An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir

In the Martial Empire, freedom is the price you pay for security.  Whether it’s knowing your social cast will always have the same privileges, or the surety of poverty in the Scholar’s quarter, the one thing the Martials always provide is guaranteed destiny.  On the surface, this novel could fall into the “just another tale of empire” category, but as the story goes on Tahir builds out both the mythology and history of the Scholar and Martial civilizations to provide depth and conflict to both the Scholar struggle for freedom and the Martial fears of overturned dynasty.

An Ember in the Ashes hinges on the existence of a school of pseudo-peacekeepers, called Blackcliff, from which the mysterious and terrifying Masks graduate.  These masks are highly trained military personnel, who also possess somewhat magical abilities that seem to exist primarily to terrify the populace.  Laia is orphaned by a Mask raid on her Scholar home, in which her grandparents are killed and her brother taken.  She joins a Scholar rebel group and infiltrates Blackcliff on a mission to gain the rebel’s trust and get them to help get her brother out.

Unfortunately, this is where things begin to fall apart, from a meta perspective.  While everything Laia does in order to save her brother is realistic, even logical, the ways in which the narrative is constructed leaves somewhat to be desired.  Elias, one of the few Masks to both unoppositionally disagree with everything the Masks stand for and to survey all the way to graduation (dissenters and the disloyal are weeded out mercilessly), is all too typical of the “slave to fate” protagonists who hates the world but is too scared to really do anything about it.  The fact that he is one of the point of view characters, and so the reader spends a lot of time in his head, doesn’t help, as he often comes off as whiny and privileged.

The other major problem is the way in which women are handled in this novel.  In short, they are isolated.  There are three major woman characters, with a few supporting women characters.  The three major characters–Laia, Helene, and the Commandant–exist as antagonists to each other, and provide motivation for Elias.  Laia starts out free but subjugated and becomes a slave for whom he feels sympathy and a symbol of what is wrong with the Empire.  Helene is his best friend and for some reason the only woman chosen to attend Blackcliff–the narrative gives a one-sentence explanation that one woman per generation is selected.  She’s the perfect student, completely loyal to Elias, and therefore hates any other woman close to him.

Finally, the Commandant, Elias’ mother–again, the only woman of her generation–who is the only identifiable villain of the novel.  Other characters exist who commit evil by degrees, but she’s the one made only of cruelty and malice, who enjoys torturing people.  She made a name for herself hunting down rebels, and goes through slaves like cheap gloves, but somehow has managed to keep two kitchen slaves around for a few years, one of whom befriends Laia.  But this friendship also really only exists to create tension and advance the plot.  Otherwise women don’t really interact in this novel.  They are all exceptional in their own way and all are wound up in a fate storyline controlled by a group of oracles whose motives are not clear, so not only are they isolated, their agency is somewhat curtailed by the fact that they exist to carry out the plans of an outside force.

So, while Ember in the Ashes had some character issues that need to be resolved in the following books, it was a compelling look at the way empire and colonialism perpetuates itself in numerous ways, effectively enslaving even those who nominally benefit from it.  A good companion series might be Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives.

 

Advertisements

Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

When you live life in the sun, in the canopy of the great trees, your biggest fear is falling. Or so Unar thought, when she left her home to become a servant in the garden of Audblayin, one of the twelve deities of Canopy. She ran from a life of poverty, only to learn that even in the lap of birth and fertility, rot can fester.

Unar believes she has a destiny, and that despite her mistakes she can earn a place of power and authority in Audblayin’s Garden, and perhaps change things for the better. Unar is one of those rare unlikeable heroes that the reader can’t quite bring herself to root for, but nevertheless follows after curiously, just to see what the young woman will make of herself. She has real internal conflicts and occasionally does stupid things, for all the world just like the teenager she would otherwise be if not for her gift with growing things and ability to manipulate plants to her will. She’s selfish and often infuriatingly mercurial, but she also has a hard-learned sense of justice that will speak strongly to a lot of readers.

Beneath the unique setting of this novel, Daiyer has laced her story with layers of allegory and metaphor, which are its real driving force. What is the nature of godhood and why are the deities of the great forest so complicated? What is the long history that led to some people living in the canopy while others suffer and toil lower down, or even in the swamps at the feet of the great trees?   Slavery is a key point in the novel, and Daiyer’s treatment of it has its thought provoking moments, but even when it seems just a plot device her characters never waiver from being fully personified with agency and motivations of their own.

Readers who enjoy idea-driven speculative fiction will be pulled in by social and cultural world building of this novel. Those looking for a vivid and intriguing new fantasy series will like the unique physical world building. Daiyer has written a series debut that is by turns gripping and thought-provoking, and that bodes well for the next installment.

