Of all the books I’ve reviewed for this website, Manipulator’s War by Elise Carlson strikes a couple of firsts. It is the first written by an Australian author, featuring Australian characters and Australia itself (if only briefly). As much as that makes my Aussie pride tingle, more notably, it is the first book I’ve reviewed that features a nonbinary lead character. Aussie pride and representation might not be enough to make a great book, but great characters, a deep plot, strong subject matter and themes are. And Manipulator’s War comes through on all these fronts.
If you have taken the time to read the book’s blurb above this review, you will see there is a lot going on. The prologue jumps straight into the action, telling the story of nonbinary protagonist, Ruarnon, who must ascend to the throne and lead their people through an ongoing war. As the novel moves into the first chapter, the setting moves to Australia, where we meet Linh and her schoolmates on an excursion. This sudden shift is sure to get the reader paying attention, and before long, Linh and co are transported by a portal to the fantasy realm of Tarlah, in a coming of age young adult (YA) story that infuses portal fantasy with epic fantasy.
For a novel that sits so comfortably within the fantasy genre, Manipulator’s War is a story of many horrors. It is about the horror of war, on full display throughout Carlson’s narrative, whether it is the titular war or Linh’s family’s backstory in Vietnam. It is about how horrifically humanity can act towards itself, whether they’re people in a fantastic realm battling the other, or Australia’s shameful, racist history. These themes are completely resonant, and throughout the novel, Carlson introduces them in a way that brings complexity to the story, rather than glorifying it.
Despite Manipulator’s War being a story geared towards younger audiences, it benefits from a close read. It is packed with characters, filled by those on Ruarnon’s side of the war, Kyura’s side, and Linh’s classmates. As the story moves at a breakneck pace from beginning to end, it combines these elements in quick succession as its complex plot unfolds. While I occasionally had to pause and take stock, Manipulator’s War rewarded me for paying attention to the details. While most YA books lack the complexity on display here, its style isn’t a negative by any stretch—instead, this is an immersive story that I found refreshing for the genre, and I expect the target audience will as well.
At 483 pages in paperback (or an estimated 382 pages on your favourite eReader), Manipulator’s War is a sizable read, particularly for the genre. Yet, it feels shorter than this page count would suggest. Its fast pacing plays a large part in this, as do the characters, the world the author has built throughout it, its intriguing and entertaining plot, and in particular, Carlson’s prose. The prose provides plenty of detail, and is filled with vivid imagery throughout, placing the reader directly into the world. As I read this novel, I could see, hear, smell and feel every aspect of the story, as if I was experiencing everything alongside its characters.
The characters I experienced the events of Manipulator’s War alongside are an absolute delight. Its many characters (the book’s Dramatis Personae—I love its inclusion; it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one in a book—lists no less than thirty-eight, although some of them are simply referenced through the narrative) are fully realised, and no matter whether they are a monarch, a warrior, or a highschool student, they are all three dimensional, and entirely engrossing. With a cast so large, certain characters are inevitably going to play a larger part in the narrative than others, with Linh and Ruarnon playing the largest parts. Both these characters support the narrative beautifully, and they both play off the characters surrounding them wonderfully.
As Manipulator’s War’s blurb and my introduction to this review stated, Ruarnon is nonbinary. Throughout, this is brilliantly handled, with this being an aspect of who Ruarnon is, rather than who they are. While they must deal with people’s opinion about who they think they should be, this is only one facet to a multidimensional character. This is LGBTQI+ representation exactly as it should be: an enjoyable character first, with their gender identity being just one facet. At no point does this effort feel tokenistic, or as though it is pandering to gender queer or LQBTQI+ readers. As a cisgender male, I still found myself able to relate to their trials and tribulations, and I expect readers of all genders will be able to as well.
The dialogue throughout the novel works wonderfully, with all the characters sounding unique while also sounding natural. The dialogue from the characters living in this fantasy realm rings true, as does the dialogue from the students hailing from Australia. These characters literally come from different worlds and sound fitting for the place of their place or origin, but there is no discord between these groups of characters. The conversations all flow in a thoroughly enjoyable manner.
As its subtitle suggests, Manipulator’s War is the first book in a trilogy. As a result, this story’s ending is left open, ready for the next two stories to expand upon the world. While the ending beckons the reader to pick up the subsequent entries, it remains a book that can be fully enjoyed on its own merits.
Although some readers might find Manipulator’s War a little more complex than they would ordinarily expect from a YA fantasy, this complexity helps enrich the tale. Its plot, themes and characters coalesce beautifully, creating a wonderful start to the Ruarnon Trilogy. If you enjoy YA books, this is a great coming of age tale; if you’re a fantasy fan, this serves as a great introduction to a new and exciting world.
She didn’t feel pain. Only Arlian fighting beside her. Their captain behind. Only her companions falling around her, one by one. They were crying out, spasming or dying silently. There was only this road. The screams echoing off the walls. The endless rush of Zaldeaans from two doors. The greybeards and older women on her left were tiring. The ever-thinning line of Tarlahns standing between the enemy and its goal, to take Tarlah City. She. Would. Stand. Her. Ground.Manipulator’s War: Ruarnon Trilogy, Book 1, Chapter 21: “Breach”
Manipulator’s War: Ruarnon Trilogy, Book 1 was provided by the author for the purpose of an honest review.
Manipulator’s War is available in both physical and eBook forms from book retailers (including—but not limited to—Amazon).
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