I’ve been saving this to read for years because people I trust described it as a warm hug of a book, which seemed like something I might need to have in reserve.
And that’s kind of true, and kind of not? Because while Maia, our viewpoint character, is trying to navigate a complex environment about which he knows little with empathy as his primary tool — this reminded me, in little ways, of Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, Hartley’s “Amateur,” and, yes, “Ted Lasso” — it’s also an environment with some characters who would feel comfortable in “Song of Ice and Fire.” (Not particularly driven by empathy, in other words.)
And the things I loved most about the novel weren’t necessarily the things I was expecting to love most:
- I can’t remember the last time (if ever?) I read an invented-world fantasy that was in the midst of significant technological change that was not primarily advances in military tech. Ethuverazhin is pre-Industrial-ish, with rapid advances in steam and mechanical engineering in evidence. And I was delighted to read about a world in which gunpowder seems not to exist.
- I have read invented-world fantasy before where there was significant societal change that was not military, but it’s unusual. Ethuveraz is in the early stages of a suffragette sort of movement, perhaps making tentative steps toward gay rights/normalization of non-hetero relationships, and starting to grapple with questions about monarchies and aristocracies.
- Addison/Monette’s invented language is fascinating not just for the sounds of the words and bits of grammar we get — the phonetic aspects steers us out of the Eurocentric zone, but there some Germanic aspects, an interesting mix — but because it has structures English doesn’t, in exactly the way that formal English doesn’t distinguish between second person singular and plural (which is weird, y’all). At least some of the time I was able to tell from context which Ethuverazhin word an English pronoun was representing, which is a pretty neat trick. It’s not quite the fabled thing where the last paragraph of the book has none of the readers’ language at all, but still made for one of the more compelling invented language experiences I can remember.
- At first I thought that this was likely the first 20th/21st-century novel I’ve ever read which prominently featured racial discrimination and structural racism that really didn’t read as coded to PoC/white in our world. But eventually I realized that Ethuveraz is farther along the road to eliminating racism than we are. This more advanced than us/less advanced than us mix was striking, and made the invented world feel much more complex (and therefore credible).
I kinda wish the murder mystery bits hadn’t been far away from the rest of the novel, although it seems like the right choice — the limited third is in Maia’s head, only, and I think trying to integrate another voice would have undermined what works well about this book. And anyway, it seems that now there is a book in this world with a mystery in the foreground.
And I sometimes got a little confused about who was who and who was nursing which grudge. (I am sorry I bought this as an ebook, because flipping back and forth between the text and the bits I needed to bookmark was more cumbersome than it would have been with a physical book.) And I’m still a little shaky on the overall motivation of one of the primary antagonists, and there’s at least one antagonist who is just a little too close to shrieking Margaret Hamilton villainy; that pulled me out of the story a bit.
But overall, I did love this book. Just not going to let it hug me without patting it down first.
nb: Katherine Addison is pseudonym for Sarah Monette