music, drawn ever-tighter into an intricate web that dates back decades.  Alissa must master the power within her, and unlock the secret of the being called Useless, before Bailic succeeds in his quest... or worse.  In the darkest corners of the Hold, secrets can kill, and men can go mad.

First Truth is well-told and intriguing, imbued with a hint of claustrophobia and paranoia, the sort one might find in a remote Arctic base. The characters are complex, and the almost playful bickering between Alissa and Strell is charmingly entertaining, definitely realistic. The truth is rarely as evident as it seems, and the revelations played out leave plenty of room for future installments in the story of Alissa, Strell, Bailic, and Useless. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next.

[Michael M. Jones]