This is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting books I’ve read where almost nothing happens. It is the fantasy equivalent of Something Happened, by Joseph Heller, when almost assuredly, very little does. Honestly, I’m a little surprised I haven’t heard fans of Way of Kings raving about this, the three-dimensional statue to Sanderson’s bas-relief; though there is a solid sense of world-building, the focus here is thorough character development. And that is, perhaps, why I couldn’t ultimately throw this on the DNF pile (besides Cillian’s threat of terrorizing me with nitrite-filled intestinal casings), and why a part of me is considering continuing the series.
The writing is, quite honestly, some of the most solid I’ve read in epic fantasy in a long while. Descriptive and evocative; Flewelling does atmosphere very well. Which is fortunate, as a ghost is a critical character.
The blurb, as almost always, gets it wrong. This is about the kingdom Skala in the microcosm of the king’s sister and her child. It begins with the well-known foretelling, “so long as a daughter of Thelatimos’ line defends and rules, Skala shall never be subjugated,” the Oracle whispered.” A sympathetic advisor offers the king another explanation and female relatives to the throne begin meeting mysterious accidents. An elderly female wizard, Iya, and her protégé receive a vision from their god about how to save the kingdom from invaders. They develop an awful plan to protect the king’s sister’s unborn child. The king’s sister is due with twins, and the night they are born, some truly awful magic is done. Tobin, of course, knows none of this growing up, only that he has a ghostly brother haunting him and his mother. His mother has gone mad and doesn’t seem to notice the ghost, at least not in the same way. From there, the narrative follows Tobin through the next few years of his life.
“The princess sat by the fire, sewing away as madly as ever. For the first time since the birth, she had changed her nightdress for a loose gown and put on her rings again. The hem was wet and streaked with mud. Ariani’s long hair hung in damp strands around her face. The window was shut tight as always, but Nari could smell the night air on her, and the hint of something else besides. Nari wrinkled her nose, trying to place the raw, unpleasant odor.”
Although Flewelling plays a bit with the early narrative–the first couple of chapters from the point of view of the wizards, Iya and Arkoniel; the third from a hill-witch, Lhel; and the fourth from Nani, the witness to the birth and wetnurse–the majority of the remaining story is from Tobin’s, with occasional forays into Arkoniel’s thoughts as he works to protect Tobin, the future queen.
It’s a great premise, and quite honestly, I think I picked it up partly to see how a fantasy book would deal with gender identity/assignment. Alas that this part of the trilogy is very straightforward (ha-ha); young Tobin is convinced he is male, although he has moments of feeling troubled by wanting a doll when very young. I’m almost tempted to pick up the next book for the psychology of the issue; it’s a very cruel thing that Iya, Arkoniel, Lhel and Tobin’s father have done. You see, Tobin is not gender dysmorphic–his belief in his gender matches his appearance–but will have to be told, eventually, that (s)he is not what (s)he thinks.
What I ended up with instead of an exploration of gender is Tobin learning to deal with the ghost/poltergeist Brother and his efforts to find his place in the household. It is an immersive story; when I read, I could see it happening very clearly in my mind’s eye and was engrossed in the detail of the story. But–and this is a big one–when I set it down, it was without deep regret, and there was no particular impetus to pick it up again. I don’t know what to make of that; the combination of absorbing without addicting is very rare in the books I read. Had I felt like being unkind, I might point out how each chapter has a semi-significant event. For instance, in chapter 16, Arkoniel comes to visit Tobin and becomes his tutor; in chapter 18, Arkoniel suggests to Tobin’s father, the prince, that they find him a young companion, and in chapter 23, Tobin gets his own squire. This is, perhaps, The Belgariad at quarter speed (with better writing).
Would I read it again? Hell, no. Would I read the next? Possibly. It depends on what
threats incentives Cillian offers me.
As an aside, this has been on my TBR list since 2011. I’m not quite sure what that says, but it seems appropriate.