by Mark Smylie
Artesia Afield was written and released in 2006 as the sequel to Artesia. The second book picks up fairly soon after the first one. Artesia having overthrown her King and lover Bran for his betrayal on both a religious and personal level has been selected to lead an army from the region called the highlands to the middle kingdoms, a group of allied feudal nations under the rule of a High King. These middle kingdoms are being invaded by the Empire of Thessid-Gola, an empire that has laid quiet for centuries as it's emperor lay in a magic slumber only to recently began expansion and warring again. This campaign of expansion and war has been fueled by dark magics and forbidden rituals which has many people trembling in their boots.
Course the Empire of Thessid-Gola isn't Artesia's only problem. In some ways it's her simplest problem. They want to conquer her allies and possible her home and kill her in the process yeah, but at least they're fairly open and honest about it. Her allies in the court of the middle kingdom on the other hands are full of the knights of the Sun God, the same order who were trying to kill her last book. They had to bury the feud... For now, on the account of the unending horde of foreign soldiers trying to kill them all. That doesn't stop them from being very clear on how much they would like to see her made into a torch, nor does it stop the other people in the middle kingdoms from sneering and whispering about her. Or for some people to express their displeasure at her actions in more direct and violent ways. Artesia is also frustrated that despite having led an army to help fight off invaders, the court of the middle kingdoms keeps her at arms length and well doesn't let her do much until the big throw down where they basically have no real choice but to let her throw down. That said there isn't a lot of politics between Artesia's men and the middle kingdoms here. Instead we have politics inside her camp, as we see some of the divisions between her followers (part of that being the division between her woman followers and her men followers).
We also meet a new culture the Islikids, a group of islanders in service to what appear to me to be demigods? Anyways those demigods are cruel and demanding masters to the mortal men in their service. To the point that even Artesia thinks they might be messing with things best alone. That's a bad sign given that she's not the kind of girl who really respects social boundaries. The Islikids aren't part of the Empire but they are allied to it and their dark magic and dabbling in the forbidden and outright unhealthy is frankly a bad sign as to where the Empire is heading.
We also see more magic as Artesia interacts with the ghosts of her dead, the fellow concubines of the king she overthrew and interacts with the spirits and spells of the empire and her own highlands. It's interesting to see because in a lot of ways Artesia does not walk in the same world as her soldiers or her allies or even possibly her enemies. In her world the ghosts of the dead advise, ravens speak warnings, gods and goddesses walk openly doing their divine duties with little care for the mortal realm. It's because of this that her enemies in the middle kingdoms and the highlands label her a witch, while her friends and followers label her a priestess and both may even be right in the end. I'll admit I find this part of the world of Artesia and the story utterly fascinating. I'm a Christian and my tradition being deeply and fully American can trace it's descent from the Puritans who first brought Christianity to their shores. While you would think my native Pentecostalism doesn't have much in common with the stern Puritans (you might just be wrong by the way) it does share a certain stark view of the world that has no rooms for spirits, ghosts and things not of heaven or hell. That views tends to spread to a lot of fantasy writings where mostly Christianish readers are more comfortable with mechanical impersonal magic systems and morality systems not to far from our own. That's not a criticism there, one does need to be able to relate to the characters you're reading about at a certain level. Magic and religion in Artesia operates completely different from say Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings (although it does share a few common points with Narnia... Hmmmm). It is not secular, it is not clean or mechanical and it is certainly not impersonal. It is dangerous, it is wild and very interesting, not unlike our main character herself.
We learn more about Artesia's early life and origins. We learn from her where she found her heavily enchanted and powerful sword (looting it from a dead warrior woman), we learn more about her mother and we hear of her father for the first time in the series. Course what we do learn is that her father sat there and watch as her mother was burned for being a witch. We also learn that her very skin is enchanted to protect her, which I found interesting as well. This came out in the by play between her and the smith Hymachus, who remains the most distinctive and recognizable of her male followers for me. That does bring me to a complaint, a lot of the male cast still blurs together for me. Next to no time is spent on any character that isn't Artesia and due to the speed of the story we don't get much of a feeling of her individual relationships, just how she relates to them on a whole. I would honestly like Mr. Smylie to slow down a little, let me get to know the other captains under her command and see how they relate to Artesia and each other as individuals. We also see her waging an internal conflict as to whether or not to claim the crown of Dara Dess, the citadel whose King she killed last book. She is hesitant because she knows once she does that there is no turning back and... She doesn't want to be a Usurper. Which I do kinda understand but let's be blunt here, King Bran took the throne by force and turned on the woman who was his main instrument in keeping it. As such I can't see much of a compliant when having been given the choices of be killed or kill, she decided to kill. If you don't want the tigress to rip off your head, don't poke her with a stick. Crowns should not rest on the heads of fools, not when the consequences of their foolery can doom entire nations.
That said the massive battle that is the capstone of this story is pretty awesome to read and the art is as always drop dead gorgeous. The Appendixes at the back are interesting reads but the good news is that even if you don't read them you can still follow the story and make complete sense of everything going on. I know this because the first time I read the book, I didn't read those Appendixes and I still felt pretty sure of everything. That said I wouldn't recommend this book for minors as there is quiet a bit of nudity both male and female and sex is pretty front and center here. The book is not porn by any means but I would keep this to the adults. All of that said Artesia Afield get's a A-, it's going a bit to fast I think but otherwise it's a damn good read and I encourage everyone to give it a shot.