Princess of Wands was an excellent book (yes, this is a review for its' sequel, I'll get there). In my opinion, it broke ground in a number of ways. Very few books out there in the sci-fi or fantasy genre attempt to have a strong female lead and no other book, to my knowledge, has that character be a devout conservative Christian. Amazingly, Princess of Wands handles this position with poise and grace, making that lead character very likable and the story engaging at all times, even to those who disagree with the religious views of that character.
This shouldn't be a break-through, but it is. The literary world abounds with characters with a multitude of different religious beliefs and that doesn't make them frustrating to readers. The fundamentalist Christian mindset is often portrayed in literature as different with such characters being inflexible, close-minded and intolerant (in my opinion, there's some good reason for this stereotype, but it's horribly over-used.)
In Princess of Wands (yes, I know, I know, I'm getting to the current book. Really), the character of Barb is written to fully embrace the tenets of her religion without being grating or frustrating to readers who don't agree with her. The stereotypical Christian is repeatedly referenced within the book itself and other characters are surprised to see how different Barb is. At the same time, the issue of faith (while core to the character, and her personal journey) doesn't overwhelm the book and you get a series of ripping good stories. I was left desperately wanting more, and the news of a sequel overwhelmed me with glee!
All of my excitement slowly drained away as I read Queen of Wands (told you I'd get there.) Queen of Wands doesn't change the character of Barb, but the story-telling itself becomes suddenly message-driven. It's not an exaggeration to say that, by the end of the book, the message is that atheists and agnostics threaten the very existence of the world. While there's an attempt at inter-faith ecumenicalism, the middle of the book is almost an attack on anyone who has chosen not to believe in a religion. Worse, the book sets up the idea that any future books will take this position as a starting point and run forward from there (leaving dead atheists and agnostics in its' tracks I suppose) This would be annoying enough in its' pomposity, if it weren't for the fact that this change really affects the quality of the story itself.
The narrative is no longer focused on a heroine who struggles against overwhelming odds, but succeeds through training, wit, and also faith. It becomes a literal "deus ex machina" resolution (whoops, forget the machina, it's just deus ex deus). Barb's skills no longer matter, nor does the ability of any human. The resolution of the main story is simply that everyone needs to believe hard enough! I'm not even worried about the theology here, it's just not an interesting story. Let's all just sit here and pray, may deliver a sound theological message for some, but it's boring, and that's the worst sin for a novel.
Even worse, in my opinion, this sequel takes away some value that I saw in the first book. I used to encourage people to pick up Princess of Wands to see a different portrayal of Christianity. It was a fusion of fantasy with Christian ideology. Now, I have to say, "but just ignore the second book and likely, any future stories in this series." Its' no longer a gateway to encourage people to get past their stereotypes of conservative Christianity. Now, it seems to own up to many of those stereotypes.
This central failure is combined with a recurring issue with Ringo's more recent works. He amuses himself by throwing in references to his favorite fiction, music, and other arts. Many writers have done this (the over the top example being Heinlein's Number of the Beast which is entirely this.) Ringo has taken to doing this in a smirking, juvenile way. It's as if throughout his writing he's standing next to you poking you in the shoulder, saying, "Get it? Get it?"
In Queen of Wands this continues with a grating cameo by characters from the show, Warehouse 13 (and I really LIKE that show, but this was annoying). He continues it with an entire story that serves mostly as a long advertisement for how great and fun Dragon-Con is (because his previous commercial for attending cons in Princess of Wands didn't get the point across.) Princess of Wands, at least mainly used the con as a setting. In Queen of Wands, the short-story set in a mythical ideal of Dragon-Con, the focus is almost entirely on the Con itself as a character. The main character is a con neophyte and so must be introduced to EVERYTHING about the con and have it all explained in excruciating detail.
If you're still reading after all this, you might ask if I liked anything at all about this book? I'm still pondering that question. The issues I've raised here unsettled me so much, that I can't say I'd want to read this book again (in contrast, I've reread Princess of Wands numerous times). It almost feels as if there was some external editor or other advisor who provided Ringo solid counsel on early drafts of Princess of Wands, and that person was ignored or not available for this second book. In the end, I'm just disappointed.