**REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THOSE THAT HAVE NOT READ THE FIRST OF THE SERIES**
A Guest Review by Cole
Review Summary: Another outstanding release by Carole Cummings that has Wil Calder, the Aisling, and Constable Dallin Brayden, his Guardian, pitted together on a run for their lives, yet also seeing just how their fates are intertwined and how much they are starting to realize they may welcome their ties to one another.
What begins as Constable Dallin Brayden escorting the prisoner Wilfred Calder back to Putnam quickly turns into a flight for both their lives. Political betrayal and malicious magic lurk behind every bush and boulder in their flight across the countryside, resulting in Dallin becoming more protector than jailer, and fostering a growing connection between him and his charge. Haunted by dreams not his own and pursued by just about everyone, Dallin begins to understand that he’s not just protecting Wil out of duty anymore.
As the shadow of Wil’s previous life as a captive and tool continues to loom, the shadow of the man who kept him prisoner looms larger. Forced into a terrifying battle of both will and magic for not only his life, but his soul, Wil discovers that the Aisling is sought by more powerful enemies than the Guild and the Brethren: ancient gods and soul-eating spirits seek what lives inside him as well. And it seems his only salvation may well be Dallin and his goddess, the Mother, against whom Wil has been warned all his life.
In January I reviewed a book that I knew very little about by a new author that I had never read. I didn’t know anyone who had read the book, and taking the gamble, I ended up finding a story that was breathtaking in its scope and almost flawless in its characterizations. That novel, Aisling: Guardian (reviewed here) is the first book in the Aisling series by Carole Cummings, published by Prizm, the Young Adult division of Torquere. From the very first pages, I was hooked — deeply engaged in the story of Dallin Brayden, a no-nonsense and highly reasonable Constable for the city of Putnam in a world that resembles pre-industrial England, and the prisoner turned fugitive that deeply enthralls him, Wil Calder, a scrappy waif of a man who makes up for his physical inadequacies with wit, a skewed moral compass, and the vast need to survive at any cost. That book started a love affair for me with these two characters and I have since waited on tenterhooks for the next chapter in their sprawling story. Thankfully it is here, released today to buy from Prizm, and it is a beautiful continuation of their story, from the slow, piecemeal building of trust by a man that has suffered in the worst ways and betrayed by all those he ever believed loved him, to the seeking of knowledge they undertake together to understand just why they are the center of a maelstrom of political factions, religious zealots, and now newer, even larger foes.
Beginning immediately at the end of the first intstallment, Dallin wakes up from a dream where he has been Called by the Mother to take up his duty as Guardian and where he sees Wil for the first time in their shared dream, tending to the threads of man, plucking, twining, and weaving the world’s fates. Dallin finally believes. The forced exile from his homeland in Lind at the age of ten separated him from his birthright, the knowledge and training he would have had were it not for Siofra, or Wil’s jailor’s interference, and which without has turned him from a life of pious belief in the Mother and Her Gift of the Aisling into the factual Constable he is, ruled by strict reason and a logical, quick mind. The knowledge presents a dilemma for Dallin. Where once his logical mind considered the Aisling a myth studied in the cloisters of faraway religious sects, the evidence of its reality forces him to trust to faith, a new concept. This new belief means that he will have to appeal to a duty higher than the one he holds most dear, the justice and law he serves as a Constable, because if Wil is the Aisling and Dallin has indeed been Called by the Mother, then he is in fact the Guardian. No longer is Wil his prisoner to ferry back to Putnam for arraignment, but his charge to protect in his quest. Though, no matter the different groups hot on their heels, Wil and Dallin still have very little idea just what their quest is. Night after night, Wil plucks at the strings in what he believes is his duty, while only getting vague prophecies from the Father and subdued silence from the Mother. Wil feels more alone than ever with the growing burden of his duties, yet slowly Dallin’s kept promises, gentle encouragement, and almost reverent respect bloom into a slowly growing friendship, and ultimately begrudging trust.
