Viper and Steel is the third book in the Guilds of Ilbrea series by Megan O’Russell. I have previously read and reviewed both the first one, Inker and Crown, and the second one, Myth and Storm. The series is about the Karron clan, six natural and adopted children of Lord Karron who grew up together and have remained close now that they are in their late teens or early twenties and members of the various guilds in the city of Ilara, capital of Ilbrea. Things are advancing in the story arcs for all six characters, even as the city of Ilara itself is caught up in a civil war, so let’s see what the Karrons are up to.
In the previous books, Allora’s story was my least favorite, as she moped around the king’s castle in Ilbrea, waiting for a marriage she did not desire. However, I find in Viper and Steel she’s become more interesting. She’s married King Brannon, despite still being in love with the missing Niko, forcing herself to act as if she enjoys intimacy with the king. She must also continually suppress her desire to lash out against the sorcerers who have confined the royal family to the castle, allegedly for their protection while the Sorcerers’ Guild fights (really inflames) the rebels in the rest of the city.
But Allora has discovered a hidden network of tunnels beneath the castle that she suspects the sorcerers use to get around. After King Brannon falls asleep at night following their, um, attempts to create an heir, she descends to these tunnels and explores them. What she finds during her explorations gives insight into the true sorcerers’ true plans, but I won’t say anymore about that….
In contrast to Allora, I find her lost love, Niko, to be the least intriguing of the Karrons. After wandering in the cave system in the Eastern Mountains, he’s been found and captured by the Brien clan, a magical people who live hidden where the Ilbrean Sorcerers’ Guild won’t be able to find them and destroy them. The Brien queen has tortured him but determined that he doesn’t have any special information on the sorcerers. What he does have, however, is a resemblance to Solcha, a legendary warrior of the Briens who was blessed with special power by the mountains. The queen is readying for a war against Ilbrea, and may be able to use Niko’s uncanny resemblance to the lost warrior to her advantage.
To that end, she assigns her niece, Danu, to watch Niko and let him wander around the Brien territory, inspring the people with his mere appearance. Initially, Danu has only contempt for the Ilbrean Niko, but as the book continues she seems to be falling in love with him. I have never thought Niko had much personality, so I found this whole sequence of events rather inplausible–relying on a charisma he doesn’t have to rally the Brien population and stir the heart of his guard.
Another neighbor of Ilbrea that is planning a war against them is the ice city of Isfol, led by the ambitious princess Ronya, who overthrew her father at the end of the second book. Her prisoners, the Karron lovers Mara and Tham, while helping the Isfolians find the magical ice worms they need to eat to maintain their resistance to the cold, discover Ronya’s secret weapon that she believes will ensure her victory in the coming war against the sorcerers of Ilbrea….
Meanwhile, my previous favorites, the Head Scribe Adrial and his romance (now marriage) with the unusual inker Ena, are mostly in a holding pattern in this volume. Ena is pregnant and Adrial will do anything to protect her. Ena, for her part, loves Adrial but hates her new gilded lifestyle, though she must maintain the pretense of being the Head Scribe’s wife for her own mysterious plot against the Sorcerers’ Guild to unfold.
Finally, there’s Kai, the lost sailor, who with his fellow sailor, Drew, has fought his way through a demon-infested portion of the Eastern Mountains to reach Ilbrea. He must warn the Lord Sailor of the sorcerers’ treachery in sinking his ship, but of course he cannot be seen in the city, which he’s horrified to learn has been nearly destroyed in the fighting between the sorcerers and the rebels. He managers to sneak to the docks to see the Lord Sailor, only to find himself enlisted in an ongoing plot the Lord Sailor already has against the sorcerers.
I found Viper and Steel to be heavy on revealed secrets and plots being set in motion, with a lot less emphasis on the world exploring/building that intrigued me in the first two books. It was certainly exciting and kept the pages turning, but was less fun for me to read. Other readers may prefer the faster pace and constant stream of revelations.
One thing I noticed is that Viper and Steel was more straightforward in its descriptions of the sexual lives of the characters. While I recall the romance between Adrial and Ena to be put somewhat coyly in the first book, by now, their sexual relationship is presented more frankly (perhaps because they’re married?). Similarly, the sexual relationship between Allora and King Brannon was described in a bit more detail than I would have thought, based on the tone of the first two books. Viper and Steel may be better suited for a slightly older teen audience–say, high school rather than middle school–than the earlier books.
One thing I’ve basically given up on is that we’re going to get a good description of the magic system. There’s the ordered magic of the Sorcerers’ Guild and the wild magic that they’re trying to cover up and destroy, and that apparently provide the Brien and the Isfolians with their magical abilities. What we don’t have is a good explanation of what all this means or what the limits of the magical power is. The sorcerers, for example, are just able to carry out magical deeds as needed for the plot, with no underlying logic so far as I can discern.
I thought this one wasn’t quite as good as the first two, though I suspect some readers may actually prefer the shift to a somewhat brisker unfolding of plot developments and the decreased emphasis on world-building. In any case, the series overall is still one I can recommend, and I’m looking forward to picking up book four in the series, Tower and Grave, at some point in the not-too-distant future and continue following the lives of the Karrons.