Indie Review: Wrath of the White Tigress by David Alastair Hayden

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!

 

Wrath of the White Tigress is available on Kobo and Amazon, along with several other great tales from the same world. You can also find David A. Hayden on Twitter, or on his own blog

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Indie Review: Chains of a Dark Goddess by David Alastair Hayden

The more I get into Indie fiction, the more fantasy I find myself reading.  And there are some great fantasy writers out there–not the least of which is David Alastair Hayden. I previously reviewed Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame, and praised it for its uniqueness. As I was writing that review, I was reading Chains of a Dark Goddess–it’s past time to visit that book!

Chains opens with a delicious premise: Breskaro Varenni, Knight Champion of the goddess Seshalla, hero of crusades and greatest warrior of the age, is betrayed by his trusted allies and murdered. Then, he’s brought back from the dead to exact revenge at the behest of an evil goddess. Sounds like a great antihero type story, right?
Well it is, and it would be a perfectly enjoyable read if Hayden stopped there–but he doesn’t. As the protagonist, the reader is immediately set up to sympathise with Breskaro—but this actions through the book make it difficult. This is a good choice, as it eschews the tired cliché of the antihero. Breskaro is evil, no doubt about it, and driven in part by bare revenge as he is, his motives are questionable. But there are good things about him too, and every once in a while he drops his guard to show a tender side that suits him well. There’s a running implication that he’s as evil as he is because of what he endured in death, but I think he was a bit of a prick in life, too. He’s certainly not a man to admire, but that’s what makes him such a great character. As a nice counterpoint to Breskaro the character of Esha is a delight. She has a youthful exuberance that infects everyone around her, even our undead warrior—and in that, she gives him one of his few shreds of humanity. There’s something special about her that’s not addressed until the end of the book, and I have to say I was surprised at it.

The use of a death mask to cover Breskaro’s decaying features seems like an obvious choice—but is no less awesome for it. It’s a terrifying image, but it also does well to give some pathos to his character; he knows he’s repellent, and though he never says it, seems almost ashamed at his appearance. At the same time, this action gives him depth—he fully intends to use his frightening visage to manipulate others. He’s not a cut and dried superhero, and has faults like anyone else.

The world of Pawan Kor–as mentioned in my other review–is vibrant and creative. It’s one of those fantasy settings that seems like a place you could actually visit; it’s real enough without losing the elements that make it fantastical. There’s a detailed history, though a lot of it is implied or described in other books. I’d have liked to see more of that history explored, but there is a sense of mystery about the world because it isn’t…and enough of it is that it keeps you intrigued.
The way Hayden describes how magic works is especially fascinating. It is based on the power of an ancient race of wizards how have ascended to beings of energy, locking themselves in crystals called qavra. These crystals can be used by their descendants to wield powerful magic, resulting in almost a possession by the ancients. Those who are not direct descendants can still call on that power, though it’s weaker. Effectively, the crystals become an implement and a source of magic. It’s a clear and elegant explanation with an old school pulp fantasy flair that also explains why magic is uncommon.

The thing I like most about this book is the way it explores religion. Hayden treats this subject very well; he doesn’t beat you over the head with it, and it’s not even (really) the theme of the book. Instead it’s an undercurrent that sweeps the reader along, almost without them knowing it; if you pay attention to it, it adds an important dimension to the narrative, but if you don’t, the plot stands on its own.

The main idea here is that faith is different from dogma, though the two are seldom separated. The Church of Seshalla has completed three crusades and is about to start the fourth, all in the name of “converting the heathens,” and the devotees of the church follow the edicts of the Matriarch (leader of the church) blindly and absolutely. At the same time, it’s made clear that the dogma instituted by the Church—however well intentioned—isn’t necessarily in line with the teachings of their Goddess. It makes for an intriguing subplot that, as mentioned, hovers just enough below notice that if you disregard it, you lose nothing. Which is a prudent decision on the author’s part, religion being the inflammatory subject it often is.

On the other side of things, we spend most of the time in the book among the heathens, and they’re portrayed as such—liars, thieves, assassins and sorcerers. This is another masterful stroke of Hayden’s; by making the “bad guys” unpalatable, they, like our protagonist, are harder to sympathize with. But with the way the plot is set up, we can’t cheer for the Church either. The result is a complicated mess of grey—there’s no good guy or bad guy at all, just people with different interpretations of the truth.

Such a complex moral question can’t be answered—or, at least, you’ll get as many different answers as people you ask—which makes it somewhat universal. A reader can pick up on what they want in this book, and while we’re certainly meant to root for Breskaro against the Church, the Matriarch and those who wronged him, those antagonists are just as likable and even sympathetic in their own way. And that is the trick to creating great conflict, and a great story.

