Lynn Kurland is nothing if not consistent. The three (to date) trilogies that constitute her Nine Kingdoms series all begin exactly the same way: A poor but beautiful woman with no affinity for or trust in magic reluctantly embarks upon a dangerous but extremely important quest. Her companion, whom she initially mistrusts, is a mysterious man of surpassing physical splendor with a tragic past who is secretly a powerful mage and who is also secretly royalty. The two embark upon a journey fraught with incident (typically, everyone is kidnapped at least once), during which it is revealed that the woman is also secretly royalty. This is news to her, however, as her friends (most of whom are mages, royalty, or both) have been concealing her past from her and her very existence from the wider world, for her own safety, for most of her life.
River of Dreams continues the story (begun in last year’s Dreamspinner) of beautiful but poor and magic-averse Aisling of Bruadair, who has been charged by a mysterious factor to go in search of a hired gun to save her kingdom, the name and in fact even the very existence of which she is forbidden upon pain of death to disclose. A tall order, to be sure. Fortunately, she has teamed up with Rùnach, the handsome royal elven mage who is still healing in mind and body after a dire event that killed half his family, scattered the survivors to the four winds, tore his magic away, and left half his face covered in a web of scars. Rùnach figures out quickly enough where she’s from, as does pretty much everyone else they encounter, making everyone’s initial insistence on secrecy something of a head-scratcher.
In any event, in River of Dreams Aisling and Rùnach are running hither and yon about the Nine Kingdoms, spending time with royal elves, royal dwarves, and Rùnach’s evil father’s ex-girlfriend, the much-feared but actually rather amusing Witch-Woman of Fàs. Rùnach discovers a mysterious book of spells. Aisling learns that she may be more powerful than she or anyone else could possibly imagine. Everyone they meet figures out pretty much immediately where she’s from and what she’s about. No one bothers to tell her, reasoning that it’s better if she figures it out for herself. For her own safety, or something. I’ve said it many times before, but if the characters in Kurland’s books actually talked to one another, the books would all be like fifty pages long.
I will say that I liked River of Dreams a lot better than I liked Dreamspinner. Aisling is less of a passive ninny here than in the previous book (although she’s still not nearly as sharply-drawn or interesting as Morgan or Sarah, the heroines of the previous two Nine Kingdoms trilogies). Kurland adds some nice touches, including an enchanted book of paintings and a magical steed who very definitely has a mind of his own. Old friends from previous trilogies turn up, as well, so if you’ve been following events in the Nine Kingdoms, you’ll want to read this book just to stay on top of the action.
Best of all, Rùnach actually declares himself to Aisling, and she actually seems to be considering his suit, although there continues to be a bit of that “But you’re elven royalty and I’m nooooobody” to which Kurland’s heroines tend to be prone. They even — brace yourself, gentle reader — kiss!
— Which actually makes this one of Kurland’s racier Nine Kingdoms books to date. Now, I applaud her commitment to keeping her books PG-rated; I like that I can share these books with Mini-Me without blushing. (Unfortunately, due to the complete absence of talking cats or Aaron Rodgers, Mini-Me hasn’t been all that interested in this series so far. I keep hoping she’ll come around.) And I fully agree that everything doesn’t need to be Heaving Creamy Bosoms This and Pulsating Rock-Hard ManRoot That. But as with previous books in this series, I’d love to see a little more heat. Despite Rùnach’s insistence on his love for the fair Aisling, I never bought them as more than friends.
On the other hand, Rùnach is an elf, and Aisling is — well, that would be telling. Maybe they don’t actually have TEH ICKY SECKS? Maybe their passion is consummated mind-to-mind in the aether, amidst the starlight and the music of the spheres? What do I know, anyway?
Well, I know this: Readers who have been faithfully following Kurland’s Nine Kingdoms series should definitely pick this one up. Readers who are new to this world should instead check out Star of the Morning, the first volume in the series, and see whether it’s to your taste. And everyone with an eleven-year-old daughter (or son, for that matter) with an interest in fantasy fiction should share these books with the kids, because there’s absolutely nothing objectionable in them, and the chaste romance will be just enough to make a tweener swoon.