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on June 12, 2001
While Sean Russell is not reinventing or adding anything significantly new here to the conventions of traditional high fantasy, he nonetheless is able to infuse enough creative freshness, both in his world-building and his structure of magic, to offer a highly engaging and enjoyable tale that goes beyond the ordinary. As with many of the better epic fantasists currently continuing to pursue the long-held traditions of high fantasy---Robin Hobb or the recent "Sword of Shadows" series by J.V. Jones come to mind---the strengths here are not necessarily in exploring new avenues outside the common conventions of high fantasy, but in the detailed and multifaceted creation of realms and characters that by their depth of description and characterization, as well as their more literate quality of writing, transcend the often one dimensional stereotypes that plague so much of what sits on the shelves in every bookstore's fantasy section. These are well-spun examples of storytelling, simple in their overall objective, yet complex in their plotting, world-building and characterization. Further, their approach to narrative often transcends the linearity found in so much of fantasy fiction, diverse in both their structure and perspective, depending upon more than a sequence of action to propel their unfolding story.
I have noticed that a couple reviewers have referred to this book as being "glacial" in pace. I suppose, compared to works by Glen Cook, Raymond Feist or Terry Goodkind, to name but a few, this book is not as action-driven or dependent upon active conflict for the development of its story, relying more upon, as stated above, evolving, multifaceted plotlines or characterization to enrich and, I would contend, enliven its story. There is no rush to reveal every event or the complete motivation of each character. In certain cases purposes and circumstances change, reflecting both the evolving experiences and knowledge of the characters as well as the reader, a development of narrative that I find far more credible and rich in storyline than a tale for the most part dependent upon a linear linking of climactic actions. While I suppose this might be attributed as a matter of taste, I would contend that a tale that offers more than the typical and anticipated stringing of largely melodramatic conflicts to build a singular and by now predictable and epiphanous moment of resolution possesses far greater potential for providing richness to the reading experience. And, I feel, this novel is laden with enough drama to sustain the adrenaline junkie's interest, as long as his or her reading is seeking more from a book than merely non-stop, singularly propelling action.
I will look forward to Mr. Russell's next installment with anticipation. Should he be able to maintain the quality of writing and storytelling found here, this could easily become one of the better epics of high fantasy opening the new millenium. Highly recommended to fans of traditional high fantasy, and deserving of an additional half star.
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on May 25, 2001
I read the reviews posted here before ordering the book. Because I like Sean Russell's prior work very much, I was familiar with his carefully crafted, deliberate pacing while building to something very special. I was not in the least disappointed. Russell is not anything like the New York Times kind of fantasy epic authors, where characters are made of cardboard and exist only to further a predictable quest plot. Russell's characters are very real, with subtle foibles and occasionally contradictory thought processes--all exactly as people are in real life. This book is not for anyone who wants a fast food kind of book, but for readers who prefer a feast of many courses, each more exquisite than the last. I'm very much looking forward to the next volume. (I give it four, not five stars because it's an obvious first volume that doesn't quite stand on its own.)
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on June 20, 2001
I won't bore you all with the setup of the book, which you can find out by reading other reviews. Instead, I'll offer my feelings on the book and its writing.
Sean Russell (not Stewart, as someone critical of the book mis-named him) is an established author at this point, with this marking his seventh novel in the genre. Unlike his other books (four set in a Victorianeque world and two in an Asian setting), he has created a world here that smacks of low fantasy, while retaining the great concepts that make George R.R. Martin's recent books so compelling: politics, characterization, and wonderful writing.
Sure, the pace is slow in the book, as Russell takes the readers down the winding river, skirting in and out of the otherworld, and it's beautifully done.
These characters breathe and change. You learn who they are and what drives them.
And you find yourself caring about them.
All setup? I wouldn't say that - there's a lot that happens that makes the book a gripping tale.
Why only 4 stars? Because I know I have to wait a few years to get to the end of this story.... :)
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on May 15, 2002
