I have this thing for fancy covers. For a long time I have been attracted by the cover design and title of this book. Otherwise I have never heard the name C S Friedman mentioned on any fantasy lists nor recommended by any of my friends. After I started reading the book, I googled the name and was surprised to find she is a woman - the name somehow seemed like a male one to me. Probably that was the intent on the author's part as well. Somehow in genres other than romance, there still seems to be certain bias against woman writers that they try to overcome by putting their surnames with initials to hide their gender.
I somehow have a thing for quest based fantasy. For me, the thing that attracts me to fantasy is the wonder of discovering a new world. The best way to discover a new world is a travel and so quests are best. Here we have a sorceress whose memories have been stolen by demons. Her apprentice, a man without the talent and a priest go in search of the demon to recover her memory. They are joined in their quest by an ancient vampire and later by a wonder woman from an alien race, complete with a dangerous stead.
The world is quite an interesting one. The story is set in future in an alien word that humans have migrated to. The alien world has a life of its own that reacts to human thoughts and emotions. So through interaction with these beings called Fae, humans have learnt to perform magical feats. There is this usual theme of magic as a substitute for science. Most of the technology of the world is around manipulation of the Fae through mind tricks to produce the desired results, many of which beyond the realms of possibility of known science. Then there is an alien race called Rakh which has been evolving from its primeval state into a more intelligent species through interaction with humans over millennia. And last but not the least demons which are probably Fae elements brought to life through strong human imagination that have begun to have an independent existence of their own.
The book is 585 pages long and the entire story is about how the five travelers meet up, interact, travel through the land and how they find and defeat their antagonists to recover the memories of the sorceress Ciani. So one of the elements in quests is how the people work together to overcome various obstacles. Some are simple logistical ones like boatmen refusing to ferry them across or local tribes refusing them passage. Of course the tension will be lost if antagonists are not hot on their trail all the time. So we have regular brushes with the minions of the antagonists as well as some obscure glimpses into their diabolic scheming to keep the reader aware of the sinister presence of the antagonist. Last but not the least, we have conflicts within the group and mental demons of the characters. When you have a vampire and a priest in the same group, that is an obvious tension point which the author skillfully exploits. We have a woman put with three men - so obviously we have some romantic interest. There is jealousy but no love triangle as such. Then we have the priest's theological conflicts.The apprentice struggles with self esteem issues due to his lack of innate magic talent which eventually proves to be his undoing.
The narrative is a third person point of view jumping from the mind of one character to another across the chapters enmeshed with descriptive omniscient third person. She sometimes even takes the point of view of insignificant characters to generally build mystery about the overall environment. The author displays strength of language in the descriptive portions. You know you can say things in an ordinary way or rich with metaphor. I somehow still have not fully got this show versus tell concept though. The way I see it, if you stick to character's perceptions, it will be show. But then character's perceptions won't be descriptive. Sample this - "Dusk. A swollen sallow sunset. Dust strewn across a barren landscape, naked hills swelling lifeless in the distance. Sharp cracks that split the air: rhythmic like a drum beat. Death." Now what do I make of this. The language is beautiful but is this a show or tell and what type of narrative is this. Or let us try a different one - "The port called Kale was as unlike Jaggonath as any place possibly could be.The city's plan was a veritable maze of narrow, twisting streets, flanked by houses that had been hurriedly built and for the most part, poorly maintained. Rich and poor were quartered side by side, laborers' hovels leaning against the thick stone walls of the rich man's estate - barbed iron spikes adorning the top , to discourage the curiosity of strangers - which was flanked in turn by the mildewed shells of workhouses, the miserly confines of tenement flats, the iron clad husks of massive sheds. The streets themselves might once have been paved with stones, and occasionally a flat slab of shallite - deep green, or slate grey or midnight black - would peak out beneath the layers of mud and debris and animal droppings which seemed to coat everything in sight. The whole place smelled: of damp, of dung, of decay. But there was commerce here, enough to support thousands. And where trade flourished , humankind invariably congregated."
From here on, there may be spoilers. So reading with caution recommended.
By and large the plot seemed fine and suspension of disbelief came easily. However a couple of things jarred a bit. In the prologue, we see the great prophet performing a heinous sacrifice for some greater goal. But centuries later, he no longer seems to have any greater goal except surviving which does not seem very consistent. Then there is a great mystery about the antagonist being built up and then towards the end, we don't even get to see her properly and she is quickly dispatched off. I found that a bit disappointing. The biggest problem was how the all knowing vampire just came up with answers to their problems without the struggles of working through the problems. While the vampire had physical vulnerabilities, he seemed to be given a free reign in the intellectual domain.
The pacing was taut. But a few things felt unnecessary. For instance the character of the head of the local church is built up strongly only to be cast aside with no significant role in the story. Similarly there is lot of mystery built around the Rakh woman. But she enters the party quite tamely and doesn't play that significant a role. The intrigue around the identity of the Hunter, which the author builds up as a great mystery, is so predictable.
The title was another let down. In the end, it turns out that the title which seemed to be potent with possibilities, had no significance to the story at all.
By and large, an interesting book that can be read for the work building concept. I don't know if I will pick up the second book in the series to find the answers to the loose threads. Very often I have found science fiction and fantasy books run through book after book offering only cheap thrills, never unfogging the central mysteries of the world it is based on. I somehow suspect this series with turn out the same way.