The Akarans have ruled the Known World for twenty-two generations, but the wrongfully exiled Meins have a bit of a problem with that. They enact a take-over plot whose first action is assassinating the king. Suddenly his four children are flung to different parts of the Known World in exile where they will need to come to terms with who they are, who the Mein are, and the wrongs past generations of Akarans committed in order to help the Known World make a change for the better.
I have a big announcement to make. Huge even. THIS IS THE FIRST HIGH FANTASY BOOK I HAVE LOVED. There. I said it! And it’s true.
I wish I had some vague idea of how this ended up on my TBR pile. The only clue I have is that I acquired it via PaperBackSwap, so I know I got it very intentionally after reading a review or something somewhere. But where? And why? Who knows! It was entirely out of my comfort zone, took me much longer than my norm to read (over two weeks according to GoodReads), and yet. I loved every moment of it.
A momentous occasion such as this obviously leaves me asking why. Why when I generally am irritated by most high fantasy did this one not just not bug me but worm its way into my heart? This is a key question, because it’s something that helps stories cross genres. I do have an answer, but of course it has many elements.
First, although this primarily depicts a war, no side is depicted as pure evil or good. Both sides have good points and flaws. Good people work for both. Bad people work for both. The Akaran king isn’t a bad guy per se, but he’s allowing things to happen under his rule that are bad. The Meins have a just cause, but they do horrible things in the process of achieving that cause. This realistic complexity is something that I have found to be sorely missing in other fantasy. The Known World is its own fantastical place with its own cultures and history, but it is realistic in the fact that everything is complex and nothing is clear-cut.
Second, the female characters are incredibly well-written. They are well-rounded, strong and yet vulnerable. Beautiful and yet terrifying. They are innately a part of the world depicted, not just princesses in a tall tower or the girl at the side of the field whose beauty inspires the men. Women are historically a part of the Akaran army, and the two Akaran princesses have strengths and flaws of PEOPLE. They are not “female flaws.” They are people who happen to have vaginas. It is some of the best writing of women I’ve seen from a male writer in a while.
Third, the Known World is complex and eloquently imagined, yet clear and easy to understand. It is its own thing, but it is similar enough to our own real world that I wasn’t left grasping for straws trying to understand things. People in cold climates are pale, and people in deserts are dark. The animals range from recognizable horses and monkeys to fantastical creatures that are a mix of rhinoceroses and pigs. It is creative yet fathomable.
Finally, the storyline is complex. I could not predict what was going to happen next at any moment, really. The ending caught me completely by surprise, and I am baffled as to what Durham will be doing with the middle book of the trilogy. Baffled and impatient.
My god. I love a fantasy story.
Overall, this is now the book I will hold up when people ask me what is good fantasy. It is what leaves me with hope for the genre that it can be more than pasty white men wishing for a patriarchal past of quivering ladies in waiting and knights fighting dragons. Fantasy can imagine a world where some things are better than ours, and yet other things are worse. It can be a reflection of our own world through a carnival mirror. Something that makes us think hard while getting lost. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for those things in their reading.
5 out of 5 stars