You can find Chains of a Dark Goddess at Amazon and Kobo. Also look for David Alastair Hayden on Twitter, Goodreads, or at his website. Hayden has several other books set in the world of Pawan Kor–be sure to check them out!

Indie Review: Beneath the Surface by Lindsay Buroker

Someone posted a quote on twitter recently–sorry, I can’t remember who or where it came from!–that said the measure of a good book was dreading to read the last chapter, because you know it’s going to end. I’ve come across many Indie books that had this effect on me–and generally, it’s the same authors who do it time and again.
With Lindsay Buroker, it’s gotten to the point where I’ll put off reading her books, just because I burn through them so quickly. I’ve held onto Beneath the Surface for months, knowing that it’s shorter than most of her work–it’s a sort of “interlude” between books five and six of Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series–but as book six was recently released, I thought it was time to dive in.

The first thing I love about Buroker’s work is that it’s character driven. I got into the Emperor’s Edge series because of the steampunk flair, but the people really made the book for me. The series features Amaranthe Lokdon, an erstwhile officer of the peace (Enforcer) who’s found herself on the bad side of the law for all the right reasons. She gathers about her a motley band of heroes (including fan favourite Sicarius, deadliest assassin in the realm) in an effort to clear her name. Each of these characters is vibrant and exciting–and despite the large cast, Buroker deftly avoids the all-too-familiar author’s trap of developing one or two at the expense of the rest. All of them are distinctly unique, and insanely likeable. Yes, even the cold-as-ice, dagger-at-your-throat assassin. Actually, especially him.
The second thing I love about these books is that Buroker has chosen to use each one as a focus for one of the main characters. This allows for some dedicated character development as the series progresses, and is part of why each of her characters are so fully fleshed out. Beneath the Surface deals with a newcomer to the group–Evrial Yara, also an Enforcer–as she wrestles with the fact that she’s gotten tied up with these outlaws. At the same time, she finds herself alone with the company fop Maldynaldo, who is pursuing her relentlessly with amorous advances–which she may or may not want to return.

Yara is a wonderful character because she’s a reflection of Amaranthe. Both are well written, strong leading women, but they’re not perfect. They each have doubts and weaknesses, and neither of them realizes just how strong they are. They both come from a “means to and end” mentality–though Yara is longer to come to that conclusion–and honestly just want the best for the Empire and their friends. And both struggle with a “maybe-romance” that is unspoken or unwanted, but too delicious to resist. In many ways, Yara is a “proto-Amaranthe,” and it’s great to watch the group’s leader gently mentor the newcomer. It gives Amaranthe yet another dimension to her character, and it’s even better for the reader as we watch Yara come to some conclusions about life that she otherwise wouldn’t have, but that always lingered beneath the surface.

The plot of this novella concrns some magical artefacts that will destroy millions of lives if the Emperor’s Edge doesn’t deal with them first–and of course, in the process, the group ends up looking like the bad guys. But that’s not really what Beneath the Surface is about. It’s about the things we leave unsaid, the feelings we won’t admit to ourselves until it’s to late, the road less travelled. At first blush, it’s a fun adventure for the crew to keep fans entertained until the next book in the series, but the real treasure is between the lines. There’s more character development and growth in this novella than in other books, and it’s so successful because a lot of it is implied. Buroker has done such a great job over the series of getting readers attached to her characters that we feel 100% invested in what they feel, even if it’s not voiced aloud.

And of course, it’s not just about Yara and Amaranthe. The relationships between Maldynaldo and Books (the group’s picked-on researcher) and Sicarius and the once-Emperor are touched upon as well. Not everything is revealed; in fact some important points are left unspoken. It’s very touching, and almost bittersweet. I have to wonder if, in the next instalment, some of the characters will find that it’s too late to say what should have been said. Which makes me anxious for the next book, but also very excited–it’s the kind of risk that takes a book from simply fun to instant classic.

You can find Beneath the Surface, as well as the rest of the Emperor’s Edge novels, at Kobo and Amazon. The first one’s free! Buroker also keeps an informative blog, and is very active on Twitter.

Indie Review: Troll Magic by J. M. Ney-Grimm

Troll MagicIt’s no secret on this blog that I have favourite writers. J. M. Ney-Grimm is one of them, and with good reason–her writing style is unique, and engrossing. Up to now, I’d only read her shorter works; I’ve been holding onto Troll Magic for some time, eager to start but wanting to give it my full attention. And it did not disappoint.

