4.5- for great setting/characters, thought-provoking situations, a plot with moving scenes, and refined writing.
Tal's "mission" in book 5 (Into Battle) is to find the Empress, Keeper of the Violet (and most powerful) Keystone. He again crosses into Aenir, and manages to find the Empress, with instructions from Lokar as well as his own growing ability with Light-magic, far beyond his years. However, the Empress is found to be a doddering usurper, herself a puppet of Sharrakor, who is revealed to be a Free Spirit, not the Empress' Spiritshadow as is commonly believed. Sushin is revealed to be a "Shadow-pawn," completely controlled by a free Aeniran Shadow. The Empress and her brother had seized the throne from Mercur, and when he fled, he took the Violet Keystone with him. Tal realizes that this was the skeleton he & Milla found on their way from the Ruin Ship, and that he himself now wields (half) the Violet Keystone. The scene where Tal, the Empress & her brother meet is one of the most powerful in the book-- heart-stopping, sickening, hopeless... yet also a total "aha!" moment where so many things make sense, and where Tal's destiny is suddenly revealed. Milla, too has met with both set-backs and victories. Her half of the Violet Keystone as well as the Talon of Danir are formidable weapons against the Spirit-shadows and the Chosen Guards. However, the Icecarls are vastly outnumbered. Tal does manage to find and revive his mother, giving her instructions to join the Icecarls. The book ends with Milla pursuing a desperate attack, and Tal poisoned by water-spider venom.
Cautions? No Eternal perspective, no (intentional) shadows of Christ or the Great Story.
Appropriate audience: Fourth- ninth grade (ages 9-14). Children ages 7 and up would likely enjoy this as a read-aloud. A quick read.
Characters & Setting-- Even the minor characters in this installment are engaging, and the Chosen settlement in Aenir is fascinating (I only wish I could have seen the inside!)-- imagine; a lake of ash? Full star.
Plot-- The plot slows down a bit more- in a good way (I still felt like I'd run a marathon when I read it). Full star. *Warning: the book has NO resolution. You will want quick access to the sequels.
Writing-- As this series progresses, the writing becomes more elegant; nuggets of Truth more apparent. Full star.
Character-building/Eternal perspective -- Children will learn a lot about cultural biases, prejudices and blind spots, as well as the need to champion and fight for justice for ALL, not just the "Chosen." However, the value is only moral-- there is no Eternal perspective, no (intentional) shadows of Christ or the Great Story. Full star.
Wow factor --continually creative, engaging world. Half a star.
Note: I have recently found this series available as a two- volume set: Books 1-3 (The Fall, Castle & Aenir) comprise Volume 1, while Books 4-6 (Above the Veil, Into Battle & The Violet Keystone) are the second volume. As these books are so short and anything but stand-alone, I personally find this set-up to be ideal!