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The Prize in the Game is a short novel that takes place in the world of Walton's The King's Peace and The King's Name. It gives a little history on a few of the characters, and takes place before the other two books, with events in this one leading up to the characters' entrances in The King's Peace. It's a wonderfully done piece, with not a word wasted.
At 253 pages, it is certainly a quick read, but there is so much packed into it that it feels like a longer book. Walton writes a lean and mean novel that doesn't use any extraneous language or plots. The book is about Emer and Conal, but it is also about Elenn and how she compares to her sister, Emer. It's about friendship, love, and honour, and the power that all three have over the life we live. How Walton manages to package all of this together in such a small package, I have no idea.
Emer and Conal's love story is a sight to behold. They both start out the book very young, with not much idea of what their future holds. Emer is sixteen, and really too young to be considered an adult, but she takes arms just like her slightly older companions do. Conal starts out the book talking about how beautiful Elenn is, but you quickly realize that he has no feelings for her whatsoever. When he stumbles across Emer (relatively plain compared to Elenn), he finds that he has discovered the love of his life. When both take up arms, Emer wants nothing more than to be Conal's charioteer and wife. When Walton writes these two, they just spring off the page. You feel their pain when they realize the many obstacles in their path, both from her mother and from the circumstances around them. They are well-rounded characters who are very interesting as well.
The second story has to do with Elenn. She is not the military sort like her sister, and she has no interest in going out and killing something. She's more than ready to be married off by her mother for a good alliance. She doesn't like the fact that she won't get to choose her husband, and she has fallen in love with Ferdia. But Ferdia would not make a good alliance as it doesn't look like he's going to become king of anything. Also, Ferdia is not in love with her, which adds an air of tragedy to the whole proceedings. This is especially true when Ferdia is forced into a potentially deadly situation because he can't let on that he doesn't love her and doesn't want to marry her. In less capable hands, Elenn could have come off as nothing but a spoiled brat. Walton handles her delicately and is able to make you interested in her story. She still comes off as a bit of a spoiled brat, but she slowly learns what it will take to get out from under her mother's thumb and what it takes to truly be an adult. She is probably my least favourite character, but not because Walton does her badly. It's just that the other characters are so much better. That's a good thing in a writer. It's truly sad when her mother (Maga) gets her into a situation where Maga constantly weds her to a champion only to have that champion go off and die the next day. You can truly see what effect this has on her.
Finally, there is the Darag-Ferdia story. This has less impact than the other two, but I found it just as interesting. Ferdia loves Darag and Darag has considered Ferdia a brother to him. Ferdia has trouble accepting all of this, as well as accepting that Elenn is in love with him but he could never return that love. He is despondent, and a rash act of giving a gift to Elenn because he doesn't want it leads to consequences that Ferdia couldn't predict. As his story unfolds, you find yourself really feeling for him and his situation. It looks like there is no way out for him. Darag, meanwhile, gets all that he has ever wanted, but at a price that could be too terrible to pay. It's almost gut-wrenching when he finally figures out what it will cost him. Both of these characters are very deep characters, even though Walton doesn't spend quite as much time on them as on the others.
As interesting as all of the characters are, the plot and the prose are just as good. Walton uses very effective foreshadowing to give the reader hints to what is to come. I've never been very good at picking up on stuff like this, so I was often saying to myself "So that's what she meant!" There's also some foreshadowing to events in the first two books, especially Conal's fate. There is not a wasted action or an extra word in this book. Every action has a purpose and even when I knew that an event meant something else was coming along later, Walton managed to surprise me by showing that I was right, but that my prediction for what was coming was way off. I like being surprised in a book, especially when I think I know what's going to happen.
I can't say enough about this book. I would think that it is readable even if you haven't read the first two books, but there are so many nuances that will only mean something to people who have read them, that I can't recommend that you start here. It is a prequel of sorts, but it has a much greater effect if you're already familiar with subsequent events. However you decide to do it though, if you like fantasy you have to read this book.