Title: Company of Strangers (Company of Strangers Book One)
Publisher: Night Harbor Publishing
Author: Melissa McShane
Price: 0.99 ebook / $13.95 paperback
Sienne is in hiding. A daughter of nobility, she trained at one of the finest wizard schools on the continent. But when she was betrayed by her lover and her parents, she ran. She set out, determined to make it on her own — and now she finds herself wandering the streets of Fioretti, homeless, with only the clothes on her back and a few coins in her pocket. Luck (or the intervention of God Herself), introduces Sienne to Dianthe and Alaric, two scrappers who have plans to explore a ruin from the Before Times. Despite Alaric’s aversion to magic, they need a wizard to help them access part of the fallen keep. Joined by the drunken priest Perrin and the young warrior Kalanath, they discover much more in the ruins than they expected — and these treasures make them a target. Someone wants something that they found, and they are willing to kill anyone who gets in their way … including Sienne and her new friends ….
Melissa McShane is one of my favorite fantasy authors. Her Extraordinaries series is like Jane Austen but with psychic abilities, and her Emissary is a wonderful polytheistic epic fantasy/thriller. When I came across Company of Strangers, I grabbed it.
This book is just plain fun. Terrific characters, solid world-building, neat magic, and some exciting derring-do. Plus nefarious villains, and hints of a larger plot to do something even more nefarious.
Sienne is great. She’s book-smart, but also quick to pick up on the skills necessary to survive as a scrapper. She’s not delicate physically, either; she might be small, but she’s determined not to appear weak in front of her new companions; she pushes herself to walk, run, climb, and carry as much as they do. She’s also honest and honorable; she detests bullies and thieves of any sort.
The rest of this company of scrappers are equally intriguing, though their backgrounds are only hinted at in this book. Alaric’s secret (no spoilers) seems to be the thread that will weave through the whole series. Dianthe possesses a thief’s skills, but denies that she is a thief. Kalanath left his homeland for reasons he will not explain, making a dangerous mountain crossing to reach Fioretti. Perrin is a noble who has been cut off from his family due to his devotion to Averran.
Averran is why this book will appeal to Pagans and polytheists. In the world that McShane has created, God is whole and complete unto Herself. But She is so vast that She is impossible for humanity to comprehend; so She sent six avatars out into the world to interact with humanity and share Her blessings. Kitane, who seems to be an avatar of law and justice, is the most popular avatar. But it is Averran — a drunken, crotchety old man — with whom the company interacts most often. He dislikes being petitioned early in the morning, or too often, but he will grant blessings for noble, selfless causes. And his blessings are often unexpected, or unexpectedly, useful.
Interestingly, even though the avatars are aspects of God, they are sometimes at odds with one another. Not because one avatar or another is evil, but because they favor different human qualities, and by assisting people in different or opposing situations, they can foster those qualities. Averran, for instance, values compassion and honor, whereas Delanie values cleverness and the search for knowledge. As such, Averran’s blessings are fairly straightforward, whereas Delanie’s take the form of riddles that her petitioners must solve.
Company of Strangers is a fun, fast, and highly entertaining read. Perfect for epic fantasy fans looking for an uplifting (as opposed to grimdark) tale of friendship and adventure. Recommended to fans of McShane’s other books, as well as fans of The Enchanted Forrest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, The Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsey Buroker, and Annie Bellet’s Gryphonpike Chronicles.
[Reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan.]