The list of sequels which surpass the original is pretty short. The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II… that might be it, really. Well, you can add to that list Alyssa Marie Bethancourt’s Trajelon. In her debut novel, Mornnovin, Bethancourt crafted the amazingly detailed and convincing fantasy world of Asrellion. Despite the presence of fantastical elements such as Elves and Fairies, Asrellion is utterly compelling and real thanks to the author’s meticulous worldbuilding. The nations of Grenlec, Telrisht, and Mysia feel like they could really exist. The cultural and geographic differences between these lands is vividly rendered, and the geopolitical struggles have an air of authenticity. Even the fantastic Valley of the Elves, Evlédíen, comes to life in a way that conveys awe and wonder while still feeling like a place that could really exist. There’s even a fully-realized Elvish language as convincing as Tolkein’s. The history of this world is conveyed through detailed descriptions of architecture and wardrobe that never detract from the main body of the story. Rather, they enhance the immersive experience. Against that backdrop Bethancourt weaves a complex tale of a world falling apart thanks to the vengeful manipulations of the evil sorcerer Katakí Kuromé. The result is an epic tale of the clash between two peoples and the Elf princess Loralíenasa Raia who struggles to bridge the cultural divide and stop the world from destroying itself.
If that sounds difficult to top, that skepticism is understandable. Mornnovin is an excellent first novel, a page-turner in which the characters are so lovingly developed that by the end they feel like family. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this review and go do so at once. If you have read it, however, you’re probably eager to read book II. In which case, stop reading this review and go do so at once. Trust me, it’s well worth it. Trajelon not only surpasses the original in terms of suspense and plot twists, it also manages to be more meaningful on a personal level. A word of warning, however: this book is dark. Really, really dark. Seriously, it’s not for the faint of heart. It would be impossible to discuss the book in detail without spoiling some of its best surprises, so if you want to go in blind, stop here, but if you need a detailed content warning, you can find it at alyssabethancourt.com/cw.
Still here? Okay, here we go. I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.
Trajelon can essentially be divided into two main segments. The first is an examination of depression, while the second is an examination of abuse. Linking the two is a look at how the first primes a person to be vulnerable to the second. The end result is a devastatingly powerful treatise on the emotional mindset of the victims of this brand of trauma; one which emerges not only as a standout entry in the fantasy genre, but as a literary masterpiece of the finest caliber.
The book opens where the first concluded. Loríen is dealing with the fallout from the first book, attempting to secure a lasting peace between Evlédíen and Grenlec. Things are tense, given the violent history between the two kingdoms, and this tension is made all the worse since Loríen cannot even give Queen Alyra news of her brother, Prince Naoise. That’s because Loríen has sent him off on a probably hopeless quest to claim his elven birthright directly from Vaian, the god of Asrellion. Meanwhile, toadies and sycophants vie for her hand in marriage, among them the creepily cunning Neldorí Chalaqar, and the day is fast approaching when she’ll have to make a choice. She can’t wait for Naoise forever. The law of the land says that once she becomes Queen, she must eventually marry, and if Naoise isn’t back by then, she’ll have to choose someone else.
Needless to say, Loríen is none too happy about this situation. She was never all that enthused about becoming the monarch to begin with, and without her beloved Naoise at her side, the prospect seems all the more odious. But her profound sense of duty leaves her with no choice, and as her time runs out, her zest for life goes with it. Gone is the plucky, adventurous Loríen we met in the opening chapter of Mornnovin, replaced with a sad and lonely woman who just goes through the motions and does what’s required of her. There’s nothing for her to look forward to, so joy is quickly becoming a memory.
If this seems bad, it’s nothing compared to the next blow Loríen has to suffer. Just before an important state function, the psychic bond Loríen shares with Naoise is severed, which can only mean one thing. Naoise has died on his quest, and the loss just about kills her. It’s heartbreaking to behold and achingly real. Within the universe, the breaking of this psychic bond, called the Galvanos, knocks a person flat and puts them just this side of death. It’s a poignantly accurate metaphor for the overwhelming grief that hits in the immediate wake of loss. But that’s only the beginning.
This is where the book begins to truly delve into its examination of clinical depression. When most people think of depression, they just think of being sad for a while. It’s something that passes. But clinical depression is something else entirely. It’s something you have to live with every day. It’s always there, like a song that gets stuck in your head, and somehow you have to find a way to keep going, even though there’s this nagging feeling of impossibility that you can’t get rid of. Some days are worse than others and you can barely hold it together, while other days you’re able to tuck it away neatly and almost ignore it. But never completely.
Because of the Galvanos, Loríen is one half of a whole. With one half of herself lost forever, she must go about her days and somehow ignore the swirling void of nothingness where her other half used to be. On top of that is Loríen’s self-blame for sending Naoise away while piled on top of that is her day-to-day duty of running the kingdom. In one of the standout scenes of the book, Loríen must accept her crown in an elegantly-described ceremony steeped in majesty and ritual and yet utterly cold and barren, tainted by a pervasive sense of loss, emptiness, and hopelessness. It reminded me very much of the excellent scene in the film Elizabeth when the Queen formally eschews love forever and “marries” England. It is a richly textured and beautifully filmed scene that captures the regal dignity of the crown while the staging along with Cate Blanchett’s amazing performance subtly convey the isolation of her character. Bethancourt executes her coronation scene with the same expertise.
