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Posted on 15 Feb 2024 in Fiction, SFF |

JO RICCIONI The Rising. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

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The conclusion to Jo Riccioni’s high fantasy series The Branded Season brings Nara and her sister Osha to the Shadow City of Reis.

This exciting sequel to The Branded concludes a thought-provoking and fast-paced story about two sisters finding their place in a harsh, unforgiving world. Set a century after a devastating plague known as the Brume, society is divided into two classes. The Pure are descended from those who were immune, while the Branded are marked at birth as weaker and far more susceptible to other diseases as a lingering aftereffect of the Brume passed down through generations.

Raised in the strict, segregated settlement of Isfalk, where the Branded serve their Pure masters, sisters Nara and Osha manage to escape their fate of becoming nothing more than Pure breeding stock. After narrow escapes from both the gilded cage of Isfalk and from Wasteland slave traders, as The Rising opens they have finally reached the relative safety of the Shadow City of Reis, guided by the enigmatic foreigner Nixim.

Here in Reis, the Branded and the Pure live alongside one another and everyone is free to choose their own profession without being restricted by their infection status. This country, however, has its own problems and prejudices and there are many who would gladly see it go back to the way it once was, with the Branded returned to their former subhuman status. Others are convinced that Osha is the prophesised Elita, the Pure red-haired healer who will cure the Branded. Caught up in the cutthroat politics of a foreign country and a religion they have never believed in, Nara and Osha must learn to control their newly discovered psychic powers to have any chance of being able to make their own way in the world and help the Branded become something more.

Riccioni shows how religion can be used as a tool to placate the masses when their lives are truly awful. The ruling Pure don’t need to fix any of society’s problems, instead they can keep their Branded peasants complacent (and working hard) with the vague promise of a better future when the Elita will come to cure them. This approach has the added benefit of keeping the Pures who do care about the Branded in line, assuaging their guilt with the assertion that nothing can be done other than waiting for the Elita.

As in The Branded, Nara’s impetuous personality makes her a captivating main character. Despite being impulsive and reckless, she is also given to introspection, which makes her more relatable and remarkable. In this book, she realises that she still needs to fight the ingrained prejudices she was raised with:

I claim I’m not as Isfalki, but how quickly I regurgitate the Settlement’s assumptions. How ingrained are they in me, when I thought I was so different.

Similarly, away from the rules of the Isfalk settlement – rules that she once played along with for her own purposes – Osha gets more of a chance for her wit and intelligence to shine. This conversation is a good example of both sisters’ distinct personalities:

‘I heard Haus gave the woman a Hrossi tonic?’ [Azza] asks Osha.

‘Lucky her,’ I scoff. ‘Horse piss for breakfast.’ I mimic a dry heave. ‘I’ll never forget the memory of that brew. The smell alone is enough to raise the dead.’

‘And yet you live to whine about it,’ Osha reminds me.

I usually despise ‘love triangles’ as hallmarks of overly sensationalist writing, but the absolute emotional mess that surrounds Nara, her childhood friend/crush Brim, and Nixim, who broke her heart with a very important omission, is very well written and, most importantly, really does add something to the story. A lot of character development would not have happened without it.

The books are also humorous at times. A new character’s fondness for proverbs engenders a few good laughs:

When she straightens, Azza says, ‘You know, the Reis have a saying—’

‘Of course they do.’ I roll my eyes.

The finest jewels are worthless if they cannot be worn.’

‘Right.’ I offer an exaggerated nod as if she has imparted some shining pearl of wisdom.

In short, The Rising is a very fine conclusion to Riccioni’s first fantasy series. The post-apocalyptic world, where women are valued only as long as they are able to continuously produce children and the lower classes are forcibly kept living in the gutter, is both well drawn and thought-provoking.

Jo Riccioni The Rising Pantera Press 2023 PB 320pp RRP $29.99

Amelia Dudley has degrees in plant biology and currently works as a tutor.

You can buy The Rising from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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