Sean Russel's formidable novel, The One Kingdom, is an impressive achievement, for Russel has managed to write the piece nearly flawlessly. It is a straightforward and carefully constructed tale in a standard high fantasy world, and while it has much merit as a showcase of the classic fantasy tradition, it is far from revolutionary in anything it attempts.
Russel's fantasy world is highly focused on those who inhabit it, and the historical backdrop against which the events of the story are played out is of greater import than the differences in the physical locations visited by the story's many characters. The actual world is not highly fantastic; no elves, dragons, or other such creatures populate the realm, and there are not magical treasures or artifacts waiting to be found. Instead, many of the locales visited are imbued with a wealth of historical detail that can only be glimpsed through the actual plotline of the book. The characters visit great bridges which were once held against vast armies, crumbling keeps that once were strongholds some of the kingdom's most powerful factions, towers that once were occupied by powerful sorcerers, and even a great fairground that was no more than small farming community in times past. While it is fascinating to be treated to such a richly sculpted world, one is left wishing one could learn more about the events that shaped these locations around the kingdom. To include this detail in the story itself would risk bogging down the plotline and dulling the action (which is already a bit slow through the first half of the book); perhaps Sean Russel will consider someday writing a prequel.
The characters in Russel's novel are carefully defined and distinct from one another, but they are all character archetypes that have been seen before in other pieces of fantasy literature. There is the eager, witty companion; the aged, all-knowing seer; the attractive, self-sacrificing "princess" (here technically a young noblewoman); and the fear-inspiring, tenacious, dark knight. Despite the familiarity of the character models, Russel usually does an admirable job of filling out his characters with quirks and guiding motivations that allow them to transcend their molds. In this respect there is a striking difference between the two halves of the book; the first half seems slower as the characters are first introduced, and the second half picks up in power and speed as they gain experiences to hearken back to and additional levels of depth through narrative description. The one exception is the remarkable Carral Wills, who was not crafted from a familiar mold, and (perhaps as a result) has complete levels of depth, motivation, and uniqueness throughout the entire novel.
The One Kingdom's focus on history and character does not mean that the magical or supernatural elements it contains are unimportant. It is merely that the magic of Russel's world is not flashy and loud, with mages chanting fireball-generating incantations, but subtle and integrated into the fabric of the world itself. One of the most intriguing ideas, that there is an alternate, hidden world existing everywhere where the real world exists, allows for a skillful implementation of magic-like travel without involving spells or enchanted objects of teleportation. Another, and perhaps more important effect, is that this world also allows for incredible chase scenes to be placed where ever they are most needed by the plot, which results in a trio of exciting escape attempts when no escape seems possible.
While the work is nearly flawless, there are some issues which could have been resolved more gracefully. Russel relies on his readers having good memories; characters he introduces in one scene may vanish from the story for one or even two hundred pages, appearing later with the assumption that you recall what they had just been doing. Also, the gender balance is overly (and a bit unrealistically) skewed toward a proliferation of male characters, though the few major female characters that exist are well-implemented. Finally, the narrator and a number of characters praise the traveler Fynnol's quick wit, but we rarely see that wit employed in the first two thirds of the book. Surely this is not for a lack of interesting situations and characters to mock, making his dearth of jests appear to be an oversight.
Often, in the search for astounding novels that help to redefine an entire genre and change readers' world views, it is too easy to forget the power and importance of works in the true spirit of the genres that already exist. Creating a novel that so epitomizes the essence of classic fantasy, without the Dungeons & Dragons-like distractions of flashy magic and strange creatures, is nearly as difficult as creating a book which moves fantasy literature in a bold, new direction. While Sean Russel's novel is not perfect, it is books like The One Kingdom that compose the central pylon of strength upon which rests all other fantasy work.
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on September 9, 2005
Hype, hype, hype. That's all you get from Publishers Weekly and all of the other publications that hail every new book as the next great fantasy epic. But now, a few years later, we can see that Sean Russell's cycle has not hit the best-seller lists, and that the final volume of the series only has 7 reader reviews to its credit so far here on Amazon.

