Goodreads: The Second Guard
Series: Second Guard #1
Publication Date: April 14, 2015
In the peaceful realm of Tequende, all second-born children at the age of fifteen must journey to the Alcazar to fulfill the mandate of the Oath of Guilds. There they train to earn a place among the queen’s legendary Second Guard, or work as indentured servants.
Talimendra has always wanted to join the Guard, but there are dark rumors in the queendom that she may not be ready for. Rumors that whisper of greed, traitors, and war.
There is very little time and too many unanswered questions, but one thing is for certain: if there is a traitor among the Second Guard, then everyone—including the queen—is in grave danger.
I love a good story about teens training to be knights, especially stories about girls training to be knights and having to overcome the obstacles presented by their small size, lack of proper preparation, or institutional sexism. Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet was among my favorite books when I was in middle school, and I hoped to relive some of the magic, in a new fantasy realm, by reading J. D. Vaughn. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by poor writing and flimsy world-building.
Admittedly, The Second Guard tries to offer readers a complex world, but too many elements pillaged from too many other fantasy worlds makes Tali’s social system a bit of a mess. First, there are Guilds. Each person worships either the sun, the moon, or the earth and wears Guild-appropriate clothing and has a Guild-appropriate job. This, however, means there is also something of a caste system; the other Guilds look down on the Earth Guild for doing the nation’s manual labor. Then, there is also something going on with a Far World and a Nigh World (vaguely akin to our world’s New and Old Worlds and the Age of Exploration). Plus, Tali’s world is sort of based on our world because there’s a place called Araby and people speak Spanish and so forth, but the exact relationship isn’t clear. Suffice it to say, I spent a lot of the novel confused by how this world is supposed to be built.
The presence of the Guilds also led to some awkward stereotyping problems. There’s a pretty clear moral lesson presented in the Second Guard; you shouldn’t judge people by their Guild, shouldn’t use Guild slurs, shouldn’t assume all people in a Guild are stupid, lazy, arrogant, etc. The characters who do these things are clearly the novel’s bullies, and clearly wrong for their bigotry. However, Tali (and the narrator?) also generalize/stereotype Guilds. They observe that ALL Moon Guilders are elegant, diplomatic, and well-read. They note that ALL Earth Guilders are steady, “rooted,” and good with animals. So the message seems to be that you are allowed to homogenize a group as long as you’re saying nice things about them, not mean ones.
The Second Guard’s greatest accomplishment, then, is its ability to build strong character relationships. Sure, Tali and her trainee friends all speak to each other in perpetually formal dialogue that sounds more awkwardly stilted than naturally polite, but they do eventually develop a wonderful rapport. Tali also has a strong relationship with her father and her twin sister, which is quite beautiful to see. Add to that a delightful and protective packhound, as well as an immensely bouncy jabbering boy, and The Second Guard has a great cast of characters.
In the end, however, these characters could not save the book for me. Beyond the baffling world-building and contradictory moral messages, the plot is slow-paced and predictable. The major plot twist? I called it from the beginning of the novel. Perhaps the intended audience, readers decently younger than I am, would not, but that is not something I can accurately predict. So, while I wanted to like The Second Guard and would probably try another novel by J. D. Vaughn, I was ultimately disappointed.