Cecilia Dart-Thornton, The Battle of Evernight (Warner Aspect, 2003)

In The Battle of Evernight, Cecilia Dart-Thornton brings the saga of the Ill-Made Mute to an ending as epic and enchanting as any fairy tale. What was once a sexless, nameless, voiceless hideous servant slaving in the depths of a Stormriders' Tower has become a true lady at long last, name and voice and face and memories all restored after a series of perilous adventures. And the truth is far grander and greater than any could have imagined. For Ashalind, formerly known as Imrhien, Rohain, and Tahquil (each name representing a different stage of her rebirth and rediscovery), is one of the last of the ancient Talith, a race of people who once dwelt in fabled Avlantia before many departed the world of Eruith forever, to dwell with the Fair Folk, the Faeran. And Ashalind's quest, forgotten for a time, has become all the more urgent.

For once upon a time, a thousand years past, she risked her life and soul to free the children of her city from the Faeran, only to discover that a most insidious and unquenchable longing for the Fair Realm still held fast within their souls. Even as she worked to make things right, treachery within the Faeran took root, and on the day when the Talith left the mortal world, the king of the Faeran and his brother were left behind, barred by gates that would never again open. And only one person, Ashalind, knew the secret to restore them to their kingdom once and for all. But time flies differently between the worlds. A thousand years passed in the blink of an eye, and the world outside changed. And when Ashalind at last emerged, bitter happenstance caused her to fall victim to the Bitterbynde of the Gate of Oblivion's Kiss. Gone was her voice, to an evil spirit's lash. Gone was her golden hair, as payment for free passage. Gone was her memory to the bitterbynde, turning her into a blank slate. Gone was her beauty, stolen by the vicious paradox plant. And all was lost.

Now Ashalind is restored, and her quest has taken on a new urgency. The King of the Faeran lies sleeping, somewhere in the lands of Erith, while his brother, Prince Morragan, walks the world to spread his own form of amoral mischief, all the while seeking Ashalind, who alone knows of his treachery and secrets. Ashalind must find the king, find the Gate of Oblivion's Kiss, and find the cure for the longing of the Fair Realm which assaults her anew. Meanwhile, her true love and betrothed, King James XVI, may be in grave peril, or already dead. All that stands between Ashalind and her goal is a land filled with Seelie and Unseelie wights, a Faeran host ready to capture or kill her on sight, and a brewing war. Her allies are few, and the time short. And even if she succeeds, her success may be a bitter one, as the world of the Faeran will never again touch upon the world of men.

This is a fairy tale like very few others. Cecilia Dart-Thornton has woven an intricate story drawing upon dozens of folk tales, myths, and legends, including everything from Christina Rosetti's "Goblin Market" to the story of Tam Lin, to the story of Thomas the Rhymer, to Robert Herrick's "Oberon's Feast," and including inspirations taken from Welsh, English, Scottish, and Irish sources. An exhaustive list would take far too much room, and worse yet, would spoil some of the best sequences in the book. Suffice it to say that the land Ashalind and her companions cross is dangerous, unpredictable, and chock-full of magical creatures with their own agendas firmly in mind. The plot is a lot more intricate and wide-sweeping than I can explain without giving it away, so pardon my omissions.

This trilogy has a lot going for it. Beyond the profound appreciation for, and use of, traditional folk tales and ballads and fairy tales, there's a sensuous love affair with the English language. Dart-Thornton is someone who has managed to capture the spirit and magic of fantasies gone past without repeating or echoing them. Exquisite and dazzling, the words charm their way off the page to create something with a uniquely beautiful style and flavor.

Better still, the story is unpredictable. For every time when one might guess correctly at a plot twist based on familiarity with the source material, there's another time when the truth blindsides the reader. I can think of at least two major revelations that pretty much smacked me silly with no warning whatsoever, yet were, looking back, perfectly obvious from the clues. What happens near the end is almost heart-breaking, and yet strangely fitting, as mythic as the story's scope itself. From having everything, to losing it all and being forced to grow all over again, to reconciling her new life with her old, Ashalind's journey is a hero's quest unlike any other.

If you like epic fantasy, and you're not reading the Bitterbynde Trilogy (The Ill-Made Mute, The Lady of the Sorrows, and The Battle of Evernight), then you're really missing out on something spectacular. I'm already looking forward to seeing what Cecilia Dart-Thornton will deliver next.

You can visit the author on the Web at www.dartthornton.com. Please consult my reviews of her first two titles (see links above) to see what else I've had to say on the series and the author.

[Michael M. Jones]