On the surface, we have the simple story of lovers trying to overcome the obstacles that keep them apart, but it’s more than that. Troll Magic is a cunning exploration of a very human question: how does one follow their dreams, knowing all the risks that entails and without any promise of the outcome? And more importantly, when should we sacrifice our own dreams for those of someone else? It’s a big question, and one I won’t pretend to be able to answer. You’ll just have to read the book.

There are really three stories going on here: the Trolls (characters who suffer from Troll-Disease), the Family (Lorelin, our main character, as she come of age) and the Court (where Gabris and Panos try to find a cure for Troll-Disease). The meat of the story is taken up by the first two, as Lorelin is recruited by a man named Kellor to help him break free of a curse. It’s a clever reinterpretation of the original Beauty and the Beast tale, though it’s more complicated than that. It’s an exploration of how each of them have their dreams and fears, overlapping at times and always in concert, even when they don’t realize it. There’s a sub-plot here with Helaina (an unwitting and invisible servant in Kellor’s household) and her family, which follows a similar path.
The Court is almost an entirely separate story, to the point where I wondered if it would be best placed in another novel. The experiments of Gabris and Panos are interesting, but don’t seem to have a direct impact on the rest of the story–instead, they provide a sort of foundation that explains why Troll Disease is such a problem. But by the end of the book, the reason for this became apparent; it is a sort of running commentary on the issues of the book. It’s far enough away from the main plot that it gives the reader an objective view of the situation, and it works well enough that I wondered if it needed to be integrated with the rest of the stories after all–although bringing everyone together in the epilogue is a nice way to end the book.
With these three stories come many different characters. While the core cast is manageably small, there are a lot of secondary and tertiary characters. For an author, this can be daunting–it’s all too easy for some to become one sided and underdeveloped–but Ney-Grimm pulls it off nicely. Each character feels like they’ve got their own personality and quirks and the result is a world that feels large and well populated.

Where this book really excels is the presentation. I’ve described Ney-Grimm’s writing style as effervescent, and it’s still the best word I can come up with. There’s a light and lilting tone to the prose that doesn’t diminish from the importance of the story, and gives the whole book a very pastoral feel. It’s evident from her other stories that Ney-Grimm takes a lot of inspiration from Norse culture, which has a rich oral tradition, so it’s not surprising that her books have this sort of voice. Troll Magic feels like a book that should be read aloud at bedtime, or around a campfire. It’s very approachable, and because of that it does a great job of putting across the ideas presented.

Hand in hand with the voice of the book is its pacing. This was, for me, the most interesting feature of the book, and I’m still not sure how to describe it exactly. The best word I can offer is “ponderous,” though I don’t mean it with any of the negative connotations that word can carry. It’s far from a plodding or meandering book–the plot lines and character arcs are followed in nice progressions that take as long as they need to. Instead, the books feels like it’s in no great rush to get where it’s going, while wholeheartedly promising to get you there. As a reader, I felt like I was being led around the story by a guide; sometimes we’d stop so she could tell me about something of interest, sometimes we’d simply linger in a setting to enjoy it for it’s own sake, and sometimes she’d point and whisper “you’re going to like this, pay attention.” It feels welcoming and relaxed.

In fact, the pacing of this book reminds me in a lot of ways to The Lord of the Rings. That is an absolute tome of a book, but for fans of that kind of literature, it’s not daunting at all. Tolkein was a master at filling in details about his world in a way that doesn’t interfere with the story–but if you were to remove those details, the story would be much less than it is. It’s a long book, but the pacing just feels right. As it does in Troll Magic.

Another fascinating thing about this book is the way magic is explained. It’s very similar to certain Eastern traditions: energy is carried along lines in the body to verticies, through which it can be drawn to conduct magic. Troll disease results when too much energy is drawn through these vertices, pushing them off point. This isn’t very far off the idea of meridians in Chinese Traditional Medicine, and it’s natural fit for the world that’s been created. The antophoners (those who practise magic) even use a series of moving meditations to align and fortify their verticies–not unlike Qi Gong or Tai Chi. I find this fascinating because I’ve done quite a bit of research on these systems, and practice Qi Gong occasionally myself. I can attest that it’s both relaxing and energizing, so it’s not a huge stretch for the imagination that such a system could be magical in nature. And yet despite the comparison, this system feels unique to Ney-Grimm’s world, and fits so well that it seems the only possible explanation.

In the end, all I can say is that this is a book you’ll need to read  in order to truly appreciate. I have lots more to say about it, but nothing that can’t be better said by reading it yourself. I’d certainly recommend it. Troll Magic is a book to be savoured and enjoyed.

