Review: 'Into the Desert Wilds', by Jim Galford
This is Book 2 of “The Fall of Eldvar”. I reviewed Book 1, In Wilder Lands, here in March, saying, “Galford’s first draft of In Wilder Lands was over 200,000 words, which he was persuaded to edit down to about 150,000 words/452 pages. He has lots of material for a sequel and for other novels set in Eldvar, not all of which will feature the wildlings [the anthro characters]. If they are all as good as In Wilder Lands, readers will look forward to them even without wildlings.” In other words, I liked it and I recommended it. However, the review got comments that the story was obviously based on a role-playing game, and “I never read anything based on a role-playing game.”
Yes, Eldvar is a world with humans, elves, dwarfs (dwarves?), orcs, zombies, anthropomorphic animals, and lots of magic. Still, to repeat what I said, “You are missing a good book, game-related or not.” As far as I am concerned, the biggest problem with Into the Desert Wilds (wraparound cover by Darryl Taylor) is that it continues the story from Book 1 without an adequate synopsis of what went before. But that does not matter as much as it might have, because In Wilder Lands ended with the main characters escaping certain death in their forest lands home by being transported to a new, desert land more than a thousand miles away from their enemies. It is a new setting for them and the reader alike.
The four wildlings from in and around the human city-state of Altis are still the main characters. Estin, the protagonist in the first novel, is a “mystery animal”, although the reader will recognize him as a ring-tailed lemur. Feanne, his mate, and her children Atall and Oria are red foxes. Galford said that the wildlings in the forest lands around Altis were anthros based on the wildlife of Colorado – bear, deer, raccoons, cougars, badgers, wolves, etc. In Into the Desert Lands, they have inadvertently escaped by magical mists to the desert lands around the elf and human city-state of Corraith. The good news is that the recently semi-ruined Corraith does not persecute wildlings as Altis did. The bad news is that Estin, Feanne, and Estin’s fox-cub foster children are looked upon suspiciously by the Corraithians, who are used to wildlings who are anthro lizards, jackals, vultures, fennecs, and the like.
The city guards had little trust for anything they could not readily identify as a citizen. Estin and Feanne’s clothing was at least the right style – loose cloth shirts and pants, with lightweight cloaks to shield their bodies and heads from the sand on the winds – but they were far from discrete [sic] in their appearance.
Feanne could have hidden her ears and tail with the cloak until they were close to the walls, when her long thin muzzle would be more easily noticed under the hood, but Estin had no such opportunity. With a seven foot long tail snaking out behind him from under the back of his cloak, he knew it was not worth the attempt to hide it. Coupling that with their smaller stature than the elves and occasional human of the city, they were about as obvious as they could be. (p. 5)
The wildlings make frequent use of their animal attributes, especially their sharp claws and teeth:
Estin eased himself up near the door, keeping a watch for anyone who might be looking towards him. Finding none, he darted to the side of the building, then dug his claws into the soft clay alley-side wall and practically ran up it. Once he reached the top, he surveyed the small entry courtyard inside for guards, then hopped down inside the home’s entryway’ (p. 20)
To get an economic start in Corraithian society, Estin is again forced to take jobs with the local thieves’ guild. The thieves’ guild in Altis was always ready to betray him, and Estin does not expect anything better from its Corraithian counterpart. Feanne, who is used to being the pack leader and is not willing to step back even though she is pregnant with Estin’s children, wants him to drop his employment with the thieves who they cannot trust. Estin’s insistence on providing for his family sets up a tension between him and Feanne.
Sorry, but spoilers ahead. In Chapter 2, it turns out that the plot is more complex than in the first novel. Estin is the protagonist only in the odd-numbered chapters. In the even-numbered chapters, it is Oria, Feanne’s daughter. Wildling children mature almost as rapidly as wild animals, and Oria and Atall are now 3 ½ years old, or about 14 to 16 in human years. The tomboyish Oria becomes used to exploring alone during the times that Estin returns from the city and he and Feanne have one of their arguments. While exploring some apparently-deserted catacombs, Oria meets Phaesys, a young fennec who is the first desert wildling that she has seen.
In Chapter 3, Estin learns that Arturis, the leader of the Turessian necromancers who control the zombie armies that destroyed Altis, has become the real ruler of Corraith. To keep from leading Arturis and his ghouls to Feanne and the cubs, Estin is forced to hide in Corraith without time to warn them. In Chapter 4, Oria learns that the immature Phaesys is really Lord Phaesys Herrouln, the son of the fennec leader of about 150 survivors hiding in the catacombs beneath the city from the magical mists that semi-destroyed it; apparently the same mists that transported Estin, Feanne, Atall, and Oria to Corraith. When Estin disappears, Feanne and the others assume that he has been killed by either the thieves or whatever is behind the mists.
With Chapter 5, Into the Desert Wilds splits into two separate stories: that of Estin alone coming to lead a Corraithian resistance against Arturis and his undead hordes, and (from Oria’s viewpoint) of Feanne, the two adolescent cubs, and Feanne’s (and Estin’s) three newborn cubs with Phaesys and the Corraithian refugees who are hiding from the city’s necromantic conqueror.
This fills the novel from page 75 onward for the rest of the 436 pages. There is no more synopsis because I do not want to give away any more spoilers. Into the Desert Wilds is tightly plotted with many surprises and subplots, and constant battles both physical and magical. For Oria and Phaesis, it is a coming-of-age story. There is bravery, treachery, and death:
A sudden ruckus up on the walls was followed by the body of a guard falling just inches from Estin. The man’s face and arms were clawed badly and his throat was ripped out.
Looking up, Estin had just seconds to shove at the people around him to get them to move as the gate came crashing back down. Three men were just a little too slow and screamed only briefly as the heavy portcullis crushed them, even as it locked the majority of the force inside the city. (p. 387)
What there is not is a conclusive ending. I said no more spoilers, but readers should be warned that Into the Desert Wilds ends on another cliffhanger, and Galford has said on his website that the forthcoming Book 3 does NOT continue this group of wildlings’ story:
Moving the focus of the story back towards the war, this book is set in Lantonne during the fall of that city. Given the early state of writing this book is in, I will only say that our main characters are an elven wizard and a Turessian. Yes, one of the perspectives is that of a Turessian. For those who concern themselves with such things, don't worry, there are at least two wildlings and there is a romance, though it's not a focal point like it was in the first two books. This story is more of an action story, moving the plot of the world along. (More action than in Into the Desert Wilds? How is that possible?)
Galford also says that, “Book four should begin pulling the stories and characters together towards the eventual ending …”, so we can expect Estin, Feanne, and the others to return eventually.
Into the Desert Wilds is so good that, with a cliffhanger ending and the promise of at least a two-year wait to find out what happens next, I am not sure whether or not to recommend that you read this now or wait until Book 4 is available. As for me, I have read Into the Desert Wilds so I cannot resist getting Book 3 as soon as it is available. At least I can count on it being a really high quality adventure fantasy.