Warning: viele spoliers ahead. Achtung.
Okay, quick summary: Ringil Eskiath (known as Gil) is a paunchy, 30-something guy who used to be a great war hero and is now sulking in the sticks, telling his story in exchange for free drinks at the local pub. One day, his mother shows up and asks his help in retrieving a cousin who was sold into slavery. For various reasons, Gil agrees to do this thing. The cousin is something of a MacGuffin though—as soon as Gil arrives in his hometown of Trelayne, he starts hearing rumors that there’s a mysterious, almost mythological creature known as a dwenda lurking in Etterkal (the once-bad part of town where the slavers now legally make their living). One evening, he goes down there to kick in some heads, and winds up losing to the dwenda (known as Seethlaw) in the process, but something about Gil intrigues Seethlaw, who doesn’t kill him but instead takes him as a lover. Eventually, they journey to Ennishmann, where the cousin has been shipped to serve as a dwenda sacrifice prior to a planned invasion.
In the meantime, we also follow the stories of two of Gil’s former comrades-in-arms, Archeth, who works for the Throne Imperial, and Egan, a member of a nomadic tribe called the Majak. While Archeth investiates an apparent dwenda attack on a garrisoned port city, Egan deals with mutinous forces among his people. Eventually, all three of them wind up in Ennishmann, and there’s a big battle with the dwenda, who at least appear to call off their invasion for the time being and leave.
Okay, so I have a lot of feelings about this book. First, the good:
- A fantasy book, with two gay heroes (Gil and Archeth)!
- A lot of the action is pretty political and revolves around the laws of the various societies in which the heroes reside—these societies are all well fleshed-out and the cultural differences and similarities are clear. The world also has a pretty complicated history that is not entirely explicated. World building!
- A fantasy book with a woman as one of the main characters! And she doesn’t have a tattoo on her lower back or fight in nothing but a leather sports bra!
- The language used is very modern, with no attempt to be high falutin’ (aka Tolkienesque)—this makes the action in the book seem very close to the reader.
- Interesting discussions of important social issues, like slavery and war.
- The dwenda wound up being a lot more complex than just a monster-of-the-week thing, and Gil’s relationship with them was gratifyingly complicated.
And my other feelings; I hesitate to call them “negative,” more like just things that are lingering questions:
- Archeth is different from all other women because she’s a war hero and because she’s half Kiriath, a race that has (in the time since the war in which she served) left the world. Although it’s not really discussed, it seems implicitly that these differences allow her to essentially act as a man does in this world—there are no other women in military or command positions. Although the men she commands don’t question her on the basis of her sex, it does seem like she’s being given a latitude that’s not extended to anyone else. Although women are routinely sold into sex slavery here, women’s role in society isn’t really discussed in any depth, and all the other women who have speaking lines in the book are either 1) Gil’s mother, 2) slaves/servants/so oppressed they might as well be slaves, or 3) whores/girlfriends of various other characters. Even though Archeth herself disapproves of slavery (though not to the point of trying to end it), she doesn’t in any way seem to question the role society assigns to women who aren’t her. (Although to be fair, she does significantly question her society’s treatment of some groups of people, like those who don’t follow the local religion. She’s not totally blind.) So if you were hoping for a true feminist novel where women are either equals or their subservience is questioned, you’ll have to look elsewhere. (That said, the book does pass the Bechdal test.)
- Gil’s relationship with Seethlaw was complicated, but I had hoped that at the end it would go in a different direction. (Warning: spoilers here) At the end of the book, Gil wrests his cousin away from the dwenda, flees until he and Egan can regroup, then fights them and kills Seethlaw. Instead, I wanted to see Gil come to sympathize more with the dwenda, who were (as mentioned earlier) a complicated group of individuals, and even potentially come to collaborate with them.
- There are a bunch of plot threads that aren’t really tied up.
- Some of the plot lines are a little thin. Egan’s plot especially starts out interesting enough, with a member of the tribe killed by steppe ghouls and a blossoming argument with the tribe’s deranged shaman. And then things stall. Egan spends a lot of time sulking in his yurt before getting teleported (south?) by a god(?) to save Gil’s ass. Clearly, some of the stuff here is left untied for the sequels to sort out, but it’s a little frustrating. Archeth, similarly, gets more motion (traveling to the port, investigating it, traveling back) but a lot of her actual time is spent arguing with people at court.
- Finally, all of Gil’s lovers (the ones we meet, anyway, with names and such) die. Admittedly, he kills two of them himself, but I feel like this is kind of a trope. Also, Archeth has no lovers or love interests, though she is offered (and refuses) a female slave.
I’m planning to read the two sequels, so don’t take any of the above points as reasons to not read this. They’re just some things that stuck out in my mind when I was finished.
I started reading the book because I was told that the use of language was much different from other fantasy novels, and it was. The presence of an interesting female character was also exciting. This started as my read-on-the-dreadmill book, but quickly became a read-all-the-time book. Highly enjoyable and recommended.