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Medalon
Jennifer Fallon
Orbit paperback £7.99

review by Eric Turowski

The murder of the First Sister of Medalon sets in motion a political upheaval that will shatter political alliances and religious beliefs. Joyhinia Tenragen, a Machiavellian manipulator of the highest order, weaves a grand scheme to place herself as leader of the Sisterhood. For two centuries, the matriarchy has controlled Medalon, outlawing pagan worship after exterminating and banishing the Harshini, a race of passive people with godlike powers. Joyhina's children, R'shiel (a probate in the Sisterhood) and Tarja (a captain of the Defenders, the well-trained army of Medalon), end up leading a pagan rebellion against their mother. And waiting in the wings: an invasion from the north, the inscrutable motives of the gods, and the fulfilling of a prophecy of deicide.

The main thrust of the plot centres on R'shiel, who begins to undergo a strange transformation into something more than human. The remaining Harshini, now in hiding, believe that she is the mythical Demon Child, a half-human, half-Harshini with both the ability to tap into the gods' power and a tendency toward violence absent in pure members of the race. Brak, also half-Harshini, is sent to track the demon child down. He travels to the Citadel, stronghold of the Sisterhood. But on his way there, Brak encounters pagan rebels, R'shiel and Tarja among them, and stays on as a mercenary. The Harshini need the demon child to commit demicide. Xaphista, a powerful demon-god of the monotheistic Karien nation bordering Medalon to the north, keeps the Harshini down, and must be destroyed. But an upstart rebel band is hardly a match for Medalon's Defenders. Joyhinia wants the rebellion purged, the priesthood of Karien and the Harshini both want R'shiel, and the Defenders want to make an example of renegade Tarja. Throw in sexual sadist Loclon; zealous priest of Xaphista, Elfron; the bickering, catty quorum of the Sisters of the Blade; noble but obedient Garet Warner and Palin Jenga - senior officers of the Defenders; and you run the gamut of human emotion and motivation.

The Karien, with their belief in one god, support the Medalon Sisterhood's purge of pagan worshippers. Hythrya, to the southeast, maintains polytheism, not only worshipping many gods, but also the Harshini. These aspects polarise the characters and contribute to a looming suspense without interfering with the more personal plot of the story. And it makes the reader wonder what Fallon has in mind for the next two books of this series. As these groups and belief systems come into conflict, the most telling aspect of the novel comes to the forefront, and that is that the entire system of Medalon is based upon a lie. The Sisterhood's two centuries of power, based on enforced atheism, constantly faces religious rebellion not only based on what people believe, but the actual, physical existence of the gods the Sisterhood set out to suppress. They appear and interfere with humanity but with motivations (much to Fallon's credit) that seem beyond human reckoning. That Joyhinia, her entire life also based on mistruths, comes to power seems fitting, and the vast majority of Medalon has that same feeling, that all the parts fit very seamlessly to tell a large story.

Philosophically, it makes one ponder just how much of any organisation is fallacy-based (and the fact that the United States is a successful 200-year-old nation that espouses religious freedom while eliminating public prayer, equal rights after a century of genocide, etc, might lead anyone to ponder, given the state of current events). But it is within internal conflicts that Fallon's characters become fleshed out, so while R'shiel could easily have been a cardboard 'rebellious adolescent daughter', Tarja a 'loyal soldier' and Joyhinia an 'evil bitch', a very tactile fabric is woven from fibres of the commonplace, the fantastic and the humanistic. In combination, R'shiel, for example, experiences emotional and physical changes of adolescence entwined with the physical changes of becoming more than human, and from these aspects, a third - an emotional reaction - is drawn out to complete a more complex character. While it's a nifty trick to portray one character's transformation this way, it's even niftier when all the characters reach this transitive state while reacting differently to similar stimuli.

Fallon's stumbling block is her 'magic rules', and as magic is the crux of conflict in the novel, we're left with either a far-too-simple, or worse, un-thought-out, system to suspend our disbelief. We see the Harshini and gods access magical powers from some hidden source. We see demons (small magical beings, not evil masters of hell) combine into larger creatures. We are told that two types of god exist: Primal gods, a natural form (who represent naturally occurring things such as love, war, theft, healing, etc.) and Incidental gods, a form based on belief of worshippers, which are actually a combination of demons. Xaphista is a god of the latter sort. But if belief is a fuel of magic, and all of Medalon believes the Harshini dead, why are they still powerful? If Primal god worship no longer exists in Medalon, why do the Primal gods still have so much power there? A singular reference to Xaphista making his priests drink his blood to extend the Incidental gods' existence does not follow through the rest of the magic process (the Harshini don't get pale when they use their power, or have to eat a side of beef or whatever).

We're left to wonder about this big pool of power that a few beings can access. Even though the entire plot rests on the existence of this magic, we aren't given enough information to let us believe. It could be argued that nearly all the wars on our planet have started over conflicting faiths in various gods. However, Fallon makes it evident that we are not dealing with matters of faith, because the gods are real. The conflict over religion is state-dictated (Medalon enforcing atheism, Karien enforcing a belief in Xaphista) so leaving the hocus-pocus so obfuscated makes very little sense. However, since two more books are scheduled in the series, I'm willing to wait for the next two novels to see the whole thing sorted out.

All said, this is a great book and quite astounding for a first novel. It is escapist literature of a high order. During my reading of this book, I was undergoing some fairly severe life-traumas, and Medalon was engaging enough to take my mind off my troubles, which is the highest compliment you can pay any book, in my opinion. I hope I get a crack at reviewing book two of the Demon Child trilogy. If you like high fantasy, or just a well-plotted book, you'll love this one.
Medalon by Jennifer Fallon

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