The Second Guard by J.D. Vaughn. Disney Hyperion, 2015.
The Second Guard is an epic fantasy with two cool and unique features: the kingdom of Tequende, where it’s set, is something like a South American kingdom, still under indigenous rule and resisting the invasions of the Far Worlders. Secondly, the Queen (ok, maybe that’s second and third) – the kingdom is always run by a Queen, who is guarded by an army of second-born children who are both male and female. The populace is also divided into three guilds – Sun, Moon and Earth – each one dedicated to one of the three gods and separated from each other by culture, clothing and careers.
Pages from a reference work on Tequende that appear between chapters would make this set-up appear to be perfect, but cracks begin to show at the very beginning. Our heroine, Sun Guilder Talimedra, or Tali for short, is preparing to leave for service in the Guard, just as her mother served before her. She’s leaving behind her twin sister, Nel, who lost her hearing at a young age in the same illness that took their mother. But as Tali is on the roof of her family’s merchant ship, she sees another ship sunk, which the people aboard blame on the Second Guard. Tali is shocked – but will her blind faith in the Second Guard stand up to actually joining it?
In the Guard Training, Tali befriends to other pledges, Moon Guilder Zarif and Earth Guilder Chey. She also very slowly gets to know her assigned roommate, Brindl, an Earth Guilder who decides right away that she’d prefer kitchen to military service. Tali has trouble believing that anyone would choose the longer menial service doing over the glory of the military, and this magnifies the general disregard that other guilds seem to hold Earth Guilders in. Tali is a sympathetic character if impulsive character, given to running off and doing what she thinks needs to be done without regards to advice or thinking through consequences. This maybe caused me scold her out loud once or twice, even if it does make for a believably imperfect character and a more interesting storyline.
So there is intrigue and adventure, both in school and around the kingdom, questioning of social structures and getting to know many of the different kinds of people making up the kingdom. I really appreciated a society where women were integrated in at all levels and career paths, and the society was mostly well thought out. Low points were some hints of romance that seemed more instalove than anything genuine, and routinely having trainees work themselves until they vomited. My invented historical accuracy meter was also piqued by having what felt like a colonial-era story a century or two post-crossing the Atlantic that still had no gunpowder. These points aside, this was still an entertaining series beginning, one I’d be happy to give especially to those older middle graders and teens who come in search new fat epic fantasy series.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils, but this is just my opinion, not that of the committee.