Here’s where the going gets (slightly) grimmer. The second book in the Guin Saga series doesn’t quite have the same propulsive energy as the first, if only because it’s essentially a transitional story: it deals with what happens immediately after the leopard-headed hero Guin escapes from the chaos of Stafolos Keep with the royal twins Rinda and Remus in his care. The first book ended with a literal leap into the unknown, with the three of them plunging headfirst into the dangerous River Kes as hordes of the monkeylike Sem barbarians snap close at their heels.
That first book delivered the kind of rush I hadn’t gotten from a fantasy book in ages, partly because it was completely unabashed in its willingness to entertain. Here there were no attempts at socio-political analysis, no analogies or allegories to “current events”, just flat-out meat-and-potatoes adventure fantasy for the eleven-year-old soul, no matter what his biological age. Small wonder the second book felt like a step back and a retrenching, but now that I think about it, Warrior in the Wilderness really isn’t all that bad: it’s just that once you start with that kind of breathless burst of energy you sometimes need something else to leaven it.
The Mongaul armies are obviously not thrilled about losing Stafolos Keep, one of their more strategic outposts in the rough country of the Marches, and so they dispatch a force from another of their border patrols to recapture the missing twins and their strange traveling companion. While fleeing across the treacherous Kes on a pontoon, Guin and his wards re-acquire a fourth—the mouthy Han Solo-esque Istavan, a mercenary and trickster with more than his fair share of devil’s luck to burn—and a fifth, Suni, a former Sem prisoner at the keep and one of their few guides through the rough territory ahead. They do their best to keep the Mongaul armies at bay by using the fauna of the Kes against them, such as the “bigmouth”, a toothy monster that’s like a cross between the worst of a shark, a squid and something H.R. Giger had nightmares about the last time he did mescaline.
UJnfortunately, even Guin’s bravery isn’t enough to keep them from eventually falling into Mongaul hands. There, they come face to face with the commander in charge of the unit tasked with pursuing them: Amnelis, a young woman of great native capacity as a commander who’s been handed power and expected to make the most of it. Capable as she is, she’s also still young and relatively untested—something Guin picks up on very quickly, and is able to use to his advantage. It isn’t long before he’s hatched an escape route, but one which (as you can imagine) only leads them out into even greater danger than any they left behind.
Again, the main problem with Wilderness is the fact that it’s essentially an interstitial portion of this story, designed more to set up Amnelis and contrast her against Guin than to really move things forward in any significant way. It does end on an appropriate cliffhanger moment, and all of the ingredients I’ve quickly come to expect of the series do figure in: plenty of rousing action sequences, a non-stop stream of oaths and invectives from Istavan’s gloriously filthy mouth, and Guin serving as the anchor at the center of it all. But it’s ultimately a holding action for better things, which come next volume.
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