One more down, this time for Challenge #24 “Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.” I know I saw this book suggested somewhere for that challenge, but in a way it kind of doesn’t fit, because there’s only one POV character. (Though in between chapters there are messages and sections of histories, but the identity and ethnicity of their ‘authors’ are unknown.) However, I’m counting it anyway, because.
It’s really, really hard to know what to make of this book. There are a lot of conflicting aspects about it, and from looking at reviews on Goodreads (and I had, in fact, looked at some reviews before buying the book) it’s definitely a book on which there is little consensus amongst readers. But let’s look at the three major aspects in summary first.
Plot: it’s not so much a hard to define plot as that it’s hard to define if it has a plot. We start out with our POV character, Demane, dubbed a “Sorcerer” by his traveling companions largely for his healing skill, as he accompanies a caravan south towards a city called Great Olorum. In between their current position and Olorum is a dangerous jungle called the Wildeeps, where travelers have been dying a lot of late. Their current position is just outside a station city on the route, and they spend about half the book in that station city. Once they’re in the Wildeeps facing the source of the death (a mystical beast, as we’re told early on), it becomes hard to put down, with a frantic pace, but up until that point, it’s more of a world/character study than a story.
Style: in terms of language, this is one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. (This is the point most commonly mentioned in all the reviews I’ve seen, whether positive or negative.) The narration is rich and deeply indebted to classic works of fantasy. The dialog, however, is deeply indebted to urban slang, to the point that the other caravan guards are referred to as “brothers” when “men” would normally be used (even in the narration) and they sometimes address each other by a variant of a particularly offensive ethnic slur of the sort I can’t bring myself to repeat even in quotation if I can avoid it. Given that the lush descriptions of their setting makes no obvious reference to the presence of people of other ethnicities, the very presence of that word makes no logical sense. (Eventually, about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through the book, it does start to make sense, but…it still feels awkward and serves to put the reader off.) Now, this urban dialect is pretty much exclusively used by characters other than Demane, so the disconnect isn’t quite as illogical as it might seem (especially since they are not speaking his native tongue) but it’s jarring no matter how you look at it.
Characters: there are a number of characters on the caravan, but the only ones we get any depth of information on are Demane and Isa, the Captain leading the mercenaries, who are lovers (which is, technically, a spoiler, since it’s not made clear until about halfway through) but have to keep their relationship a secret, because the culture they’re passing through does not accept same-sex love, though this is not heavily dwelled upon. (In fact, the entire relationship is barely touched on for large chunks of the book.) Even in the Captain’s case, the character description is a bit surface level; there’s a lot about his usual behavioral patterns, and the rich music of his voice (which I really liked), but not a lot about who he is underneath.
I think just that much makes it clear that this is a mixed bag kind of book. If it clicks with you, you’ll love it; if it rubs you the wrong way, you’ll hate it; if it does neither, you won’t know what to think of it. I fall in that third camp. At first, the language was really rubbing me the wrong way, to the point that I was having to force myself past it, but as I started getting an understanding of why the caravan guards talk that way, I started having less trouble with it, except when the racist epithet was used in excessive amounts. (Fortunately, Demane (who may understand the word’s original meaning?) detests it, and is angry enough at those who use it in his presence that the other characters back off of it.) Honestly, though, if the ending had been different, I would probably feel more strongly about the book one way or the other.
So, about the ending, then. It’s abrupt and ambiguous. There’s literally a question on this book’s Goodreads page asking for confirmation of what happened. That’s how ambiguous it is. If it was more blunt about “yes, what you didn’t want to happen just happened” or more strongly implied that “no, what you didn’t want to happen didn’t happen” I’d feel a little more fulfilled about it, either way. (Though obviously, I’d prefer the latter.) Regardless of what actually happened in the final scene, either way there is no follow-through, no sense of resolution, and the reader is left utterly unsatisfied.
One other point of importance is the brutality of the book. For most of it, as I said, it’s mostly descriptive. But when action starts happening, it is fast, hard and gruesome. The quote on the front cover does include the word “brutal” and that quote is not kidding around. Some of what happened in the last chapter of the book would have put me right off my food if I’d been reading it while eating a meal. (And yes, that’s something I typically do when I’m at home.)
From looking around on Goodreads, it looks like there’s another book set in this world, one with a more traditional story (and possibly a more traditional linguistic style) and more emphasis on the romance, so I kind of wish someone had pointed me to that one instead of this one; I think I might have liked it better. It’s an interesting world, and I think a lot could be done with it, but due to the lack of story, this book just doesn’t do much with it. As we learn in the final two chapters of the book, Demane has some amazing powers that you wouldn’t suspect from the early chapters, and it would have been very interesting to see those powers explored more fully in a less desperate setting. (Though perhaps that would be impossible; part of the point seemed to be that they were to be used only when the situation warranted it.)
I now have just one book left to complete the challenge! It’s longer than this one, but it’s more of a YA/MG type book than a standard fantasy, so I think I shouldn’t have any trouble getting through it quickly…ish. I’m working more days now due to a couple of changes in personnel at work, and I have to start working on research for class already (because of the nature of the class, there’s not really the usual “class work” phase), so my free time is becoming claustrophobically limited. (To the extent that I wasted my one free day this week lazing around and trying to sleep despite my neighbor’s perpetually whining air conditioner right outside my freakin’ window, because I was just that stressed by all the time I have to dedicate to everything. I end up staying up way too late because I need to get some time to myself somehow, but that leaves me getting exhausted due to lack of sleep, and…ugh. My life sucks.)