May 10, 2018


Riders of the Realm #1: Across the Dark Water. By Jennifer Lynn Alvarez. Harper. $16.99.

     The four-book Guardian Herd series has spawned a new planned trilogy set in the same world – and involving species beyond the pegasi, whose trials and tribulations were chronicled at length by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez in the Guardian Herd books. The new Riders of the Realm sequence is strictly for fans of the earlier books who have hungered for more of the same, maybe with some human beings thrown in to interact with the flying horses. That is exactly what readers get, no more and no less, in Across the Dark Water. Here the 140 pegasi of the Storm Herd journey across the Dark Ocean to seek freedom from Nightwing the Destroyer and a new home where they can graze and fly freely. Their leader is Echofrost, who is brave and determined but who succeeds only in bringing the Storm Herd to places peopled by barbaric giants and two-legged Landwalkers – that is, human beings.

     The human society already knows about pegasi, using tame ones in war and for protection against the threatening giants. The Storm Herd is astonished to see humans riding on pegasi – and dismayed when herd member Shysong is captured by the Landwalkers. Soon Echofrost is caught as well, and the two pegasi need to figure out how to escape before they become Landwalker slaves. Unsurprisingly in this formula-packed book, the pegasi end up with an unlikely Landwalker ally: 12-year-old Rahkki Stormrunner, who feels a not-surprising-at-all (in view of his name) connection to the Storm Herd and to pegasi in general. Unfortunately, Rahkki and Echofrost cannot understand each other – will they come to common ground before Shysong and Echofrost are doomed to servitude?

     Readers need little grounding in standard fantasy-adventure lore to see what will happen here and why: for example, Rahkki is an orphan, of course, and therefore develops a “family” kinship with the pegasi. But Rahkki is supposed to prepare Echofrost for auction, and is therefore conflicted between duty and deep feelings (or ones that readers are told are deep; this is not really clear in the narrative itself).

     Even for Guardian Herd readers of around Rahkki’s age (the book’s target audience is ages 8-12), Across the Dark Water will be on the creaky side. It starts with a rather poorly done summary of the huge battle that makes the Storm Herd’s flight across the Dark Ocean possible. The writing is less than crystal clear – anyone not already familiar with the four Guardian Herd books will likely be confused about who is who and what is what here. The new book’s pacing is on the decidedly slow side, and its focus changes midway from the pegasi, who are more interesting than the Landwalkers, to the political ins, outs and foibles of the humans – who are not especially well-differentiated and whose politics is the usual mess of slyness, power-seeking and backstabbing. The more time Alvarez spends on the Landwalkers, the duller they seem in comparison to the pegasi. And the overarching story conception here – slaves flee, seeking freedom, and find a new world that brings them only more bondage – is scarcely a new one. Rahkki is suitably heroic-but-conflicted but is not an interesting enough character to provide strong identification for readers – who are more likely to feel kinship for the pegasi. Across the Dark Water reads like an afterthought to the Guardian Herd sequence rather than the fully formed beginning of a new, related book series set in the same world and featuring some of the same characters. Alvarez seems to be trying too hard to get extra mileage out of her original concept, but instead of the Landwalker elements expanding the scope of the Guardian Herd books, they seem mostly to narrow it and make it more mundane and earthbound.

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