The Walls of Westernfort

by Jane Fletcher

Cover image

Series: Celaeno #2
Publisher: Bold Strokes
Copyright: 2004
Printing: March 2005
ISBN: 1-60282-349-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 320

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While this is the first book of the Celaeno series that I've read, it turns out to be the second book in the series. This is somewhat difficult to determine from sources on-line since the first three books in the series were published in the same year, but it's fairly obvious from reading synopses after having finished one of the books. I don't think it does any great damage to the story to read it out of order (indeed, it preserves the suspense around some plot elements), but you may want to seek out The Temple at Landfall first.

Natasha Ionadis is a member of the Guard. The military services are divided into three parts in her world: the Rangers, who defend cities against bandits and others in the countryside; the Militia, who maintain law and order in the cities; and the Guard, who are responsible for guarding the temples and protecting the rituals and teachings of the state religion. She is a devout worshiper of Celaeno and delighted to be part of the Guard. But, as this book opens, she gets a very unexpected mission for a young private: a suicide mission into the heart of a heretic group in the wilds, heretics who have successfully defied the official religion and are in danger of setting up a self-sustaining community.

The Walls of Westernfort has the surface trappings of a fantasy and does include some magic, but it slowly develops into more of a character story with a medieval (or, more accurately, medieval-inspired) backdrop. At the start, it appears that this mission will be an opportunity for Natasha to find the mentors and companions that she's never had before, but then her encounter with the heretics turns her world upside down. They're not the monsters that she had imagined, although their beliefs are still outrageous to her. One heretic in particular affects her deeply and introduces a strong lesbian romance element to the plot that dominates the rest of the book.

I enjoyed the slow emergence of one aspect of the setting (that I'm about to spoil, so skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to hear it, although it would already be spoiled by reading the predecessor book or most of the blurbs). This is a world devoid of men; all the characters are women. This isn't part of the plot; it's just the unremarked normal. Fletcher tosses in a hand-waving explanation about halfway through, but it's only discussed in passing and never mentioned again. I really enjoy this technique, and enjoyed watching how long it took in the book before I noticed. There are so many books out there where men are the unremarked normal that it's a refreshing change to read the opposite (and notice how little it really matters), although it does require throwing in implausible magic to solve the problem of procreation. (That's apparently more the topic of The Temple at Landfall.)

Plot-wise, The Walls of Westernfort is not complicated. The shape of the plot after Natasha's first encounter with the heretics is not likely to surprise any reader. But it's a simple plot well-executed, with distinct and fleshed-out characters and steady helpings of people being thoughtful and reasonable. The basic story carries plenty of natural conflict; Fletcher doesn't need to add much additional tension and wisely chooses not to, keeping the focus tightly on Natasha and her conflict between duty and conscience. I liked both of the people involved in the romance and could believe they'd fall in love, and I also liked that the romance was significant but not decisive. It's part of what helps Natasha expand her view of the world, but one could see how she would have made the right decision in the end even if the romance had not been present.

The story does force some significant secret-keeping, but it doesn't draw cheap tension from mundane failure to communicate. All of the communication gaps here are believable and honest, driven by the characters' backgrounds, and absolutely necessary. I'm hypersensitive to romance plots based on communication failure, and I wasn't even grumbling.

The series this book reminds me the most of is another lesbian romance in a fantasy-style setting: Catherine M. Wilson's When Women Were Warriors. The Walls of Westernfort is not as deep or philosophical, it's a bit more black and white in its morality, and I don't think it's quite as good of a book, but for me it had a similar tone of good people trying to do the right thing and finding one's way through ethical mazes. It's a bit slow to get started, but by the time Natasha's critical decision point arrived, I was fully invested in the story and had a hard time putting it down.

Recommended if you're in the mood for a relatively light faux-medieval fantasy romance. I'm not rushing out to grab the other books in the series, but they went on my want list and I'll probably get them at some point.

Followed by Rangers at Roadsend in the publication order sense, but apparently it's a prequel.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-11-02

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21