Shadowhawk reviews the first book in the Lays of Anuskaya trilogy from Night Shade Books.
“Intense world-building and an unforgiving narrative combine to make this one of my best reads for the year.” ~The Founding Fields
Every now and then I come across a novel that while interesting from the get go, also takes a long time to really hit its stride. Novels such as these are almost always the books that I find difficult to get into and have to maintain a stubborn interest in. Some such as K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog fail the “Interest Test” and I end up dropping the novel in disappointment. Then there are novels like Brad’s debut novel from Night Shade Books, which passes. The biggest factor to such a conundrum is that The Winds of Khalakovo is a Non-Western Fantasy, a term I use to describe novels that are set in worlds inspired by Europe with knights and kings and sorcerers. Very… Arthurian if you will. The Winds of Khalakovo is a novel that has a setting inspired by aristocratic Russia and often has some sly references to Russian history. Much as with Aliette de Bodard’s Mexica/Aztec-inspired Obsidian & Blood trilogy, novels like Winds are quite rare in the fantasy genre, at least in my experience, and so it is nice to be able to read them. The Russian themes of Winds were definitely one of the reasons that I picked up the novel.
There are three main, focal characters in the novel. The first is Prince Nikandr Khalakovo who is suffering from a terrible illness that he has kept hidden for a while now. Winds is Nikandr’s journey as he takes charge of his own destiny, defies the expectations of his family, and sets out to change Anuskayan society. One of the most striking aspects of his journey is that Brad puts him through hell again and again. I’ve rarely seen a character get punished so much over the course of a novel, ultimately winning through by the slimmest of margins. Every conflict he finds himself in tests him to his limits, exposing his character, his motivations, and shows how he changes.
The second focal character is Princess Atiana Vostroma who was a sterling character here. She is to be wedded to Nikandr and while initially that’s all her role appears to be, she soon rises far above it, and comes into her own. One of the best scenes with her in the novel is when the soon-to-be-wedded duo has to perform a traditional dance. Rather than let her betrothed take the lead as is the custom, Atiana is the one who takes charge and leads him. It is one of her finest scenes and shows that she is not one who will settle for being ignored. The scene is also highly indicative of her character. Outwardly, she is the dutiful daughter, but her inner personality is fiercely independent and aggressive. This is definitely one Princess who is not content to be nothing more than a figurehead! By the time the novel ends, I found myself attracted to her character because of strongly she acts throughout and how willing she is to step outside of the restrictions and expectations that her family and her culture has placed on her. She is a character to watch out for in the sequel!
Completing the “trinity” of focal characters is Rehada, who is an Aramahn courtesan living in Khalakovo and also happens to be Nikandr’s mistress. While Nikandr and Atiana represent the two complimentary aspects of the top-tier of Anuskayan society, Rehada represents the bottom, since the Aramahn are a conquered people and are servants to the Landed, the term Brad uses to refer to the privileged nobles like the Khalakovos and Vostromas. Rehada is portrayed as a deeply conflicted character. For one, she is a member of the Maharraht, a breakaway faction of the Aramahn who carry out terrorist attacks against the Landed. Two, she always struggles to define herself as either Aramahn and as Maharraht, without any easy solution. Third, some of the things she is asked to perform sit ill with her, but she carries them out nevertheless to prove her loyalty to the Maharraht cause. Consequently, her story arc made for some great reading, although it was also quite irritating at times. There were times when I just wanted to scream at her and tell her to do the right thing, rather than being subservient to a violent and disastrous cause. Her character arc is also about redemption, and it was great to see how that gets resolved. The way her arc concludes leaves it open as to whether or not she finds that redemption, an approach I found to be very suited to a conflicted character like hers.
The “trinity” is ably supported by a large cast of supporting characters, foremost among them being Nikandr’s parents and his sister Victania, Fahroz (the leader of the Aramahn community of Iramanshah), Soroush (the leader of the Maharraht and Rehada’s husband), Atiana’s father Zhabyn and brother Borund, who also happens to be Nikandr’s estranged childhood friend. There is also Ashan, a senior magician of the Aramahn, and his ward, Nasim, around whom much of the narrative revolves and who ties all the different characters together. The supporting cast (there are a lot more characters than the ones I’ve mentioned) does a great job of supporting the leads, and representing all sections and factions of the overall Anuskayan culture. Such a deeply detailed cast also helps in the world-building, giving the setting greater depth and nuance, which is always great.
And that brings me to the world-building itself. Brad’s approach is, as I’ve already mentioned, quite thorough and detailed. However, there are times when it becomes a bit laborious and drags on. This is felt acutely in the crucial opening chapters, with Brad quickly introducing the reader to a lot of different themes and concepts from the get go. Making sense of all of it takes time and patience, and the experience by the end of the novel is quite rewarding, although I wish that some of these aspects had been toned down and moderated since it is quite overwhelming to confront. With the sequel, The Straits of Galahesh, it should be a better experience and I’m hoping to see more of Brad’s characters rather than the world itself.
Given the intense world-building, Winds has a fair few points where the pacing drops sharply up and down with the action and tension. These two can be off-putting, but once again, it is an experience that justifies itself by the end. The slow approach is a benefit in some ways, and some it is not. I would liken Winds to Peter V. Brett’s The Painted Man in this regard since I had similar complaints to that as well. The inconsistent pacing does not make for a fun experience, and while I would generally put it down as debut author mistakes, that seems to be more and more of a mistake, since even long-established authors can fall prey to the same. As with the above, I’m hoping that Brad has a better handle on the pacing with the sequel.
There are, as best as I can tell, two distinct magic systems in Winds. The first one is what the Landed use, specifically the women of the noble families. Each family’s matriarch is the focal point for magic, and they immerse themselves in cold, specially-prepared water to be able to access their abilities, which can involve anything from temporarily inhabiting birds and animals, or communicate with other matriarchs inside this nether realm, or even observe particular events. Other women of each family, those deemed to be capable enough of handling such magic assist the matriarchs in their tasks, but that’s not an exclusive situation since sometimes those who have little ability are also called upon to do the same. The second system is what the Aramahn use. Their magic comes from mastery of certain stones and their related elemental powers. This includes being able to summon related elemental creatures made out of air, water, earth and fire. There are lots of clashes between the two systems as the protagonist trio explore their world and expose its ancient histories and mythologies. Interesting systems, and ones that I really liked, and would love to see more of.
Finally, the whole Russian theme of the novel and setting. I liked it. I really did. There are a lot of terms to get familiar with, and it’s not always to grasp their meaning since the context can be confusing. However, many of these are related (such as the Aramahn names for their masters of each of their elemental disciplines and the names of the elemental creatures), so it’s not all that bad really. The use of these terms does the job however of giving Winds an authentic Russian feel and making the novel stand-out. That’s the bottom-line right?
Overall, there are a fair few flaws in the book but, at the risk of repeating myself again, the book is an intensely rewarding experience in the end, and I would definitely recommend it to everyone.