When an author writes a book with a specific moral or social agenda in mind, it can be difficult to work it into the story without sounding "preachy" or bashing the reader over the head with the message. The Second Guard, the first installment of a new series by J.D. Vaughn (actually a pen name for two writing partners) is a brilliant example of how when someone writes an exciting, engaging story that draws you into the world the author has created, the right messages flow through the words on their own.
Probably the simplest way to sum up this beautifully written book is to call it a retelling of "Mulan" set in pre-Columbian South America. But that's an oversimplified method at best of describing a story that contains adventure, family, battles, journeys, mystery, friendship and intrigue in masterfully balanced proportions. But instead of woman warrior hiding who she really is, main character Tali is in her element training to become part of Tequende's elite Second Guard. It's through her that we're introduced to the kingdom's rich, unique history and culture.
J.D. Vaughn has created a detailed and idealistic but fascinating environment in which this story unfolds. It's a matriarchal society, peaceful in nature but defended by an elite fighting force as well as advantageous geographic location. In order to ensure a ready fighting force and a constant labor source as well, the second child of each family is sent to serve the crown as either a soldier or a servant for a period of several years. This practice is considered an honor to both families and children, especially in a world ravaged by war where Tequende is the only real bastion of peace and prosperity. This has turned it into a melting pot, full of peace-seeking refugees who have made it their home and adopted the culture there to start a new life.
Tali, recently inducted into training for the Second Guard after her 15th birthday, finds herself in the middle of a plot that could overthrow Tequende's queen and deliver the kingdom into the hands of warring neighbor kingdoms. But as only a soldier-in-training, she's powerless and in her investigation she must be wary not only of her restrictions as a newcomer but also regarding which of her military superiors may be in on the plot. She transcends the social divisions that exist between Tequende's guilds (Sun, Moon, and Earth) through a sincere love of her family and her kingdom. This theme of reciprocated trust between the rulers and the people, idealistic as it is, makes for a wonderful story setting and a great setup for the villains' motivation.
Tali is made to be a soldier. There's no doubt in anyone's mind of this, be they character or reader. But her self-confidence makes her unapproachable at times to others, a realization that she makes early on in the book. She evolves as she learns more about the mindset with which she was raised, that of a future soldier, and her new sense of self-awareness in relation to those around her, what unites them and what makes them different from one another, leads her to better appreciate the
unique gifts that they each possess. It's a rewarding transformation to watch even from outside the events themselves, and was artfully written so that no single transformative moment turned her into a completely different person. Tali remains herself, with her own quirks and flaws; but she actively seeks to improve herself, sometimes regarding flaws of which she's aware and sometimes concerning things of which she was previously unaware. The inclusion of a smart, capable, extremely able deaf character was also an inspired way to include diversity as an everyday occurrence in the story.
Cultural tidbits at the beginnings of chapters, excerpts from a fictional historical text, add a lot to the book. They reveal the Tequendian values that motivate Tali and her friends as well as fleshing out the story world and making it more "real" for the reader. They also help to underscore the stereotypes and inequalities that still persist even in this seemingly idyllic society, the challenges that Tali overcomes in her struggle to prevent catastrophe. There's a heavy native South American influence at work throughout the book, from the types of agriculture described to the landscape and the names in the book. Even the book design and layout reflect the influence of pre-Columbian native peoples of places like Chile. The rich cultures of South America and their history seems oft overlooked when authors go hunting for world building resources, and I'm so incredibly pleased that this book's author(s) found inspiration in it and built a wonderful story around and out of it.
I was slightly frustrated by the way Tali, in the heat of the moment, goes off half-cocked in making accusations concerning royal intrigue. However, it wasn't a big stumbling block when I reminded myself that her character, while mature, is still only 15 years old. That, and reminding myself that I'm more accustomed to reading more intense, supremely complicated plots from authors like Jacqueline Carey or Patrick Rothfuss. This book isn't as complicated as theirs, but it has some twists, and it makes sense. Which is really the most important part when it comes down to it, in my opinion.
Overall, The Second Guard by J.D. Vaughn is a fantastic read and I am very much looking forward to the next installment as Tali and her friends make their way up in the world through mutual support and friendship. It will be released on April 14th and you can pre-order it now through your favorite local, independent bookstore.
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