Emissary: Percheron Book Two (Percheron Series) Paperback – 24 Jan 2008
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Spiced with exotic Eastern flavours. . .it's gruesome, magical and sweet in equal measures. (SFX)
A real page turner. . .an exciting read. (MyShelf)
The second book in Fiona McIntosh's compelling new fantasy trilogy, mixing political intrigue and page-turning actionSee all Product description
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That was the situation I found myself in early into reading "Emissary". There is clearly quite a lot has happened in the first book, affecting the lives of major characters and causing the deaths of others. These were referred to, but the story behind it was lost to me which was, in this case, even more of a disappointment than usual as it seemed so fascinating.
The story follows the members of the harem in Percheron, which is controlled by the Chief Eunuch and the Valide - the mother of the Zar who rules Percheron. Ana, who is an odalisque, or member of the harem, rebels against their authority as she hates what the harem stands for and what may happen to her. This rebellion has already caused the death of Spur Lazar, the head of the Zar's military.
However, all is not as it seems. Pez, the Zar's dwarf clown believes that Ana is the human incarnation of the Goddess Lyana, who appears every now and again to fight the demon Maliz. The demon has taken up residence in the body of the Grand Vizier Tariq and both he and the Valide are out to cause harm to odalisque Ana, one to maintain the power of the Gods and one to maintain her own power within the harem. Yet there is more, as the neighbouring province of Galinsea is out to declare war, as Spur Lazar was important to them for reasons that are only now becoming clear.
It is to McIntosh's credit that every time I tried to think how I could explain the story I got confused, but on reading it that never happened. Her major characters are so individual that there is never any danger of getting them confused, even though they all interact with each other on many different levels, both professionally and personally and their relationships are constantly shifting as their place in the hierarchy of the Zar's palace or the harem changes.
McIntosh surprised me in a couple of other ways. The first was in that thorny issue of what had happened in the first book; for a while, it confused me a little when an event I'd missed was referred to, but the more I read, the less it bothered me. The current story was so gripping that I completely forgot I'd come to the story part way through as a stranger and was completely entranced by it. I can't remember the last time I read a middle part of a trilogy and felt involved, rather than an outsider.
The other aspect that shocked me was that involvement. Stories where characters are jostling for position often bore me, as does politics generally. But McIntosh writes it as if politics is a game of chess. The characters never jostled for position, but skilfully laid plans that would improve their position later on. I found myself taking sides, which is something that rarely happens to me when reading this kind of story.
It's not the perfect book, although it does come pretty close to it. As events take the characters away from the harem, it stops being about the political side of things and becomes a journey, which is a far more common fantasy theme. Whilst the progress of events picks up the further they go from the harem, so the pace of the story drops and it becomes easier to break from the story. I found the ending a little disappointing as well, as I thought the book was good enough to not have to resort to a cliff hanger to persuade me to buy the final part.
These minor concerns aside, however, if you like character driven fantasy of the likes of Kate Elliott or Karen Miller, then Fiona McIntosh is someone not to be missed. Despite my early misgivings, I am already eager to know how things will continue and I know I am going to have to buy the first of the trilogy for the back story. Now I'm up to speed with events, I don't need to know the back story at this point in proceedings, but I have a deep desire to read it regardless.
Fiona McIntosh has taken me from worrying whether I would keep up with events to being caught up in the whirlwind of them. She's taken someone who didn't think they would enjoy the politics of her tale and turned me into someone who cannot wait for the next twist. I've been reading fantasy for many years, but I don't recall being quite this consumed by a tale in quite some time.
This is a series I can see me reading over and over, the way I have with the works of Eddings and Feist. There aren't really any hidden depths to be discovered upon re-reading, but it's such an entrancing story that I am sure I will want to go back to it in much the same way I want to see my friends again. If you've ever enjoyed a fantasy novel, I have a feeling you will enjoy Fiona McIntosh.
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What I like about McIntosh is the author's decision to restrict both scene and character numbers. It's almost Agatha Christie in the relationship shifts that have to be puzzled out. The entertaining edge is not created by quick-fix shock value rather - though we do have a fair few barbaric methods of dealing out death in a society that is painfully carefree with its value of human life - through the development of ever-shifting politics within the world of Percheron's harem.
So, to the plot. With Lazar back from the dead as Lucien, Crown Prince of Galinsea, and (Ly)Ana stubbornly refusing to toe the line Herezah and Salmeo have decreed we rush anxiously as Boaz moves to become the Zar we know he can be. Meanwhile, the demon Maliz is conspiring and conjecturing in his role as Grand Vizier Tariq. McIntosh has decided on an early dénouement, throwing all the antagonistically-vying characters into one place. She achieves this with Ana's ill-fated and gullible attempt to escape impending nuptials resulting in her ceremonious dumping in a silken bag at the bottom of the river. Literally saved by the kiss of life by her Prince (note that Kett doesn't quite qualify for the same kiss) her fortunes reverse with breathtaking speed and she becomes both Boaz's wife and Percherese emissary in a few scant hours. All of which means that Pez, Lazar (Lucien), Tariq, Ana, and Herezah find themselves heading towards Galinsea to prove that Percheron hadn't executed its Crown Prince in "Odalisque". This unfortunate trip is put together by page 300 and finds the reader rubbing their hands in glee as the tensions can only get ever tauter. The ill-fated love of Ana and Lucien, the demonic Tariq who seeks to destroy the Goddess Lyana, the Iridor/court clown Pez, the embittered Valide - all together scheming and not trusting.
A Fellowship of the Ring this is not.
Once everyone has got used to the new order of things in the "Empty" desert, Lazar and Ana finally succumb to the passion they've denied for so long. In the nick of time really, as their caravan is raided, everyone killed bar the necessary characters and Ana is kidnapped by the mysterious and despotic Arafanz leaving Lazar to haul Herezah and Tariq back to Boaz with their Galinsea delegation wrecked.
I do like this trilogy. It's attention-keeping (rather than "grabbing") and most of the time is spent with the characters trying to score points off each other, vying for power. If you're after a fantasy series that thoroughly explores relationships, the action is token fantasy video violence and the plot simplistic then McIntosh (in this trilogy) is for you. It's never going to stretch the grey cells into a anything more than a canter but it's a relaxing read after a long day which is no bad thing.