Book Review: Manipulator’s War by Elise Carlson
Title: Manipulator’s War (Ruarnon #1)
Author: Elise Carlson
Publisher: Self published
Page Count: 482
Rep: Non-binary, LGBTQ+, POC
I can’t say I’ve encountered anything so far that mixes epic and portal fantasy (think: a YA version of Game of Thrones meets Narnia). Nonetheless, Manipulator’s War, the first book of the Ruarnon trilogy, combines these two very different styles of fantasy, along with their classic, must-have tropes, to weave an intricate coming of age story that explores leadership, friendship and resilience.
The main storyline follows Ruarnon, heir of Tarlah, who finds themself thrust into leadership as a co-regent after warmongers abduct their parents, the king and queen. Shortly after, the neighbouring Zaldeaan Realm marches to war, intent on conquering Tarlah. Perhaps most refreshing in this storyline is that Ruarnon is non-binary, and I particularly liked how this is not unusual in Tarlan culture, which includes a third gender-fluid/non-binary gender known as ‘midlun’.
On the portal side of this story, we have four teenage Australians who find themselves transported to the world of Tarlah and Zaldeaa while on a school field trip. With their only hope of returning home on the other side of the Zaldeaan Realm, they must cross the warring kingdoms, learn the ways of this strange land, master new skills and face their fears.
As to be expected with this kind of setup, these two storylines do eventually cross, and for me, the desire to see how that meeting played out was what kept me reading. Without giving away too many spoilers, I particularly enjoyed the role the Aussie teenagers end up taking in the war and how their ‘outsiderness’ becomes an asset to Ruarnon.
It’d be remiss of me to not mention the real-world details that really brought elements of this story to life. Carlson’s study and love of archeology and history is clearly evident here, from details in the clothing, armour and architecture to siege warfare, strategy, and power structures of society. While I’ve only studied a smattering of ancient and medieval history, I was able to appreciate the attention to these details throughout the story.
Something worth noting is there are a lot of characters in Manipulator’s War. As a result, I found myself forgetting or mixing up who was who in the beginning and having to backtrack to remember the context of a particular characters (note: there is a list of dramatis personae at the end, but I didn’t find it until later). For readers, my advice here is to be patient and stick with it—it will come together.
As in the style of epic fantasy, Manipulator’s War is multi-point of view, particularly in the beginning as we’re introduced to the key characters and players in the story. While it does make the opening few pages a little difficult to get into as we switch from character to character in fairly rapid succession, it pays off once the major players are established. Moreover, readers who like a bit of politicking mixed in with their fantasy will certainly enjoy seeing the various factions and players come head to head.
In all, Manipulator’s War is a solid debut for YA and adult readers alike, especially those who enjoy large cast fantasies with politics, action and adventure along with realistic warfare and strategy. Moreover, with a promise of more monsters and magic to come, this is a series I’ll be keeping an eye on.