The truth is that "The One Kingdom," the first in the Swans War cycle, is a decent but not great book--good enough to keep you reading, good enough to justify spending $6 for a hardcover out of the bargain bin, but not so good that you'll remember it long or be that bothered about making it a permanent part of your collection.

The premise of the story is definitely inventive. Three warring siblings from long ago consigned their lives to a magical river (the Wyrr) that keeps their spirits alive, and gives them the power to possess individuals and thus come back from the not-quite-dead to renew their all-consuming war. This occurs in an already explosive context: two great noble houses, the Renne and the Wills, are itching to destroy a tenuous peace. The naif (there is always a naif in epic fantasy) is Tam, a young man from a protected vale in the distant north who journeys down the Wyrr with two friends and finds himself in the midst of all this.

Good enough for a ripping yarn. And, if Sean Russell had written a focused book with expertly interwoven storylines and memorable characters, it might have been. Despite being praised for possessing such qualities, "The One Kingdom" is actually a sprawling, meandering narrative generally devoid of suspense. It's not until the end of the volume that the premise even becomes reasonably clear. Tam's journey down the Wyrr is drawn-out and boring, with little indication why any of the incidents along the way might be significant later. It's so drawn out that it crowds out the more interesting events among the Renne and the Wills, so much so that sometimes you struggle to remember who a character is when Russell returns to him (or her). It would work better if we knew why Tam is or will be an important figure, but there's no indication yet that he even merits being the protagonist. He just seems along for the ride.

Russell fails to take advantage of numerous opportunities for drama and tension. The leader of the House of Wills plans to marry his niece Elise off to Prince Michael of Innes in order to create a military alliance against the Renne, for example. Elise doesn't want to become a military pawn, and refuses to marry. Michael, wouldn't you know it, is an enlightened individual who feels much the same way Elise does. There's no disagreement. There's no irresistible attraction (not yet, at least) that makes it difficult for them to follow through on what they know is right. In short, while there is plenty of narrative complexity, there is little complexity of character and desire. Finally, Russell is not quite the writer that, say, George RR Martin and Robin Hobbs are. In a climactic sequence during a costume ball, for example, it's not clear what exactly happens without a second going-over.

So, "The One Kingdom" is a decent read because of the strong premise, and because of the sense that larger things are coming. But, it does feel like a rather long-winded exposition to that larger story.

By the way, the inclusion of a map would have really helped. (Yes, yes, there is a whole alternate realm that some characters journey through, but a map of the regular world would have nonetheless been greatly appreciated.)
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on March 7, 2001
As a person interested in politics and history who likes stories with a lot of complexity, I enjoyed this novel a great deal. The many different threads were woven together with a skill such that you couldn't see exactly *how* they were woven together until the end, when it started to make some sense.
However, the problem I had with this story is the end. Even if I hadn't known it was a trilogy, I would have been able to tell from the way the author wrote it. It was all setup. Now, I'm used to cliffhangers when I'm reading a series, but usually there's at least some resolution at the end of each book. In this case, I felt it was nearly all setup and no resolution. If you're one who can't stand cliffhangers, I'd give this one a wait until more of the story is out.
Of course, that may be the point. I am very eagerly looking forward to the next novel to find out what happens. :-)
All in all, a good book, but the ending wasn't as complete as I would have liked.
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on January 21, 2014
“The One Kingdom” is the first book in “The Swan’s War” trilogy, and I thought it was a solid epic fantasy debut although I thought there were a few holes in the world building that I’m hopeful the author will explore in the remaining novels. While I enjoyed the story, the Kindle formatting was a bit jarring. Many times, I found words chopped up, which caused me to stumble. For example, I would be reading along and hit something like “of ten” instead of often and “be a ring” bearing.

The novel was light on detailed battle scenes, but it did include several small conflicts that kept the plot moving along. The author chose to spend a lot of time focusing on the political maneuverings of the Wills and Renne families that are battling one another for the right to rule the entire kingdom. Mixed into this struggle is the journey of three young men – Tam, Fynnol, and Baore, as they travel down the mystical Wyrr river in search of a little adventure.

The young men found their adventure and more!

The three young men reminded me of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series especially since one of the boys is quiet and seems to be destined for leadership, one is a jokester, and the other is a big, heavily muscled young man. They boys are decent archers and come from a small, distant village. One aspect that is different is the author putting them into a setting where there is mention of sorcerers and magic, but the system is not explored or understood much in this first novel. At most, there is a hint of some mystic powers associated with the Wyrr River.

One aspect I liked about this story is that it was a clean read. I think the story holds its own against the likes of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”, but does so without language, brutality, and sex scenes.

