I really wanted to like this book, truly. I’ve heard so many good things about it and I really tried, but it took me three goes to get past the first few chapters and that’s always a bad sign. The premise is intriguing: two countries, two religions, two forms of magic, two royal sons fighting a long-lasting war that only one of them can win, both endowed with powers. Interesting ideas about faith. But a book can’t just be about ideas, it has to be a story first, and that’s where this book failed for me.
The setting is evocative of ancient Greece or
Rome on the one side, with its pantheon of gods, and on the other is
vaguely eastern, with its rajah and mysticism. There’s not a lot of
detail beyond the immediate surroundings, not much sense of long history
and there’s an element of info-dump sometimes. For instance, we are
given a great deal of information about Rezzia’s gods right at the start
- what they represent, even what they adherents wear. It’s impossible
to take in.
The war itself is quite bizarre. Rezzia and Pawelon
are separated by a deep gorge, the main crossing place being protected
by a walled citadel on the Pawelon side. The Rezzians march out from
their camp into the gorge, across the plain at the bottom and try to
climb up to the citadel. Meanwhile the Pawelons simply pop them full of
arrows and spears as they climb. Lots of them get killed, they withdraw,
they try again. And this has been going on for ten years. Now, I’m not
exactly skilled in the art of war, but hasn’t it crossed anybody’s mind
that perhaps it’s time for Plan B? Like maybe march down to that nice
big lake at the end of the gorge and boat across into Pawelon? Or at
least try to find another route across the gorge, which is hundreds of
miles long? No?
The characters fall into matched pairs. Caio and
Rao, the two princes. Ilario and Aayu, the two friends. Lucia and
Narayani, the sister and lover. Vieri and Devak the king and rajah.
Strategos Diulio and Indrajit the two war chiefs. All neatly
symmetrical. Even the personalities and traits of the two are matched,
in many cases. The two princes are both terribly good people, wanting
above all to help their people. The two friends are suitably sturdy,
loyal stalwarts. The king and rajah are both domineering characters,
cruel and intolerant towards their children. And so on. But none of them
really captured my attention as real people rather than symbols. Lucia
had potential, but as far as I read we never really see her character in
full flower, she is no more than victim of the Black God and, through
her own goddess, hyped-up warrior.
Apart from the logic flaws of
the war, I had two main problems with the book. One is the writing
style, which seemed very stilted and somehow clunky. There were phrases
that made me laugh out loud - even though I knew what the author meant,
it just came out wrong. And there was great deal of describing what
characters were feeling, rather than showing it. Now to some extent this
is inevitable when what they're feeling is religious fervour and
dogmatic belief. It's hard to show such things. But it gave the whole
book a slightly distant, artificial feel to it, so that I was never
fully drawn into the story.
The other problem I had was the
magic. On one side, the characters called on the power of their
individual gods to intervene in their affairs, which they often did.
They were physically present and even showed themselves, sometimes, or
gave specific instructions, or led the characters to do certain things.
And they used their powers in battle, although not always with the
expected results. The other side had sages who acted as magicians,
capable of great feats of magic which they, too, used in battle. The end
result is two sides hurling thunderbolts at each other, essentially,
and frankly, I just hate that sort of magic. It's really not
I got about a third of the way through before giving
up. This is just not my type of book. It’s not that this is a bad book,
in any way. In some sense, it’s a very good book, tackling some
interesting concepts in quite an ambitious manner. It may be that the
whole book, or perhaps the whole series, would resolve some of the
issues I had with it, who knows. I suspect, though, that the author is
more interested in the ideas incorporated in the story than the story
itself. On the plus side, it's a literate and thoughtful piece of work,
and I understand why it appeals to so many people. It's just not for me.
One star for a DNF.