A promising work, that fell sadly flat.
I’m always excited to see fantasy works with unusual settings and characters, so this is the first from my World Fantasy Conference bag that I jumped into. Indeed, the setting is lush: a delta city reminiscent of Venice, but thick with magic, strange gods and creatures. I enjoyed the magical enclave, the rituals and superstitions surrounding ghosts, and a lot of the magical action. Hence the three-star rating.
However, the book did not work for me for two reasons, one significant, and one which, on the face of it, will seem that I am picking nits.
First, the significant issue: I was never invested in these characters or their world. I think fantasy writers, especially given the enduring popularity of the genre, underestimate how much it takes to get the reader to care about the future of a nation that doesn’t exist. Generally, it’s accomplished in two ways, by creating a beautiful and multi-faceted environment the reader gets immersed in, and creating characters the reader believes in to travel through that place.
Downum is mostly successful at imagining her world, but less so at realizing it. The level of technology shifts as the book goes forward. As you know,I’m keen on the appropriate use of tech in fantasy, and I have no problem with a period use of guns and running water. However, these innovations are introduced rather late in Downum’s narrative, and never in a way consistent with the society she’s made. So I am immediately kicked out of the story by mention of guns and faucets. One easy solution would have been to place a gun instead of a sword on the belt of her bodyguard in the first scene.
I think this is a failure of imagination on the author’s part. The work suffers greatly from a contemporary mindset. She uses modern itmes when they became convenient, without considering their reality in the fabric of the world she wants to create. Case in point would be the police station scene: a waiting room full of weary people, drinking stale tea and complaining to the desk sargent–I mean, the guard on duty. . .This is a cliche in the modern police novel. Why introduce it into a fantasy world? Unless for ironic purpose. But the bottom line is, I don’t think the author did it on purpose. It just didn’t occur to her to imagine a more interesting and culture-appropriate place.
As a result, I didn’t really buy into the city that the characters are trying to save. Which places more weight upon the characters themselves to carry my sympathy forward in the book. And that didn’t happen. Again, while I am told that Isyllt is a necromancer, that power does not pervade her being or her presence in the story. It takes a long time before anyone reacts to her because of her talent. She comes across as a bit blank. Lovely, and somewhat naive. Her “spying” is obvious, straightforward and easily accomplished. I found Xinai and Zhirin to be more interesting characters, but the unique perspectives they might have offered are blunted.
Which leads me to the nit. One of the panels at World Fantasy was about Ursula LeGuin’s famous essay “From Elfland to Poughkipsee,” about the use of language in the fantasy novel. I would be the last to argue that a fantasy should take place in some high-falutin’ tone. However, neither should it be rife with contemporary metaphors, slang and usage that is not consistent with the characters and setting the author wishes to portray. This work is packed with such inconsistent language. However, a single example underscores countless others. On p. 347, Isyllt, whom I am expected to believe is a necromancer and spy in a south-Asian feeling secondary fantasy world actually says: “Close enough for government work.” ’nuff said.