The main female character, Elise Wills, seems a bit weak, but I’m guessing her role will expand immensely in the next novel. Her story slowly builds to a climax and ends in a bit of a cliff hanger at the end of the first book.

I mentioned there were some perceived holes in the world building. I may have missed it in the story, but I don’t recall the source of the original conflict between the two warring families. I also don’t recall much detail on the betrayals with the “Knights of the Vow” and the Renne family. I would have also appreciated more backstory on Wyrr, the ancient enchanter, and what exactly is the deal with his three children who seem to be some kind of water spirits. I will gladly push on to the next novel in the series in hopes I can find answers to these questions.
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on August 20, 2002
While I have a weakness for fantasy, the truth is, most of its [junk]! chock full of cliched characters and settings hacking and slashing away at plots that are epic only in length. Everybody wants to be J.R.R. Tolkien, but nobody has quite grasped what Tolkien did. Those books that understand the importance of three-dimensional characters and good storytelling are few and far between, and may not pack the "visual punch" of your hack-and-slash fantasy fare. "The One Kingdom" is such a book. It only has a few passing references to bloodsoaked heroes on burning battlefields (and when it does, it evokes chills rather than groans), and doesn't mind letting the reader drift down the river with it (but neither did Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Ring"), but it is rewarding in the richness of the characters its protagonists encounter on their journey. The cast of the book is large but not confusing, because each character has a story of his or her own. Watching Russell weave these disparate stories into a climactic ending at the Westbrook Fair is half the fun. He's no Tolkien (thus the four stars), but he's no Robert Jordan either.
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on July 9, 2006
Let me begin by saying that if you don't like High Fantasy in style, very melodramatic stuff, don't bother reading further and don't get the book either. If you don't like novels that are similar to other novels, also don't bother with it.

To say this is High Fantasy is such a major understatement. Its stylistically the highest High Fantasy I've ever read. It doesn't have elves and dwarves, but that's a world thing. What you do get, is very olden-style writing with very serious characters. You get tons of little stories, and songs, and metaphors, lots of metaphors. In fact, sometimes you get battling analogies, where one character thinks something looks like one thing, and the other corrects him, claiming it looks more like something else. Wow, huh? I actually gave a "no way" when I read the first one.

And then we have the main three character, this is where the similarity aspect of my warning comes in. I hate to use the word "copied" because the more you study mythology the more these archetypes pop up again and again, but let me describe them to you. Three late teenagers, Tam, who is tall but not overly muscular and has a good mind, Baore who is a bull of a man but simple minded, and Fynnol who is quick witted, very roguish, but slight of build. They are all good with bows (all forest boys seem to be), one uses a staff with a shod end, and Tam was given an ancient sword by his grandfather. Oh, and they are from a backwater place called the Vale of the Lakes. It's impossible to not compare these three to Rand, Perrin, and Mat from Wheel of Time. Impossible. Plus, Rand's stepfather happens to be named Tam. Wait...why is the twilight zone music playing?

But really, I really don't care about it. It happens all the time to varying extents. But some people get their panties in the twist over it, so if you do, stay far far away. You've been warned.

So why get the novel? Well, before I finished the series, I would have told you it was the only decent high fantasy in a high fantasy style in a long while (everything is realistically minded now). But, sadly, each novel gets collectively worse. The first is great set up, the second kind of meddles along, and then we are taken a totally different direction. By the second novel you want the battle that has been set up in the first novel and by the end of it, you get something else that just isn't as satisfying. Plus, you really hate river travel...great metaphor, bad reading after the five hundredth page of it.

Final Thought: While the first novel is a great start, I can't recommend it based on where the series goes. But if you like metaphor, you might want to give it a shot.
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on January 28, 2001
Sean Russell's voice reminds me of the great fantasies I read in the late 1970's and early 1980's, before everything sounded and looked the same - 800 page novels in 15 book series, where the story never seems to progress and there is nothing to distinguish one character from another.
The story in "The One Kingdom" progresses quickly, and each of the characters has a unique voice and the story is driven as much by the characters themselves, and not by long passages of exposition. I read most of this book while trapped for three hours on a small commuter flight from Atlanta to New York, and the time passed very quickly. "The One Kingdom" is both literate and accessible. I can see myself re-reading this ten years from now and still enjoying it.
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