One of my favourite genres to read is fantasy, and I’m partial to a certain sub-genre: sword and sandal. I love the Conan stories, and so I’ve been looking forward to a book that has a similar flavour: Wrath of the White Tigress by Davaid Alastair Hayden. Hayden has a unique flair for fantasy that’s pulpy in all the right ways. These are tales of sword and sorcery you would have found in Weird Tales or other magazines from the days of yore.
I don’t usually pull quotes from a book in a review, but I’ll do so here because it reflect the story so succinctly. It’s a conversation between the main character, Jaska, and his saviour.
“I’m thoroughly corrupt. I don’t deserve life.”
“You did evil, that’s true, but you weren’t in control of your actions, weren’t you?”
He shook his head. “I should have been.”
Jaska is a Palymphar, a sort of knightly order that ostensibly stands for right and honour–but which has become decadent, violent, and corrupt. Jaska is the worst of them, and his…indulgences…are legendary. As the book opens he’s sent by his master, Salahn, to capture the temple of the White Tigress, a powerful goddess which Salahn wishes to imprison. Jaska is waylaid by the high priestess of the temple, Zyrella. After an altercation with the White Tigress herself, Jaska is converted to the cause of rescuing her.
What follows is an adventurous romp involving a sea battle, spoiled cities, wolven creatures, oracles and prophecies, and lots of bloody battles. This book is just fun–but it’s also pretty hardcore. Hayden writes a series of young adult novels that take place in the same world, but White Tigress is certainly rated M for mature. There’s sex, blood and gore galore, and the book makes no apologies for it. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say it’s gratuitous–it fits in with the tropes of the genre (without the flagrant sexism of the Conan stories).
One thing that really stuck me about this book–and Hayden’s writing in general–is the amount of research that’s been put into it. It’s obvious that he has an affinity for Eastern culture, and things such as weaponry and meditation techniques feel authentic to the book, while serving as a respectful nod to the cultures that inspired them. Quite a lot went into the world building, (something I’ll touch on in an upcoming interview), and it comes through as a well thought out and vibrant setting. It lends a unique aura to the book; it’s not Persian or Indian or Chinese, but a cohesive combination of them all.
Also impressive is the way magic is presented. As I’ve mentioned before, Hayden uses an intriguing system of magic: spirits of a long dead race have been captures in stones called Qarvra, which allow the wielder to command powerful spells. Some are more adept than others, and this gives a nice range of powers that can be tapped into. It’s an elegant system; all too often magic is used as a deus ex machina, but not here. It adds a crucial element to the book without becoming center stage.
Alongside the use of Qarvra is another system: Star magic. This is shown only once or twice, and it’s enticing–I certainly want to see more. Nalsyrra (who also appears in Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess,) is Ojaka’ari, a mysterious creature who is granted extreme power by the Star Spirits. She’s in the service of Salahn, but her fealty is to the Star Spirits, who grant her the gift of prophecy. She’s a compelling character, and I wish she had been explored more fully, but what we have of her is tantalizing. But, to go into her story any further would have taken away from the book’s plot, and we couldn’t have that!
The characters are, by and large, great. Jaska is well written and the anguish over the choices he’s made in the past is a clear call to action; Zyrella is a sensual and strong woman who serves as a great foil for him; Ohzikar, a templar devoted to Zyerella, has a wonderful arc in his dealings with Jaska. Even characters with small roles like the oarsman who befriends Jaska or Nalsyrra’s lover are well developed and interesting.
There are some flaws, however. Salahn, despite being a great villain, is rather flat. He’s totally evil, and besides on small passage that shows a bit of redemption for him, he’s single minded. He’s easy to hate (good in a bad guy), but he’s not complicated. This is especially apparent because Jaska is such a wonderfully drawn and complex character.
There are also quite a lot of characters in the book. That’s to be expected for a story of this scale, but by the end of the book I found myself wanting to know more about interesting figures for which there’s little time for development.
The only other real issue I had was that at some points, the Point of View changed rather regularly within a chapter. This didn’t happen too often through the book, but when it did it was jarring; sometimes I wasn’t sure who was “leading” the story, and found myself going back a page or two. It doesn’t really disrupt the narrative, though, and if such passages were separated by some sort of divider it would have been crystal clear.
Finally, the ending. No spoilers, I promise! I rather liked how everything was tied up by the end; there’s a certain amount of tradgedy I didn’t see coming, and it fits the world and tone of the book very well. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want them to, even if you are a hero. It’s a well placed surprise, and one that rounded out a very enjoyable story.
All in all, Wrath of the White Tigress is what I’ve come to expect of Hayden’s work–thoughtful, exciting, and filled with adventure. There are a lot of nice little bits of worldbuilding here and there that really put a stamp on his style and voice. And it’s just plain fun–the fight scenes are awesome. Check it out!