Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Review: 'The Weavers Of Saramyr' by Chris Wooding

This is the first in the 'Braided Path' trilogy (the others are 'The Skein of Lament' and 'The Ascendancy Veil'). It's a full-on fantasy with a vaguely eastern feel (names like Kaiku and Mishani, writing with brushes instead of pens) but still totally original. There are numerous point of view characters, and the story jumps from one to the other within chapters, sometimes without warning, which can be disconcerting.

The opening draws you in immediately, with a brilliant first line ("Kaiku was twenty harvests of age the first time she died.") and a dramatic night-time escape from the mysterious shin-shin. There are enough details to understand what is going on, while still conveying the richness of the background.

The created world is extraordinary. The author has thought of everything, from a pantheon of gods complete with origin myths, to trees and wildlife, to languages, an intriguing social structure, and a wonderfully original magic system. Wooding has imaginative little details everywhere - eschewing the traditional swords-only structure, his world has rifles, albeit fairly primitive ones. Many fantasy writers don't go into this much detail, being satisfied with importing earthly flora and fauna, and plonking their characters into a vaguely medieval setting with a dab of magic, so this is very impressive.

The Weavers of the title are those who have the ability to move mentally into some other dimension, putting themselves into another place to spy or convey messages secretly. They use magical masks which accumulate power from each host, so that the oldest masks are hugely powerful, but cause physical illness and ultimately madness in the wearer. After each 'weave' episode, the Weavers are filled with uncontrollable desires, often violent. The ruling families use them both actively, against other houses, and as a deterrent. There are also individuals with other abilities, known as Aberrants, and regarded with antipathy by most people. If found, they are often killed by the Weavers.

The story is unusual in having a large number of female protagonists. All of them are nicely drawn, attracting sympathy and interest, and although some characters do evil things, there is no clearly defined 'bad guy'. Even the Weavers, who do unspeakable things after a weaving, are people whose foibles we can understand.
The writing style is quite descriptive, poetic in places and  florid and overblown in others. One thing I dislike - the author routinely ends a chapter or section on a cliffhanger, but when he returns to that character, things have moved on and the resolution of the cliffhanger is told in flashback. This tends to diminish the tension, and also makes the book feel a bit choppy, as the story jumps from one setpiece to the next without much continuity. He also sometimes overdoes the dramatic tension. He spends an entire chapter describing how one character battles through storms and blizzards to the limits of her endurance, which would be exciting if we had any doubts at all of her ultimate survival. As it is, it becomes tedious.

The plot builds slowly but inexorably towards the dramatic climax, which nicely resolves the immediate issues, while also laying the foundations for the remainder of the series. On the whole, the book is very readable, although with a few saggy moments where the author gets a little carried away with his own hyperbole or diverts into an info-dump. The main problem I found with it is that none of the characters really came alive for me (apart from the one who got killed - isn't that always the way?). Writing this a week or so after finishing the book, I find it hard to remember anything much about them. This is somewhere between a 3 and a 4 star, but the (mostly) high quality of the writing, and the depth of the world-building bump it up to a 4. [First written August 2011]

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