A fantasy novel about Kingdoms in decline, a powerful dark force on the rise and bent on revenge, and a mysterious sect of female sorceresses, working in secret to prevent the end of the world.
The novel has political intrigue, legends, and dragons. Each Kingdom/Empire has its own narratives, culture and beliefs, and though the West is nominally allied, there are tensions and estrangements that could create calamitous faultlines in a war against the Nameless One, and his Draconian devotees.
We begin with a young acolyte, Tane, who in the middle of her training discovers a young man, washed up on the shore of her Kingdom. The problem is, all visitors must be reported to the local guards, but she instead hides him, and looks to get him smuggled off the island. This plot fails, leaving her gnawed with doubt and potentially compromised, while setting in train a sequence of events that have world-changing implications.
In the palace, Queen Sabran wrestles with the weight of history. Her blood is believed to have the power restraining the return of The Nameless One, harbinger of destruction. In her retinue is Ead, whom no-one suspects of having magical abilities, and is a trained sorceress of the mythical Priory.
There are some interesting minor characters playing into the larger narrative, such as Lord Arteloth (or Loth), a one-time friend of the young Queen, but not considered fit for marriage. He undertakes a highly dangerous mission for the Queen, and experiences a Road to Damascus type epiphany on the way.
Tane: Zealous in her dragon-rider studies, but still prone to moments of rashness, as evidenced by her hiding the nearly-drowned young man. She is one of the best in her graduation class, as evidenced by the dragon that chooses her, but her mistakes cost her her role, some friends, and ultimately exile to a monastic life. However, her tenacity and courage see her through.
Queen Sabran: Ninth of her name, and heir to 1000 years of royal lineage at the Inys court, she is best by doubts and fears. While outwardly regal and in control, she worries about the prophecies, and whether she will fail her people. She has trouble getting pregnant, raising further her fear that the bloodline will not continue. Her blood, it is believed, holds back the Nameless One’s dark force.
Ead Duryan: Ead (aka Eadaz zu-Dala uq Nara) is the spy in the midst of Sabran’s court. A powerful mage, she hides her talents and suffers some humiliations, while carrying out her role as guardian. Hers is a society reviled and mistrusted by the Inys court, and could mean death were she discovered. However, when the castle is attacked, she has no choice but to protect the queen, yet is not exposed. She rises in the court, becoming the lonely Queen’s confidante, and later lover.
Niclays Roos: An alchemist, he is an exile on one of the most remotest of islands, sent there for failing to find the Queen the elixir of immortality. This is also where Tane is training, and he gets involved in the hiding of the young fugitive. Somewhat of a coward, and solely concerned with his own selfish ends, he only does something under 1) extreme duress or ii) if he benefits. As we later learn, he suffered his own griefs (namely the death of his lover), and this has maybe sent him a little mad.
Lord Artheloth: A courtier, a childhood friend of the Queen, his is an easy life, until he takes on a suicide quest to get information.
What I Liked:
- The world-building was excellent – competing religions, 1000 years of history, and political drama.
- The wide variety of characters, and the LGTBQ aspect makes it very inclusive, and a modern take on the traditional fantasy narrative genre.
- It is a stand-alone, self-contained novel, perfect for a long time spent in self-isolation!
What I Didn’t Like:
- The book is over-long for the story. While the world-building is excellent, there is simply too much of it. Also, the relationship-building between Ead & Sabran took far too long to develop.
- The pacing was erratic – far too slow in the first half, and while the second half moved the action along considerably, there were several moments where characters and timings were serendipitously aligned.
- None of the characters were particularly well-developed, or ones you could empathise with, which is a real problem in a book this long.
Overall, I finished the book with a slight sense of disappointment. It had so much going for it, but for me didn’t deliver. The rather swift battle at the end despite the elaborate build-up, the importance given to the politics by the characters, yet this gets resolved, the pirate angle – it just left me feeling a bit let-down at the end. The writing itself is great, but it is a story you will have read before.