As the days go on and Loríen’s emptiness grows, she slowly degenerates into self-destructive behavior, turning to drugs and finally to the arms of Neldorí Chalaqar, who shamelessly manipulates her emotions for his own gratification, leading to a particularly steamy (if disturbing) encounter. As repulsive as Neldorí is, he is nevertheless memorable and interesting. It would have been easy for him to be a one-dimensional character, but he’s not. He’s a sleazy cad and a shameless hedonist, an utter waste of flesh who contributes nothing to society and is the epitome of decadence. And yet buried somewhere beneath layer upon layer of conniving self-interest is a nugget of genuine concern for Loríen. Even as he goes about his machinations to possess her, a part of him really does worry for her safety. He wants her to love him, not because he loves her or wants anything truly wholesome, but out of a narcissistic need for worship. In this regard he’s truly repugnant. And yet when things go horribly awry for Loríen, he accepts blame for his part in it and immediately goes to her former guardian, Tomanasíl, to try and set things right. The action is not without a level of self-interest. Neldorí wants an important role in rescuing Loríen, both out of pure vanity and to soothe his own guilt. Yet that guilt is still there. A true sociopath would feel no guilt. Neldorí does. And he also feels genuine affection and concern for Loríen. None of this is enough for Tomanasíl, though, and both he and the book cast Neldorí aside into the irrelevance he deserves.
Speaking of Tomanasíl, he really shines in this book. In Mornnovin, his role was largely antagonistic. Despite being relatively young by elf standards, he is very rigid and set in his ways, and as father-figure to Loríen, he represents the clueless older generation standing in the way of progress. He hobbles Loríen’s efforts to stop Kataki, even throwing her in prison, and it’s not until the end of the book that he softens at all. But here we get to see a more nuanced portrayal of the character. Not that he didn’t have layers in the first book, but in this one he’s allowed to show a more caring and nurturing side. The old rigid Tomonasíl is still in there, and there are moments where his uncompromising nature throws him into conflict with Loríen, but the overwhelming sense this time is much warmer and more sympathetic.
However, no amount of warmth from Tomanasíl or anyone else can alter the devastation that has befallen Loríen. The walls close in on her, and just when it seems like things can’t get any worse, the whole axis of the story shifts. A mysterious message arrives from an unknown sender, written in blood and beckoning Loríen to the distant island of Trajelon with the hope that Naoise may yet be alive. This pushes Loríen to make to dangerously questionable decisions. Driven by desperation, she slips away in secret, unwittingly blundering right into a trap.
By now, readers will have begun to suspect the truth, but I’ll keep that one a secret. Suffice to say that as the book’s second phase begins, the full ramifications of Loríen’s mental state are turned against her. The guilt she has felt for her part in the events of the first book are weaponized against her, taking her to new lows of self-hatred. As she undergoes both physical and mental torture, she loses her perspective and begins to believe the lies her captor is force-feeding her. Constant gaslighting, aggressive attacks, and impossible choices eventually take their toll. Gradually she loses her sense of identity and any sense of life being worthwhile. It’s a starkly accurate portrayal of how abusers exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims.
One of the most heartwarming things about this book, though, is how Loríen’s loved ones snap into action to lend her aid. Tomanasíl leads the charge, but also returning from the first book are Loríen’s sister, Lyn, and her human husband, Cole. The lovably abrasive elf guardsman Sovoqatsu is back too and in perfect form. Together they speed to the rescue against all odds, but whether the cavalry arrives in time or not, it will be up to Loríen to win the real battle: the one for her soul.
On every level, Trajelon is executed flawlessly. With utter precision, Alyssa Bethancourt tackles her subject matter, weaving multiple layers of character and intrigue to deliver a stunningly beautiful and masterfully crafted work. She pulls no punches in delivering the emotional blows and does not shy away from ugliness and tragedy, yet there is beauty on every page in her sweeping descriptions and her agonizingly accurate insights into human emotion. Not a single word is wasted, with every line in service of the whole. Bethancourt does not dally with filler or needless action, nor does she indulge in violence or smut for their own sake. Everything in the story serves a purpose. Every character, even the villains, are given layers of depth. Particularly memorable is the tormented Sekarí, caught between his own conscience and the horrid whims of his master. There is not a single moment in this book that is not executed to perfection.
Mornnovin took us on an epic journey from one end of Asrellion to the other and thrust us into the middle of a vast conflict affecting thousands of lives. Trajelon may be smaller, but the emotional journey it takes us on is far more powerful and its ramifications no less meaningful. In her first book, Alyssa Bethancourt proved her skill at weaving a tale epic in scope. In her second, she demonstrates that she is nothing less than a master of the printed word and a true storyteller. I say without hesitation that Trajelon is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and I guarantee it will stay with you long after you’ve read it.
Trajelon is available from all major online book retailers and can be special-ordered at brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Full disclosure: I am married to the author, however the opinions I have expressed are my objective and genuine assessment of the work.