This was the author’s first published work, but shortly after its appearance in 1999 the publisher sank, and the book with it. Now the author has self-published it (hurray for the digital age). Not only is it available once more, it has been picked up by a traditional publisher too. A result whichever way you look at it.
The story has one of the most original settings I’ve encountered. A cataclysmic event tore the world apart, spreading chaos everywhere apart from a few islands of stability which are kept that way by rigorous adherence to a religion-based system of rules. Travel between these islands is made possible by accurate mapping of the chaotic patches between them. Main character Keris is the daughter of a mapmaker who dies under mysterious circumstances in the unstable lands between islands, and she is forced away from her home as a result. And that doesn’t begin to describe the complexities of this world.
There’s no easy entry here. The reader is dropped into this complicated background without a parachute, so the early chapters are riddled with jargon and references to unexplained events, places, people. It isn’t long, however, before explanations begin to appear, and although it took me a long time to work out the differences between tainted, unbound, excluded, unstablers, ley-lit and the like, things do become clearer. The ley lines are the most significant element; these are the ever shifting rivers of chaotic energy which criss-cross the landscape, the source of power for Carasma, the lord of chaos and his minions.
Keris is accompanied on her journey into the unstable world between the eight stabilities by a motley collection of people - a priest following orders, a high-ranking man making a pilgrimage alone, a brothel-keeper repenting of her sins, a timid man trying to impress his father and so on. The guide, Davron, and his tainted assistant, Scow, seem almost normal by comparison. And then there's the mysterious Meldor, who is blind but surprisingly adept for all that. All of them feel like real, fully rounded people, and if they aren’t exactly people you would meet down the pub (Scow is described thus: ‘His head was built on a grand scale, perhaps twice normal size, and his outsized face was circled by an animal’s mane. The hair—fur?—of it cascaded down on to his shoulders, hiding his neck.’), they all have their own secrets and tragedies. The tainted, in particular (those caught out while crossing a ley-line and transformed in some way) are very tragic figures, unable to return to the stabilities, unable even to touch other people. Davron is particularly tragic, and the way he and Keris gradually come to understand one another, and the development of their slowly unfurling love story, undeniable and yet impossible, is masterfully done.
The story is intriguing right from the first page, and quickly builds to a fast paced and dramatic adventure. The consequence of a world infused with chaos is that anything can happen at any moment, creating a tale which crackles with tension and (I’ll be honest) fear; some of those tainted and wild creatures were pretty horrifying. And yet there was always humour, too, especially from Corrian, the pipe-smoking former brothel-keeper with her down-to-earth attitude and appetite for life, and the timid Quirk, who takes to life in the unstable world with surprising nonchalance.
The religion of this world is not, at first sight, much different from any other hierarchical, rigid, dogmatic religion, but beneath the surface it’s unusual. For one thing, it’s an integral part of the division between stable and unstable areas. The stable zones are maintained by the continuous application of kinesis (a kind of gesture) around the borders and rigorous adherence to exhaustively detailed rules within the boundaries, which prescribe what may be grown where, what colours and styles of clothing may be worn, how many children may be born and what jobs they can do. All of this is intended to minimise the number of changes occurring and thus maintain order, a kind of stultifying stasis. Inevitably, this leads to some painfully inhumane results. Babies surplus to the permitted two are removed at birth and brought up in the religious order. Those who are deformed or who defy authority are thrown out of the stabilities altogether, left to survive as best they can. Inevitably, such a system has its share of the secretly defiant, the petty tale-tellers and the corrupt, who will bend the rules or turn a blind eye for a consideration. I wasn’t sure whether the author was making a general point about organised religion, but I found it very thought-provoking.
This book is awesome. It has all the characteristics I look for in fantasy: an original, well thought out world, a simple but powerful magic system, compelling characters who behave realistically, and a plot which never lets up for a moment. It’s emotionally engaging, too; I always cared about the characters and there were moments that reduced me to tears. Keris the map-maker’s daughter is a fantastic heroine, and the ending - well, the ending was perfect, I can’t describe it any other way. A truly wonderful story. Five stars.