2013’s Ward Against Darkness is the second volume in Melanie Card’s Chronicles of a Reluctant Necromancer series.
The good news is that Ward De’Ath is spending less time worrying about being outed as a practitioner of the forbidden surgical arts. That’s because he is facing a far more immediate problem: a band of highly motivated assassins want to kill Ward and his dead…ish companion Celia.
Ward and Celia manage to elude their hunters and head for a wilderness that might just be wild enough to hide them. There’s just one catch.
Macerio, the proprietor of the “inn” where they end up. Macerio is a necromancer and not one of the nice ones. He isn’t the world’s evillest necromancer. He is simply the former student of the man who was the world’s evillest necromancer before he was executed. But he is ambitious and hard working and he may well attain Big Badness. He has commandeered an isolated inn and filled it with vesperitti (vampires), bewitched victims (vesperitti food), and would-be apprentices.
By rights, Ward should have been just another victim. But he is mistaken for an apprentice Macerio has been expecting. Undead…ish Celia is assumed to be a vesperitti of Ward’s making1, proof that he is the right sort of necromancer to serve Macerio.
The master necromancer uses a particularly harsh pass-fail system. If Ward does not pass the test, he will become food for the vampires (or worse). Since Ward is at best a middling necromancer, his odds of winning are poor. The sensible thing would be to steal some supplies and flee.
Ward did not become a social pariah stalked by heavily armed killers by being sensible. He must stop Macerio by stealing his grimoires and then fleeing. Duty calls! Excelsior!
This would be a suicide mission were it not for an unexpected ally. Allette desires more than anything to be free of her necromantic master. Helping Ward is her best hope for freedom. It’s true that she’s reluctant to admit she’s a bound vampire rather than just another enthralled happy meal. Her desire for escape, even at the cost of her own existence, is genuine. In any case, if you cannot trust a beautiful vampire, whom can you trust?
Readers may be wonder how it is that two people randomly stumbling through a forest should happen to encounter a nest of villains. There’s a sensible answer. Macerio has set a spell trap that attracts people to the inn. Normal people become food, and potential villains become vesperitti or are recruited into the Supervillain Apprentice Show. Macerio doesn’t seem to have taken into account the possibility that he’d pull in someone with the means and motive to oppose him, probably because at this point Macerio is very likely the most powerful living necromancer2 on the planet.
Hey, wait, what about undead…ish Celia? What is she doing all this time? Well, she does get her own B plot (it turns out one of the vesperitti is old friend Val) and her creeping-around-in-the-dark skills come in handy. But I was disappointed that Celia’s body count wasn’t higher. Waste of a good resurrected assassin. Humph.
Darkness is something of a fantasy horror romance. For plot reasons, Ward and Celia cannot come together at the end of the first chapter, or the first volume. Impediments are required. Which are:
Rules against necromancers and their (generally temporarily) resurrected subjects becoming entangled (romantically or otherwise). Try not to think about why this society has occasion to have those rules.
A romantic rival for Celia’s attentions in the form of Val, who, being a vampire, is perhaps a better match.
Ward feels much more comfortable proposing a fight to the death against evil than proposing a romantic entanglement. [Editor’s note: MEN!!!]
Generally it’s a bad idea to kill off the Big Bad in the second of four volumes, but it’s going to take at least one more volume, maybe two, for Ward and Celia to hold hands, let alone kiss. There’s good reason to think that by dealing with Macerio in the manner that Ward did, he facilitated the emergence of a bigger bad. Good intentions and all that. I’ll be interested to see how this turns out.
1: It’s not clear just what Celia has become thanks to Ward’s ministrations, but some possibilities are ruled out in the course of this volume.
2: Necromancers are not considered evil in this fantasy world, whereas surgeons are. Socially responsible necromancers can actually (temporarily) revive the dead, whereas surgeons generally kill the people they are trying to cure. What with lacking a germ theory of disease and all.