My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
I can’t recall the last time I read fiction set in the vicinity of Mongolia, so kudos to Bear for picking and sticking by it. Lots of horseflesh, a decent amount of archery, and even telling the truth! (For those of you who didn’t spend a quarter studying the history of the Persian Empire—mostly the one that tried to get the Greeks to behave—the Achaemenids especially valued three qualities in their princes: horsemanship, archery, and honesty.)
Oh, also the thing with the skies, which created a lot of opportunity to replace the standard visuals of flags, governors, and foreigners with something all the more fascinating. Depending on who’s conquered a territory, the sky over that region will literally follow the belief system of the conquerors, even when the local population keeps its own religion.
So we’ve got parallels to the situation after the fall of Dzingis (Genghis, Dzenghis, Chingis, Temujin, what have you) Khan’s short-lived dynasty, the massive family warring for control of the territories that haven’t exactly forgotten how nice independence is. Bear doesn’t try to conceal the parallels; there are slight name changes because after all this is a fantasy, but we’re clearly supposed to make those associations.
On the other hand, the society and technology don’t quite line up. Of course, having magic boosts a medieval world pretty far, and to some extent that pseudo-technological advancement can be used to hand wave an unusually advanced society. There were a few issues I had, though: at times the dialogue slips into colloquial modern. It doesn’t match the tone of the narration well. I don’t think we should be pushing 18th century dialogue on everyone, but it just seemed unexpectedly crude a couple of times.
And then there’s the fact that women are the dominant presence in this book even though, in some of these societies, they really wouldn’t. This goes with an unusually liberal attitude towards women and sex, and the sexual urges of women. Not to say it’s completely unrealistic—there’s no doubt that feminists existed, and women did things especially in more nomadic societies—but the wizard society in particular seems rather forgiving, for a kingdom that still uses its princesses as political pawns and follows male-only primogeniture. And it’s not like Bear strips all feminine behavior from the women, but they get over their hangups so fast.
Yes, I love that this book acknowledges that not every early medieval princess was helpless (and if you think that you should give Helen Castor a read), but the transparent use of real countries and settings makes it harder to be like ‘okay this is fantasy, author’s rules—go ahead and turn the majority upside down.’ Some of the logic behind the women’s roles come off as more convenient than consistent.
Admittedly though, I’m not sure this is a problem strictly with the women in this narrative. Overall, the characters are almost too well rounded. We’ve got a prince who’s been fighting since he could aim a weapon, and a former princess who spent the early years of her life being trained to rule, and they’re able to travel together just fine and turn into BFFs? I think the story could have done with more conflict on this front. The bad things that happen are external, and given that the heroes are introduced as indomitable right away (both Temur and Samarkar start off surviving potentially fatal experiences, albeit for very different reasons), it’s hard to take those events as a real threat, when on the other hand splitting the party would be dangerous. Also, everyone pushes through everything with stoic, non-conflict creating determination. It’s mentioned that new mules would have idiosyncrasies that would take time to get used to, but new people are totally fine?
That said, the overall plot, setting and pacing are much stronger. It wasn’t an uninteresting story, once I moved past my issues with the characters. Bear does a good job timing reveals of significant details. It’s a dense book mostly by necessity, but information that is relevant to understanding the characters or their situations come out at the right moments. I think the pacing was good overall. I put the book down a couple of times, but I think that was more the issues mentioned above, because looking back at those passages, there wasn’t an obviously better way to construct them.
The quote at the bottom of the front cover suggests a comparison to Game of Thrones, which happens to be on the TV as I’m typing this, and which I’ve read a couple times through, so I think I’m allowed to think about how this book compares to the series. There is one almost explicit sex scene (if it doesn’t name the genitalia, it’s not explicit, sorry), there are a number of matter-of-fact moments of gore (it’s a bloody world, welcome to war), but Game of Thrones? The good and bad guys are so clearly delineated, I think you’ll be really disappointed if you go in expecting that level of complexity. The villain does have a motive beyond “tee hee I’m evil,” but he still does all these classically evil things while the good guys are doing classically good things.
As for the political complexity…yes, it’s a big world, there are several competing factions, but the intrigue is not the focus of the story, and the main characters’ alliances don’t look like they’re going to change anytime soon. I think this is much more an action/adventure fantasy than anything else.
Note: this is the first part in a trilogy, and the end does set up for more potent conflict in the second book, the question is just how it’ll be handled.