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Speculative fiction is not a genre I read or review very often. It has become popular in recent years, mainly in Young Adult fiction though it has its share of adult fans. This may be due to Harry Potter or perhaps Star Wars, though some claim it’s a phenomena of today’s chaotic world and a desire to escape reality. Whatever the reason, many readers enjoy an excursion into a world of magic, dreams, heroes, and imagination. Braden Bell has taken a step beyond fantasy to serious questions concerning human agency coached in the story of a young girl discovering who she is. He explores the concept of absolute power to control thoughts and actions from both the side of the controller and the ones being controlled. Does the ability to make choices matter? (Sound familiar?)
THE MISSING HEIR OF MANDRALAY by Braden Bell
Braden Bell has started a new fantasy series called Soulbound which is Volume 1 of The Missing Heir of Mandralay. It begins with the birth of a tiny baby girl, the legitimate future queen of Mandralay. Present in the queen’s bedroom at the time of the birth is the high priestess of the kingdom, who has instructions from the present queen’s sister, who is plotting to take over the kingdom, to kill the baby who is the rightful heiress. Though the high priestess has been actively involved in the Queen’s sister’s plot to take over the kingdom, she can’t bring herself to murder the baby and instead she takes steps to ensure the child’s rightful succession to the throne, then both she and the baby disappear and the kingdom falls into disarray and evil as the queen, her husband, and their loyal followers are murdered and the sister becomes regent.
Thirteen years later, a young girl in a distant orphanage discovers she can produce tiny lights with mysterious powers. The elderly nun who oversees the orphanage becomes alarmed when she discovers what the child is doing and quickly evacuates the orphanage and sets the building on fire. She orders the other nuns to take care of the other children while she locks the girl, Tallie, in an iron-lined coffin and heads into the desert with the coffin on a horse-drawn cart.
A monster in human form called a bestial is sent by the reigning regent to follow the faint signals that signify someone is using magic. Convinced the signal comes from the missing princess, she gives orders to the bestial to find and kill her. The bestial who has no memories, no heart, or even a name is known only as X. He is a killing machine controlled by the regent. Yet when he finds the young girl, something reaches beyond his programming to the man he once was and he determines to save her. Saving her from himself becomes one of his greatest challenges.
Other bestials are sent and danger lurks as the old woman, Tallie, and X flee across the desert toward a place of safety. Tallie discovers other powers and ultimately learns she has the power to totally control others and must decide whether her power should be used to destroy her enemies and possibly her own soul or to provide others with the freedom to lead their own lives and discover their own strengths.
The author has drawn characters caught up in the dilemma between good and evil. Their choices are not always good, but they learn and move forward. At thirteen, Tallie is at one of life’s crossroads; she’s child enough to want her own way and she’s adult enough to know right from wrong. The old nun seeks redemption from her part in the deaths and destruction brought about by the coup that turned the kingdom from good to evil and made Tallie an orphan. X wants a name, an identity, to be more than a puppet. There’s something deep inside of him that knows there is something more, something connected to choices.
The plot moves quickly and though the story takes place in an imaginary world, it is relatable in most ways to the world we live in. It teaches some powerful lessons concerning the effects of choice versus coercion. It gives a picture of the possible result of having no choices and at the opposite end of the spectrum the evil that invades those who have total control of others.
Braden Bell has a Ph.D. in educational theatre and music from NYU. He also attended BYU. The Missing Heir of Mandralay is his sixth novel. He is married and lives with his wife and family in Nashville, Tennessee.
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THE MISSING HEIR OF MANDRALAY by Braden Bell, published by Mockingbird Cottage Press, 233 pages, soft cover $9.99. Also available for eReaders.