The Second Guard by J. D. Vaughn

The Second Guard is a solidly written late middle grade alternate universe fantasy drawing upon both Spanish and pre-columbian cultures. The mixture creates a very unique and striking world into which we have politics, betrayal, and the strength of friendships. The characters are earnest and the author spent considerable effort to create a very vivid and well-drawn world (read: it’s logical and coherent).

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Story: In the City of Tequende, their peace in a continent fraught with continual war is earned through mandatory servitude of the second child of every family. Tali is on her way to join the army on her 15th birthday. Along the way, she befriends two boys also traveling to the capitol for their service. The three, though from different faiths and cultures, will soon become embroiled in the politics of Tequende as betrayals and politics endanger both their families and their own lives.

The world building is quite distinct in The Second Guard. Using continental politics and setting the story in a pseudo-Spain – but then culturally overlaying the nature-mysticism of pre-columbian America makes for a fascinating mix. The religions of our three main characters dictate a lot of their perspective – from the studios moon sect, to the outgoing sunfolk and the grounded workforce of the lower caste in the Earth group. As well, we have a Moorish transplant, a gypsy, and a nobleman. Each has talents and advantages that will help our main characters navigate Tequende and stay alive.

The book is very straightforward and info-dumps about the densely plotted world are limited to a few brief paragraphs introducing each chapter. They can be skipped but I felt they added quite a bit to the story. The book is a deceptively easy read – there’s a lot packed into each chapter but author Vaughn has deftly woven action around the dialogue to keep young and older readers invested.

If I had one quibble, it would be that everyone is drearily earnest and comic relief was hard to find. Tali and her friends are quite serious nearly all the time and the book really could have used some off beat characters to lighten the tone (e.g., a Hagrid to the Harry Potter). There is a quirky professor but he’s more a Dumbledore than a Hagrid.

The strength of this book is a very logical but fascinating world that for once, eschews the over-trodden English medieval fantasy trope. It was a pleasure to delve into this world and discover the twists at the end.

Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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