At the Walls of Galbrieth is a young adult fantasy penned by Alon Shalev. The novel starts off frantically with a young wood elf named Seanchai fleeing his home in the middle of the night to escape the predations of the Emperor’s troops. The Empire is a human kingdom, which rules over all the other peoples of the land and periodically conscripts unlucky elves, dwarves and other "lesser" races into the military whenever there is a "man"-power shortage. And to escape this grizzly fate, young Seanchai finds himself stumbling through the night toward an unknown "uncle" in a distant village, who his parents have assured him will hide and protect him.
As soon as a reader becomes comfortable with Seanchai’s desperate flight however, Mr. Shalev quickly pulls the rug out from under them, as the young elf’s escape turns into something much more important. Indeed, it is soon revealed that the need for Seanchai to avoid the Empire’s soldiers is more complicated than just a parent’s desire to protect their child and is, in fact, tied up in a truth Seanchai himself did not know of. A fact about himself that his parent’s never expressed to him; something that they made sure to carefully hide from him until the time was ripe for its revelation. And that - as much as a desire to protect him from slavery - was the true reason Seanchai was sent running from the village just ahead of the soldier’s torches and his fellow villagers screams of pain.
When Seanchai finally stumbles into fellow elves who can guide him to his "uncle", this secret slowly begins to be revealed. For our young elf is aghast to find that not only are his elvish rescuers rebels against the Empire but they are also eager to aid him, even more determined to lay down their lives to make sure he reaches uncle. For these elvish freedom fighters believe in Seanchai, have been taught that he alone has some hidden ability that can aid them in their fight for liberation. Some power hidden deep within him which might be enough to finally destroy the Empire - if he can only be protected long enough to reach a mysterious teacher. A long and arduous journey to be sure; one that will be wrought with danger but one which Seanchai must complete - whether he wishes to or not!
With At the Walls of Galbrieth, Mr. Shalev delivers a well-paced novel that is penned in a straight-forward style that any young reader can understand and enjoy, and while it is clearly YA fare, it is devoid of the normal unexplainable whining, annoying teen angst, or ridiculous juvenile flip flopping in character decisions. Indeed, these youths are portrayed in a very realistic way and interwoven into their fantastic adventures are very adult themes of racism and slavery, friendship and love, loyalty and honor, and power and dominance. Now, that does not mean that Mr. Shalev does not deliver up doses of fantastical magic, rousing sword fights, and shadowy history, because he does so and in just the right dosage to keep a reader enthralled by Seanchai’s tale. However, intermingled into all that action, suspense, and adventure, one will also find many life lessons about good and evil, and that is what makes At the Walls of Galbrieth a hidden YA gem.