The Eternal Sky trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth
Bear is continually proving that there is no limit to what you can write a
story about.  Having tackled space,
cyborgs, and Norse gods, she’s moved on to a captivating alt-world adventure
story taking place in a reimagined spice road landscape.  The Celadon Highway connects the
temperate empires in the East to the arid steppes and deserts of the West, each
kingdom carved not just out of the land but the sky as well.  In a twist that only Bear could
imagine, the sky changes depending upon whose kingdom one is in.

Temur
never thought himself destined for greatness, but then again, he never expected
to wake up on the battlefield surrounded by the bodies of his clan, killed in a
brutal war of succession for the Qersnyk Khaganate.  Samarkar had grown up in luxury as the daughter of the Rasan
princes, thought herself destined to live out her life within a marriage of
political necessity, until her husband died and she was shipped back to Rasa in
shame.  But instead of giving in,
she went to the Citadel and became a wizard of Tsarapeth.  United in a quest to rid the world of a
man who would rip it apart to bring back a long-dead god, Temur and Samarkar
gather a wary, weary band of outcasts and dispossessed whose lives had been
torn apart by this al-Sepehr, head of the Nameless, to try to find a way to
stop him.

The
Eternal Sky series is at its heart an adventure story—Temur and Samarkar
travel the length and breadth of their known world to accomplish the vows they
have sworn—but it is also a quiet meditation on the pull of personal
motivations and relationships, and how one decides between those greater and
smaller duties.  Bear has a knack
for creating stories in which characters who, though they be at the mercy of
outside events, are still in control of their own stories, still
three-dimensional actors, within the larger narrative.  The Eternal Sky is a compelling story,
each novel self-contained enough that the reader could start anywhere, but together
the novels bring the lives of their characters and the backdrop of their world
to startling life and presence.

Readers
who enjoy a diverse cast of characters and a story that stretches the limits of
traditional fantasy storytelling will have no trouble becoming fully immersed
in Bears wonderfully realized world. 
Those who like alt-world fantasy and variations on earth cultures will
enjoy the way this series blends history with fantasy.  Anyone who craves action and adventure
but can’t give up strong characterization will fall in love with Temur,
Samarkar, and the other characters in this series. 

The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling,
Erika Johansen’s debut novel in what is set up to be a series, reads as A Song
of Ice and Fire in which not all of your favorite characters die.  Johansen has an intriguing idea for her
world, and manages the slow reveal well enough to keep readers interested
throughout the novel whether or not they identify strongly with any of the main
characters. 

Nineteen-year-old
Kelsey has known her whole life that she will one day be queen of her country,
The Tearling—if she survives long enough to be crowned.  Johansen takes readers on a merry chase
with Kelsey and her Queen’s Guard, sent to collect her from her foster parents
in an out of the way forest cottage, reminiscent of high fantasy coming-of-age
journeys like Rand al’Thor’s in The Eye
of the World
, or Frodo and Sam’s at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring
Suddenly the outside world is not just a concept, and is a lot more
dangerous than Kelsey could have imagined. 

Johansen
works hard to make Kelsey into a believable female protagonist who doesn’t just
drop into the story being perfect at everything, an effort many readers of
fantasy will appreciate.  Kelsey
develops strong relationships with her guards and other men whom she encounters
in her quest for the throne, which is important because despite a woman being
able to become ruler of the country, in general women are left out of positions
of real importance.  Kelsey earns
esteem by saving poor women from slavery and insulting noble women are selfish
and rude to her.  As Kelsey goes
about righting the wrongs that had been done in her name by her uncle the
Regent and others, her story asks the question, when will a woman ever be good
enough, as she is required to prove herself to the men on whom she depends
repeatedly, especially as she is learning to control the magic that is slowly
manifesting within her.  The Red
Queen, of neighboring Mortmesne, is set up as a foil to Kelsey, ruling through
magic and exercising almost absolute power over all, down to keeping slaves for
her own personal gratification. 

Despite
the interesting world building Johansen has done, she shows some first
novel-itis, as The Queen of the Tearling
seems somewhat unsure how to get from point A to point B, plotwise, and then
what to do when it finally gets there. 
For readers tired of waiting on A Song of Ice and Fire and looking for a
new fantasy series, The Queen of the
Tearling
may do, though as a standalone it doesn’t hold up well.  Readers tired of exclusively
male-driven plots will appreciate the effort Johansen has made to create a
young woman protagonist, and even the questions the story asks—though somewhat
clumsily—about authentic female characters and what it takes to create
them.  The Queen of the Tearling occasionally trips over into grimdark
territory, and readers looking for a bit of “grit” to their fantasy may find
this novel enticing.