Dawn Cook follows up her strong "First Truth" with a solid sequel, which picks up most of the threads from the first but leaves plenty of space for further adventures. The sequel syndrome hasn't hit "Hidden Truth," and fans of Cook's first book won't be disappointed.
The evil Keeper Bailic has the First Truth book, but he can't open it. Believing that the piper Strell is the person who can, he tries to teach Strell magic -- not knowing that Alissa is really the blossoming Keeper. While Bailic frustrates himself with Strell, Alissa is learning magic from the raku-Master Talo-Toecan (also known as "Useless"), except that she seems to be far ahead of where she should be -- with more powers than she should have. And there's a friend of Useless's named Lodesh, who is charming, weird, interested in Alissa, and totally mysterious.
Alissa has to perform the magical tasks for Strell, so that he seems to be gaining skill -- at the same time, she learns that she may never get to be with him. Soon Bailic's plans become very, very clear -- he wants to raise an army of the dead, from the city of Ese' Nawoer, which is filled with thousands of guilt-wracked ghosts. But to do that, he has to use the First Truth. And in order to stop him, Alissa will have to learn about what she can do -- and what she might become.
Dawn Cook's fantasies avoid most of the fantasy cliches by not trying to avoid them. She has a small, well-developed cast, a simple cultural backdrop, interesting magic, and a very interesting cast. The villain is given an actual reason to do what he does, and the heroes have to be patient and think. And while this is a satisfactory conclusion to the first book, there are enough loose threads -- the vanished or feral Masters, for example -- that there is plenty left to explore if Cook chooses to.
Probably the biggest problem with this story is the pacing -- like "First Truth," it drips steadily for about two hundred and fifty pages, then speeds up to a delicious climax. And the medieval setting seems a little out of sync with all the talk about genetics and neural nets. Her writing is detailed but not obsessively so, and some scenes -- such as the ghosts' attack, or when the book is first opened -- are shatteringly vivid.
Alissa is still likably stubborn, but has to grow up a great deal more in this book; she's come a long way from the rather petulant farm girl. Strell is a sweetie, sensitive or tough as the occasion demands, and his sort-of-romance with Alissa is wonderfully done. Talo-Toecan is pleasantly snappish and crabby, but very protective of Alissa, and Lodesh is delightfully charming and occasionally irritating.
Though it lacks in a few areas, Dawn Cook's second novel is overall a pleasant and intriguing fantasy adventure. Thoroughly enjoyable.