Where I got it: Originally part of my husband’s book collection; now I consider all our books to be mine 😉 It’s one of a long and complicated series, and I definitely suggest starting at the beginning if possible with King’s Blood Four.
Genre: Classical high fantasy in a very, very high-magic setting, but (spoilers!) there are some hints as the story develops that it’s actually a lost-colony science-fantasy.
Synopsis: Jinian, a girl of noble birth, lives in a feudal manor house with her almost entirely unpleasant family. The only people who pay her any positive attention are a coven of women from the village, led by the elderly Murzemire. However she lives a reasonably happy, if solitary, life until she is promised as wife to a foreign king in a political power-play (political power-plays are, it seems, the entire basis and raison d’être of this world’s society). She manages to make a deal whereby she will be sent to a prestigious school in a big city for some years pending the marriage, but she is kidnapped just before she is meant to leave. This catalyses her epic journey which takes her into the great Forest of Chimmerdong, where she discovers she has a quest to save the forest – and possibly even to find the Daylight Bell…
Rating: 🦅🐭🦑🐰🐹 🐗🐉 7/10 assorted flitchhawks, bunwits, gobblemoles, d’bor wives…
Read it if: you’ve read at least King’s Blood Four and its two immediate sequels, or else if the “mystery” type of fantasy appeals to you, where you land in medias res and you have to figure out the world from scratch. The worldbuilding is absolutely top-notch, and the magic system(s) are fascinating.
Don’t read it if: you don’t love being plunged head-first into a wildly unfamiliar world where you have to figure out from the start what the heck is going on and what all these unfamiliar words mean. I do tend to enjoy this, but even for me it was a bit much at times. I couldn’t tell, with many details of the setting, whether they were intended to be mysterious or whether I was supposed to know about them from previous books.
Read more – spoilers ahead!
Why I didn’t like this book as much as I should have, at first: It was a source of great frustration to me. This book has everything I love most in a fantasy book – intricate worldbuilding, interesting systems of magic, ancient ruins to dig up, lots of animals, bits of an older past half-hidden by the text, and that mystery thing I already described where you have to figure out the world as you go along… but although I liked it, I didn’t love it, and I couldn’t figure out why. This time round, though, reading it with the blog in mind, I figured it out. Also I do love it now.
All right. One issue is characterisation. Hardly anyone in the book is nice in any way; those who are nice (the dams, mostly) are minor-ish characters who don’t get very much plot time, and the main character who gets nearly all the focus is… well, she is nice. She’s utterly competent. She hardly ever makes a mistake. And for this reason she isn’t quite relatable. Usually I don’t have issues with identifying with characters of any sex/species/whatever, but it’s actually quite hard to identify with someone who basically always knows what to do, even when she’s being purposely kept in the dark by everyone who knows anything!
That’s one point. The other one also has to do with people not being nice: when I read a book, any book, but particularly a sci-fi/fantasy book, one of the main things I’m looking for is a sense of wanting to live in that world. And, well, despite how well-written the world of this book is, it’s really a very unpleasant society, somewhat like that in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, entirely taken up with political manoeuvring. I didn’t want to live in this world. However this time, whether I was paying more attention to the forest and the Old Gods, or whether the real world has in the meantime got worse (spoiler: it has), the world of the book has become that much more appealing to me. I really want to find and read the rest of the series.
What I like about the magic: that there’s so much of it! I mean, you have the Talents, pretty much all the common superpowers (and a few uncommon ones, such as Jinian’s Beasttalking) distributed on a one-each, random basis to all the highborn Gamesmen. Then there’s the wize-art, which in any other setting would be hedge-witchery, a sort of lower magic for the lower classes, until you realise that you can do pretty much anything with it, it’s much rarer than Talents, AND that every one of Jinian’s Seven has a Talent as well. Then there’s… whatever the Dervishes do, and what the Mind-healers do, and you can’t tell quite if it’s magic or some sort of genetic modification or a bit of both, and there are bad guys in the background definitely practicing genetic modification, and there’s necromancy as well although it doesn’t come into this book, and whatever-the-heck footseeing is, and the Old Gods, and… and…
What I like about the animals: that there’s a huge mix of them, and that you can sometimes tell from clues in the story which of them are imported Earth species, which are indigenous, and which are genetically modified. For example, Jinian says about horses that they “…were funny. No other animal we used had so many little sicknesses, almost as though they found the world not totally to their liking.” And later on, about the d’bor wife: “They are very fearsome, a wild, unfamiliar kind of beast, neither furred nor feathered. I did not like the thought of the d’bor wife.”
What I like about the setting: Forget all about the society and the True Game, which I can do entirely without. The world itself, the activity of the Dervishes, and the history of the planet and its human occupation are utterly fascinating. The past sticks out from the present in bits and pieces, just as it does in Potato Peel Pie, making the reader want to dig right in. At some point you realise it’s a “lost-colony” tale where technologically advanced humans colonised a planet, lost touch with spacefaring civilisation, and the planet reverted to a mediaeval-type society with traces of high technology still in use. But unlike some lost-colony narratives, where every seemingly magical element can be explained by far-future technology, the world of this book is deeply magical right to the core. The essence and nature of the Old Gods, the original inhabitants of the planet, seems to be magical. Does this mean that all forms of magic in the world, the Talents, the wize-art, whatever the Oracle is, draw somehow on the Old Gods? Maybe we find out in the other books. And are the ruined cities, and the roads that link them, evidence of a pre-colonisation human-scale species? And what the heck is the Daylight Bell? I need to know!
So yeah. You definitely need to read this book, unless you hate the type of fantasy that has 573 unfamiliar names and terms, but you should probably try to get hold of the rest of the series first.