Jane Lindskold, The Dragon of Despair (Tor, 2003)

In The Dragon of Despair, the third book in the series started with Through Wolf's Eyes and continued in Wolf's Head, Wolf's Heart, feral wolf-girl and reluctant hero, Firekeeper, is back. It's been little more than a year since her discovery in the wilderness and return to civilization, and in that short time, Firekeeper, always accompanied by her faithful wolf friend Blind Seer, has been instrumental in solving hazards both political and otherwise for the now-allied kingdoms of Bright Bay and Hawk Harbor. Indeed, with the sticky problem of royal succession and political intrigue mostly a thing of the past, everyone thought they could relax for a while. After all, with would-be sorceress and master manipulator Lady Melina Shield discredited and exiled, and her daughter Sapphire (now Crown Princess of Hawk Harbor) free from Melina's ensorcellment, things look peaceful. That is, until intelligence reveals that Melina has married the Healed One, leader of the enigmatic, magic-revering nation of New Kelvin. How bad is this?

Well, any situation where Melina has political or magical power is bound to be a bad one. She wasn't above giving away her youngest daughter as a hostage, an act which left poor Citrine addled in the head. Nor has she shown any reluctance in using or killing those who get in her way. So it's up to Firekeeper, Blind Seer, Lady Elise Archer, Lord Edlin Kestrel, and several others to mount an expedition back to New Kelvin &emdash; a land they barely escaped from intact last time &emdash; find out what Melina's up to, and stop her if need be. Meanwhile, over the Iron Mountains, new human settlers threaten the peace of Firekeeper's wolf family's home, a disturbance that could well spell war between men and beasts if left unchecked.

Can Firekeeper manage to defuse the oncoming war, and still keep Melina from raising a deadly magical power whose like hasn't been seen in centuries? Even if she can, it'll be as difficult a task as any she's had to face since she was reintroduced to the human world. Even with her friends to aid her, it'll be brutal and desperate, and treachery will come from the unlikeliest of sources.

Once again, the true strength of the story comes from the way Firekeeper deals with society, and the problems that invariably arise. For a woman raised by wolves, human culture is needlessly complex and often puzzling; watching her learn the distinctions between the relatively similiar concepts of thieves, bandits, and spies, for example, is as fascinating as it is darkly amusing. Watching her attack each new problem with her unique hybrid of human ingenuity and wolfish upbringing is likewise a reflection on society itself.

Of course, the story doesn't depend upon Firekeeper alone. With the political maneuvering that so largely dominated the first book and carried over into the second mostly settled, Lindskold returns her attentions to the relatively alien culture of New Kelvin, exploring its history and secrets and peoples in more detail. It's clear that once Lindskold had the "default" kingdoms of Bright Bay and Hawk Haven set up, she felt free to roam further abroad in the world she's created. Imagine, if you would, that England and France and Spain and other European countries had all colonized parts of America, but when a plague descended upon the population, wiping out the magically-strong, they buggered back off across the ocean, leaving the colonies to fend for themselves, never to hear from their founders again. That's about the long and short of it, really. Which leaves the question open, I presume, to future books: whatever did happen to the Founders back home, and why haven't they been back to check on their colonies?

If I digress, it's only because The Dragon of Despair seems to encourage such wayward thoughts. The basic plot is as simple as the complications are complex: Firekeeper and friends have to stop Melina from doing something Very Very Bad. Unfortunately, New Kelvin has become a hostile place towards outsiders, and their culture is so intrinsically different from what our heroes are used to that it's easy to make missteps and run into pitfalls. Especially since the local politics are even more of a snakepit than originally assumed. It's hard to know who to trust, and the end result is people with like agendas threatening to work against one another, unknowingly. Maybe the world really does need someone like Firekeeper, who tends to cut right to the heart of the matter with direct words or a sharp knife if need be.

Originally, I'd thought this to be the last in a trilogy. However, I'm pleased to be wrong on that matter. Lindskold is working on the fourth in the series, tenatively entitled Wolf Captured (and if that isn't a slightly ominous title...). This is especially good since there are still far too many questions to be answered, and facets of the world to be explored. The three books so far have covered a year, maybe a little more, and it's clear Firekeeper's story is far from over.

I highly recommend that new readers start with the first book in the series. That caveat aside, The Dragon of Despair is the continuing quintessential story of the feral child all grown up, with plenty of skulduggery, intrigue, and adventure all thrown in for good measure. Firekeeper is as believable, and likeable, a character as any of the people-raised-by-wild-animals who populate the literary universe, and I look forward to seeing much more of her story.

[Michael M. Jones]