Gatherer of Clouds is the sequel to Sean Russell's The Initiate Brother, a story which is not so much about the Initiate Brother Shuyun, spiritual advisor to Lord Shonto, as it is about the entire Shonto household -- a household that is seen as a threat by an insecure emperor. And with good reason, for Lord Shonto is an honorable, intelligent, and insightful man who has raised his children to be his equals and who has surrounded himself with a competent and loyal staff and several clever allies.
As the story opens, Shonto, governor of the northern province of She, is preparing for a massive barbarian invasion that the emperor refuses to believe in (since he only paid for a small invasion in order to get rid of Shonto). Should Shonto stay in the north, as ordered, and be wiped out by the barbarian horde? Or should he let his province fall and retreat toward the capital to raise an army that may have a chance to defeat the invaders? This latter option seems the only way to save the empire of Wa, but the emperor will certainly declare treason if Shonto starts recruiting soldiers. There are hard choices and harder sacrifices to make, not just for Shonto, but for everyone involved.
While reading Gatherer of Clouds, I was completely immersed in the lives of Lord Shonto, Brother Shuyun, Lady Nishima, Lord Komawara, and the Jaku brothers, as well as the beauty and elegance of their lifestyles. Each of Sean Russell's diverse set of characters is vivid, unique, and realistic, and they all learn much about themselves and each other as the stress ramps up. Because we spend so much time with them, and because they feel so real, their inner struggles become our inner struggles. Would we be willing to sacrifice love for duty? When is it right to disobey (or murder!) a sovereign ruler? Are there times when it is better to kill than to heal? What is true religion and how do we recognize when it has become corrupt? When does loyalty become dishonorable? When principles conflict, how do we know which principle is highest? I found myself considering each of these questions as I read Gatherer of Clouds.
In addition to making us think about some tough ideas, Russell also shows us how legends are made. Every one of his characters has the potential to become either a hero or a villain, and Russell shows us that it's our daily choices that add up to determine our destiny and how we'll be perceived by history.
If you enjoy character-centered epic fantasy with lots of political intrigue, Sean Russell's The Initiate Brother is a great choice. I listened to Blackstone Audio's version and can recommend this format. This was my first experience with Sean Russell's writing, but I'll definitely be exploring more of his work in the future.