Saturday, November 01, 2014

Retro Reviews: The Swan's War Trilogy by Sean Russell

The One Kingdom
Author:  Sean Russell
Series:  Swan's War Trilogy 1
Original Publisher and Date:  Harper Voyager, January 1, 2001
Still in Print:  HarperCollins, eBook.
Formats and Length:  Hardcover, Paperback, Mass Market, eBook 544 pages (Hardcover 480 pages)
Availability:  eBook and used copies available online. I've also seen print copies at several used book stores in the past.
ISBN: 9780380974894 (Hardcover); 9780061862533 (eBook)

The cataclysm began more than a century earlier, when the King of Ayr died before naming an heir to the throne, and damned his realm to chaos. The cold-blooded conspiracies of the Renne and the Wills—each family desirous of the prize of rule—would sunder the one kingdom, and spawn generations of hatred and discord.

Now Toren Renne, leader of his great and troubled house, dreams of peace—a valiant desire that has spawned hostility among his kinsmen, and vicious internal plots against his life. In the opposing domain, Elise Wills's desire for freedom is to be crushed, as an unwanted marriage to an ambitious and sinister lord looms large. As always, these machinations of nobles are affecting the everyday lives of the common folk—and feeding a bonfire of animosity that has now trapped an unsuspecting young Valeman Tam and two fortune-hunting friends from the North in its high, killing flames.

But the closer Toren comes to achieving his great goal of uniting two enemy houses, the more treachery flowers. Nobles and mystics alike conspire to keep the realm divided, knowing that only in times of strife can their power grow.

And perhaps the source of an unending misery lies before an old king's passing, beyond the scope of history, somewhere lost in a fog of myth and magic roiling about an ancient enchanter named Wyrr—who bequeathed to his children terrible gifts that would poison their lives...and their deaths. It is a cursed past and malevolent sorcery that truly hold the land, its people, and its would-be rulers bound. And before the already savaged kingdom can become one again, all Ayr will drown in a sea of blood.

The Isle of Battle
Author:  Sean Russell
Series:  Swan's War Trilogy 2
Original Publisher and Date:  Harper Voyager, July 23, 2002
Still in Print:  HarperCollins, eBook
Formats and Length:  Hardcover, Paperback, Mass Market, eBook 468 pages (Hardcover 480 pages)
Availability:  eBook and used copies available online. I've also seen print copies at several used book stores in the past.
ISBN: 9780380974900 (Hardcover); 9780061861017 (eBook)

Treachery and deceit run rampant throughout a devastated land, spawning dark alliances in the terrible war ignited by the enmity of two families. But unbeknownst to all, there are others who truly control the beleaguered kingdom's destiny—combatants emerging from eons of restless sleep to renew the bloody terror of a battle older than time.

The Shadow Roads
Author:  Sean Russell
Series:  Swan's War Trilogy 3
Original Publisher and Date:  Harper Voyager October 12, 2004
Still in Print:  HarperCollins, eBook
Formats and Length:  Hardcover, Paperback, Mass Market, eBook 464 pages (Hardcover 448 pages)
Availability:  eBook and used copies available online. I've also seen print copies at several used book stores in the past.
ISBN:  9780380974917 (Hardcover); 9780061859755 (eBook)

The savage war between two mighty families has ravaged the kingdom both wish to rule—spawning treachery within the ranks of the Renné and Wills, drawing the brave, the innocent, and the malevolent alike into the bloody conflict. But a far more terrible consequence has arisen from the carnage—for Death himself has been roused from his dread domain . . . and is preparing to walk the world again.

Brief History

Sean Russell was born Jan. 1, 1952 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. By the age of 10, he knew he wanted to be a writer. He published his first novel, The Initiate Brother, in 1991, an Asian influenced fantasy. He has since written 16 books under the fantasy, mystery and historical fiction genres. Stephen R. Donaldson, has said, "[he] has proven himself a master of intelligent fantasy -- subtle, exciting, well-crafted." He has written under the names: Sean Russell, Sean Thomas Russell, S. Thomas Russell, T.F. Banks (with Ian Dennis).