As they cross the country on their way to Lind, the Mother’s Cradle, where they hope to get some answers to anything and everything, they grow slowly closer and find a way to work together to find their own answers. It seems that not only does Wil have power as the Aisling, but so does Dallin as the Guardian. And it will take all of Wil’s belief and encouragement in Dallin for him to let go of his logical mind and embrace his birthright, just as it will take Dallin’s steady faith in Wil for him to let loose the power he is straining to hold back. Only with the other at their side will they be able to face the slowly gaining Siofra and the new knowledge of the origins of all their powers. Most of all, however, it will take everything Wil has to face his own demons — the guilt, the betrayal, and the lies that have shaped who he believes himself to be, and the matter of the fact that no one, not least himself, knows exactly who he really is.
If the strength of the first novel lay in it characterizations of Wil and Dallin, then the strength of the second is in the world-building. The first novel was rather cryptic with information, which served a purpose — not only in respect to the reader’s intelligence, which I really admired of Carole Cummings, but to outline the sea of intrigue and betrayal in which the two are cut adrift. They are almost clueless, basing their information on myth, lies, and their own intuition. Of their enemies, allies, and duty, just about everything is conjecture. But where the first novel sets out to pair up our two hapless allies and explain how they came into each other’s lives, the second sets out to seek answers. This is a book which, like the first, makes you work for the payoff. The factions at play are slow in realization — to the characters and to the reader, like slowly defining the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, on the cusp of a new level of perception, one in which the characters realize they are the dice in a much bigger game, along with bigger players.
While finally understanding the game in which they are playing is definitely satisfying, the heart of the story remains with Wil and Dallin, and how they react to it. I think that Carole Cummings made quite a smart choice in the slowly building relationship between the two. Wil is fragile, continually toeing the line between sanity and insanity, constantly changing his mind of which he would prefer — knowledge or ignorance. His capture at the age of six by Siofra and the decades long imprisonment and brainwashing under the influence of the “leaf” and subsequent forceful dreaming to Siofra’s wishes has nearly broken him. It has made Wil distrustful in everyone, but most of all the Mother and the Guardian, who Siofra constantly taught him were his enemies. No matter knowing the logic of Siofra being a kidnapping megalomaniac, he is also the only person to have shown Wil kindness for most of his life, and that kind of brainwashing is almost impossible to recover from. He takes pleasure in what seems to Dallin inconsequential things — the hoarding of apples for the horses Miri and Sunny, the finding of a pre-historic arrowhead. In Dallin’s words:
“Wil was—incredibly, implausibly and against all sense and reason—an idealist. With the widest, most contrary streak of fatalism Dallin had ever witnessed.”
With newfound trust comes a solidifying bond between the two, allowing them to change and grow, embrace themselves and each other, and also for romance to bloom.
The writing here is top-notch. It is beautiful and I often found myself going back paragraphs just to read it again. There were many times I cried (which is rare for me, trust me), not out of sadness but for the simple beauty of two characters who have only each other and are learning that it is a gift. In many ways this book is also a setup to the final showdown in the next and final novel of the series, no matter how much clearer the world is becoming. There is still quite a bit that we don’t know, which makes me all the more eager for the final installment in December. Perhaps what I admire most about this series is not the many different threads that Cummings is continually juggling (and subtly showing) for the reader, which I do greatly admire as it must take a great amount of skill, but instead the fact that at this two thirds point in the story, Wil and Dallin are almost completely different characters from when we first met them, and we’ve seen their evolution every step of the way.
Lastly, this is a series that I would recommend to everyone. The romance is slow, but the buildup is worth it, and almost more powerful for its abstinence. It takes a good amount of detective work to put the pieces of this story together, which is refreshing after reading so many stories in m/m where all the information is given to you up front. I appreciate that Cummings respects her readers enough to let them glean their own conclusions from what she has offered. I also reclaim the right to not yet rate this book as DIK (same as I did the first), no matter that if I actually were going to be stranded on a desert island and had time to choose which books to take I would definitely count these among them. I’m simply waiting on the final novel to see how two of my favorite characters of 2011 fare in their final battle.
Aisling Book Two: Dream is available today, Wednesday June 15 from Prizm Books.