Nerana is a sorceress. An exile. The Child of Skye.
And she isn't alone.
After a vicious attack against the Order of Saro, Nerana finds herself lost in the wastelands of Aragoth. Forbidden of humans or evae, the desert is a land teeming with fire and vengeance, and Nerana's only hope for survival lies in the trust of another.
Aélla, a powerful evaesh sorceress, travels the desert on a pilgrimage of sacrifice and strength. Determined to enter the Realm of Elements and see her quest completed, she must survive the hardened warriors of the desert, the vaxros, who banished her kind from their land centuries ago.
But the vaxros aren't the only threat, and the weight of such imbalance could shift the fate of the world.
The Forbidden Realms picks up a short time after the end of Curse of the Fallen, with Neer visiting Ravinshire, hometown of her best friend, Loryk. We're plunged immediately into the emotional turmoil that is the aftermath of Curse's finale and served some of the most heart-gripping sections of this book right in the beginning, which serves as sort of an extended denouement for the first book.
From there, things take a turn and the focus of the story changes. Neer is thrust into a new deadly environment, Aragoth, the eponymous Forbidden Realms (or are they? 🤔😉).
In Aragoth, we're introduced to a new set of characters, and indeed the entire party Neer was with in the first book is gone (though they're still doing stuff behind the scenes, which I hear is covered in The Banished novella). It took me a while to get onboard with this new group, and early on I found myself missing the banter and close friendships of the prior entry. The Forbidden Realms is more like pure dark fantasy than Curse of the Fallen's grimdark+humor (grindark?), and the balance of elements definitely worked better for me in the first book.
Despite my early misgivings, the character arcs for these new characters were well done. Aella, in particular, has become one of my favorite characters of the series. Really, this book is about her journey – the entire plot revolves around her pilgrimage through the desert to find the four elemental power sources to awaken her (and Neer's) power. All the while, she serves as the angel on Neer's shoulder, trying with limited success to prevent Neer from going down a dark, angry path to escape her grief.
Another character we meet is Y'ven (pronounced like Kevin with a Y), an orc – er, sorry, a vaxros. The series has an already established tradition of giving traditional fantasy races and creatures new names. In Fallen Light, elves are Evae, and "elf" is a derogatory name humans call them. I don't think a vaxros is ever called an "orc" pejoratively, but the tradition continues. (So too with the newly introduced "draak" meaning dragon.)
Though H.C. leans into some tropes and archetypes, the culture constructed for this world is fresh enough to make the vaxros interesting. For example, from the desert sun they gain strength that wanes at night, so they hold their most sacred duels in the dark when they're at their weakest. They're obsessed with strength, loyalty, and honor, so naturally our party character is super strong and loyal but has dishonored himself from his tribe. His journey is about clearing his name and regaining his honor. I hear many readers love this character, but I found his arc to be less compelling than Aella's and Neer's.
Finally, there's Thallon, an Evae scholar searching for an artifact. There's clearly something interesting going on with this character, but I suspect his time in the spotlight has yet to come. I'll be looking out for him in Shadows of Nyn'dira, the next book. Oh yes, and there's Druindarvenia a.k.a. Dru. She's like Tinkerbell but even more fiery. Enough said.
Taken as an entire party, I still prefer the group from Curse of the Fallen. However, The Forbidden Realms does a great job introducing a second set of characters who are clearly big players in the series. Switching out the entire cast for book two was a risky move, but H.C. managed to make me love these characters in their own right and avoided this feeling like a slog.
Only a few minor complaints pulled me out of the story. First was that there seemed to be some head-hopping going on between the characters, but eventually I realized this was a stylistic choice. Go into this expecting limited omniscient perspective rather than a strict third-person limited and I suspect you'll have a better time than me. Second was that the plot felt a bit less focused than the first book. Likely that's because there are more character arcs to keep track of. Making sure everyone got their due time made chapters feel meandering when we're covering ground for characters I was less interested in.
Certainly nothing that greatly tarnished the reading experience. So while I don't think the follow up to Curse of the Fallen quite reached the highs of its predecessor, I still had a great time reading this one. H.C.'s character work is great, and I'm excited to see some interactions between this new cast and the old characters in Shadows of Nyn'dira.