Brannigan's Review

A co-worker recommend this series to me seven years ago. I attempted to read the first book shortly after that but got caught up in another book and never finished The One Kingdom. Being the dedicated reader I am, I recently returned to the series and I'm glad I did. Sean Russell is a very talented writer, especially when it comes to world-building and character development, which is his his focus in the three books—building a wonderful world that sucks the reader in and then taking time to explore it with some great characters. Russell is also wonderful at writing some great female characters. All of the characters develop and change and no one is left untouched by the end of the series. There's enough variety that anyone can find a character to relate to. I've read that he always wanted to stay away from High Fantasy as he never wanted to appear to be a Tolkien wannabe, but then he came up with a story that had to be told. I, for one, am glad he did. The Swans' War trilogy is a worthy addition to the High Fantasy sub-genre.

The One Kingdom is a great start to the series. The story pace is quick and exciting. At the beginning, we meet three young cousins (Toren, Fynnol, Baore) who seek a little adventure as they plan to travel down a river near their Northern home to the more populated south to buy horses and come back home men of the world. They quickly become entangled in a struggle between three long-dead siblings and two royal houses at war over a crown. The pace slows down a lot in the middle of the book where we're introduced to many supporting characters needed to tell an epic story. Normally, I hate it when a story slows down in pacing, but not this time since there's a lot of world-building and character development. Its the middle of the book that makes the end really matter, as you read as fast as you can to see how it comes to an end. There's a cliff-hanger ending, but thankfully the full series is out, so no waiting.

In The Isle of Battle, the majority of the characters spend their time in one location, which normally would worry me, but its in the second book that we really see the majority of the character development taking place. The second book for me is the most internal book of the series, where we see the effects of the conflicts changing all of our characters. The pace of this book is slow, but, in my opinion, it matches the struggles of the characters and the environment they find themselves in, so I actually enjoyed it. Russell is very skilled at using the terrain to influence the pacing of his story. I don't know if it's intentional or not, but I really felt it creeping into the pacing and the characters as they interacted with it. Book one was a meandering river book, with several different side paths. Book two takes place in a swamp and you really feel the characters struggling to make their way through it, both physically and internally as they struggle with how they are dealing with the war around them. The third book is all about the mountains and plains with highs and lows the characters face as the story comes to a crashing end.

The Shadow Roads concludes the story and doesn't feel the need to give a storybook ending to the tale. One of my favorite quotes from the series is found in the last book and I've included it below. I feel it explains how Russell ends The Swan's War trilogy. It might not be the most satisfying ending to some readers, and my initial response was to be a little bothered by it as well, but the more I thought about the quote and reality I actually enjoyed the ending more. We don't always know why things happen the way they do, and we don't always get an explanation why, and neither do the characters. Now, that's not to say we are left completely in the dark, I feel the readers get enough information to make their own conclusions.

The Swans' War trilogy will not be for every lover of fantasy. For those of you who like stories with elves, dwarves and such, you won't find them here. Neither will you find goblins, dragons, and other monsters roaming the wilderness. Russell uses humans as both the heroes and villains very skillfully. The second quote I have below shows how he sees mankind. The magic system in the world is very basic and limited to just a few people in world, so, for those of you who like a good wizard battle or interesting magic system, you'll need to look elsewhere. Lastly, as I've mentioned above, the pacing can be slow at times, so for those you who like a quick, action-packed read, be warned.

I really enjoyed The Swans' War trilogy and I hope Sean Russell returns to fantasy soon. I recommend that lovers of High Fantasy add these books to their collections and for any other fantasy-lover, look for the books on your friend's shelves or at your local library. I have no problem recommending these books to adult or teen readers. There is mild violence and little to no strong language and only the slightest adult situation.

Favorite Quotes from the Books

“There isn’t one story. There are myriad tales to be told, all different and puzzling. It is vain to ask them to makes sense. Just tell the tales. They will speak for themselves.” Cynddl in The Shadow Roads.

“We are not a peaceful people. It is the great tragedy of our race. War is in our blood.” Toren in The Shadow Roads.


  1. I loved the Initiate Brother Duology best among all his works. The Swan's War trilogy frustrated me with its ending and unlike you I never got over it! Lol I went on to read more books by Sean Russell because he is such a terrific writer, but honestly never liked anything better than Initiate Brother. Great review- what's next for Branigan

  2. I'll have to read the Initiate Brother soon. My next book goes way back to the 1970's