This is the first volume in a trilogy ('The Ossard Trilogy') by a debut author, largely distributed in ebook format. Its low price (only 99p!) made it irresistible. It tells the story of Juvela, a girl growing up in the city of Ossard who discovers she has unusual powers at a time when the city is descending into god-driven chaos.
The world-building here is very good. The author has devised the background in intricate detail, and when Juvela makes her way through the streets of Ossard, it is obvious that the position of every last intersection and square and building has been worked out. The most detailed map even shows the streets and principal locations. The different races, religions and forms of magic are equally well done, and feel very believable. I would have liked to see more of it, frankly. The to and fro in Ossard began to feel very claustrophobic knowing there was a whole world out there to explore.
I would have liked a little more description of the backdrop - details of buildings or streetlife, for instance. And descriptions of clothes are particularly lacking. Juvela is a conventional and demure woman from a wealthy family, and I envisage her in pale silk gowns and dainty slippers - until she has to climb the slime-coated city walls and crawl through the streets. How exactly did she manage this - did she hitch up the gown, or put on the Flet equivalent of battle fatigues? It's a trivial point, perhaps, but there's no sign the author has thought of the problem.
The characters are a little less successful. Juvela herself is initially a little passive for my taste, mostly drifting through the story, being shocked and helpless and ineffectual in equal measure, and doing a great deal of fainting and generally needing to be rescued. But that gives her room to grow and as she gets used to her abilities she becomes more of a badass, although still always one step behind the bad guys. Sef is actually more interesting, and even Pedro has his moments (I would like to know more of what happened to him when he was sent away), but the other characters are only sketchily drawn in, although they mostly feel like real people. In particular, Juvela's parents are fairly shadowy, despite a relatively important role.
I felt that the story lacked focus. Juvela's personal development and the exploration of her abilities was one good story arc. The search and rescue mission for the missing husband and child was another one. And the growing war between the different factions was also meaty and intriguing. But because of the first person point of view, Juvela carries all these different strands on her own, and sometimes the story drifts from one to another. More than once she sets off determined to look for Pedro and Maria, only to be drawn into some other plotline. Then she retreats to her own quarter of the city for a chapter of exposition before setting off again. In my view it might have been better to focus more tightly on the search, and leave the growing war in the background. Or perhaps skip the husband and daughter altogether.
But this raises one of my big criticisms. There is simply too much exposition. Chapter after chapter is given over to one character or another explaining stuff to Juvela, in great detail, and often repetitively via dialogue. More than once a character said '...but to get back to the point...' and I found myself thinking - yes, please get back to the point. And then, quite late in the book, we meet a swathe of new characters who tell us their life stories, at great length. To be honest, I didn't care enough about them to want to know, and it slowed the pace down to glacial levels.
The writing style is best described as unusual. The strange use of 'it' has been noted in another review (at least, strange to me). I'm not sure if it is just a quirk of the author's, or whether people really use that construction where he comes from, but every time I encountered it, I had to stop and work out what it meant. There are other infelicitous turns of phrase too, but none so jarring to me.
There were moments in the story that I found a little hard to believe. The key event that brings Juvela and Pedro together, for instance, felt contrived. It depended too much on chance - the overtight lacings, the fact that Juvela was dosed with lotus by her mother (who surely was not part of the plot) - as well as conspiracy by the chaperone. And Juvela's later declaration of love seemed implausible after all that had happened.
But the action scenes, when they eventually come, are excellent. I am not a huge fan of the whole arm-waving spell-casting thunderbolt-hurling wizardy thing (I prefer my magic a lot more subtle than that), but these were well done - very tense and exciting, and (praise be!) I always knew exactly who was doing what to whom and why - and (importantly for this book) what the source of their power was. The final confrontation was a bit underwhelming - once again the characters stopped to explain things - but it worked to set things up for the next book in the series.
In summary, this is a promising debut, with a well-crafted world and magic system, some interesting characters and plenty of potential for the story to move along in intriguing ways. There are some clunky aspects to the writing, but still it's very readable and so long as the price is reasonable I will probably read the rest of the series.Three stars. [First written May 2011]