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An intriguing and pacy fantasy
on 27 August 2013
I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone beside them, or under their pillow. They then have to travel to the capital, throw their stones into a waterfall and one will then be magically selected as a sacrificial victim, to appease something (or someone?) known as the Gloom. This is such an intriguing idea, especially given the variety of people chosen by the stones: a simpleton, a rapist and murderer, an elderly swordsman, a slave woman, a young girl, the king's only son... This is fascinating, not only for the question of how all this works, but also why? Why are things done this way? And what exactly will happen if the ritual fails? There are hints, but no clear answers. Of course, there's a lot more going on below the surface, with conspiracies and deception, and a plot to defeat the Gloom once and for all.
The first point of view character is Marybeth, one of the Order, a group which oversees the process of the ritual, magically empowered to ensure the compliance of the selected twelve. Then there's Rhact, an ordinary man in the village Marybeth is watching, whose daughter Janna is one of the chosen ones, and who isn't about to accept that without a fight. These two points of view give a very nice dual perspective on Marybeth: we see her first as a member of a group working to ensure that the country can continue peaceably by the sacrifice of a single person, a necessary evil that works for the good of all, while also hoping to put an end to the ritual altogether; but we also see her through Rhact's eyes as an evil witch, a terrifying person inflicting untold harm on families and communities. This is nicely done.
There's also the king, Jacquard, who tries to rule generously and not be a ruthless tyrant, but finds himself at risk of rebellion by his warlords for weakness. His son Althalos is nicely drawn, too. The other characters are less than convincing. Some are complete caricatures, like the rapist or the slave woman's evil master or the simpleton. Some just lack depth. Everyone is either good or bad, with no in between at all. Not that bad means unspeakably evil, necessarily, sometimes it just means silly and feckless, but still, there are few shades of grey. Even when characters change over the course of the book, the switch is absolute: a totally evil person is redeemed to become a hero, while a good person is so overwhelmed by revenge that all normal human feeling is lost, and they become evil. This is less than subtle.
To my mind, the female characters seemed to have less active roles than the men. To start with, the women are largely wenches or nervous mothers or cowed daughters or silly bits of girls who squeal. Or else they are witches, or otherwise evil. There's Marybeth, for a start, ostensibly a very active character, and we see her doing some very courageous things. Why does she do them? Initially because of her father, and latterly because some random dude, more powerful than her, told her to. Doesn't she have a mind of her own? Fortunately, there are also quite a few moments where women stand up and take charge, sometimes to shocking effect, when the men can't or won't. For instance, Janna, Rhact's daughter, has a brave moment, doing what needs to be done when the travelling party is attacked by bandits. And I did like the female assassin. I'd happily read a whole book about her.
The world-building is rather good, and clearly a lot of thought has gone into the details. I like the three moons of different colours, which clearly have a big influence on everything, as well as inspiring the various religions. We're in the standard pre-industrial pseudo-medieval world, with the usual patriarchal overtones, but there are some nice details too. For instance, a woman's period is known as being visited by the red moon. The magic is largely unexplained, but there are some nice non-human things around, and the Gloom, when we finally get a good look at it, is suitably scary.
The writing style is serviceable rather than ornate, but it lacks polish. In some places clauses are written as if they were sentences, elsewhere sentences are shunted together. There are some anachronistic expressions used, such as the king spending 'quality time' with his son, and Rhact's son having 'teenage' moodiness (the concept of teenagers is very recent; in a pre-industrial age, thirteen-year-olds would be doing the work of an adult, with neither time nor energy for moods). I find these modern colloquialisms jarring, but that's just me. There there was the horse who was 'saddled' in order to pull a wagon (harnessed would be a better word). Much of the backstory and descriptions of feelings, particularly surrounding the king, are told narratively, which keeps the tone flat. However, there are moments of eloquent description as well. A warning for those sensitive to such things: there's some earthy language, and some fairly graphic acts of violence and other unpleasantness.
None of it matters too much, however, because the plot is an absolute cracker and gallops along in a breath-taking page-turning manner. The moment of the actual ritual, when the various conspiracies and secrets and deceits all clash together at once, is terrific. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, my eyes glued to the pages. After that it's a mad dash to restore the realm to some kind of stability before everything falls apart, but there are plenty of unexpected and dramatic twists before the final confrontation, which also sets things up nicely for the next book. There were some confusing moments, not helped by the need to give names and backstories to all twelve of the stone-holders, as well as all the king's knights. So many characters are easy to forget, and I would have liked a little reminder when each one reappeared. This was particularly troublesome at the ritual, when characters were described only as `the boy' or `two men' or `the elderly woman'. I'm still not quite sure who was on whose side. And who exactly was that random dude who sent Marybeth off on her little quest?
This is a fun and imaginative story, not subtle but well thought out, with plenty of action and some nicely moving moments too, written in an easy style, marred only by some flatness in the writing and some over-the-top cartoonish characterisations amongst the walk-on parts. For those who aren't concerned about that, I recommend this book, but for me it was enough to keep it to three stars.