J. M. Ney-Grimm can be found on twitter, her own blog, and of course at the Kobo and Amazon stores. Ney-Grimm also have a handy reference for all her main characters here.

Indie Review: Two by Brian Rathbone

Brian Rathbone was one of the first Indie Writers I happened to come across. He’s very active on twitter, and has a good philosophy about it: interact, and they will come. He’s a good example of the Indie Writer’s Community, in that he truly encourages it to be a community.

But I digress. Rathbone has a series called The Dawning of Power; it’s a trilogy about the young Caitrin Volker, who discovers a power unknown to the world–a power that could tear her world apart. It was followed up by another trilogy, The Balance of Power–but I’m not going to write about those today, as I’ve only read the first out of six, and don’t feel I could do it justice.

Instead, I want to touch on a couple of short stories by Rathbone. I found these after reading Call of the Herald, (the first in his series), and think they’re a good introduction to his writing style. They’re both free on his website, and on Kobo.

First up is Redtooth. This one is quick, (only twenty or so pages), and an absolute pleasure to read. I wasn’t sure what to make it it until I was well invested in the story–and I mean that in a good way. It starts out with a man tinkering with a delicate piece of technology because he doesn’t want to upgrade (the characterization in the opening paragraphs alone is enough to grasp your attention), then turns into a sort of high-tension chase. The ending turns everything on its head. Normally, if I were to read a book like this I’d say that it jumped around too much, or was unfocused–but Rathbone pulls it off so well that it doesn’t seem that way at all. It’s fast paced, but that’s the way it should be.
The real star of this story, of course, is the protagonist Bob. He has a beloved bluetooth headset–very obsolete–that he can’t bring himself to give up. It’s falling apart, but he insists on buying new parts to continue repairing it, rather than upgrading. The way he’s presented is endearing, and though he’s something of a doddering middle aged man, we love him for it. He always seems a step behind, but that’s what makes his story so entertaining as he’s put on a wild adventure through the city.
The plot is simple: Bob goes to the pawn shop to buy some spare parts to repair his bluetooth, and is “coerced” instead into buying the newest gadget: Redtooth. This is when the real fun begins. As soon as he puts the device into his ear, the reader is treated to an absurdly delightful (and deadpan) conversation with the virtual assistant in the device. What follows is best described as a ridiculous romp, as the assistant sends him on a mission well against his wishes. Bob is baffled the whole way through, adding to the absurdity of the story.
And all of that is wonderful. This story is just plain fun. But there’s a subtle subtext as well–Rathbone seems to be commenting on the technological obsession we’re in the grips of today; innovation for the sake of innovation–or capitalism. Sometimes the tools we have are good enough as they are, and we should leave them that way.

If I have a criticism about this story, it’s that there’s a hint of something sinister throughout that’s never really followed up on. Perhaps I was reading that tone into the story–it’s clearly written to be funny, not sinister–but I felt that angle of the story could have been explored. Of course, if it had been, the humour would likely have been lost to an extent. It’s probably best left alone as well.

Next we have Beyond the Veil. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Redtooth, but it’s a very different kind of story. I read them back to back, and perhaps this story would have benefited from a sort of palate cleanser. But that’s besides the point, and a purely personal observation–it doesn’t reflect on the story itself.

Beyond the Veil tackles a delicate and provocative question: just how thin is the barrier between the living and the dead? And: which side of that veil is more real? There’s a real jarring dichotomy in this story as our main character–Vincent Pels–explores either side. The ‘living world’ is presented as very real and concrete, while the ‘other side’ is fantastical and wonderous. When I say jarring, I mean it in the best way–it should be disorienting for the reader to travel between these worlds, the more so the better. It serves the story, and the point I think Rathbone is trying to get across. We don’t spend a lot of time in the real world, but it leaves an indelible mark on the reader. There’s some very real tragedy here, so it’s almost a relief when we move to the other side of the veil. Here, we’re treated to a fantasy world where Vincent finds himself as an armour-clad knight on a quest to slay a horrible creature–though it’s not quite as simple as that.

This is where things get more complicated. I have to admit that I got a bit lost; the ‘other side’ seems muddled, and jumps around a lot. Landscapes merge into one another and characters are ephemeral. It suits the tone of this world, but I found it confusing. The disorientation could have been intentional–again, it serves the story–but there were a few times when I was left wondering just what happened. It wasn’t until reflecting on the story after I’d finished that it began to make sense.
I’m a bit torn on this. On the one hand (and the more I think about it), it’s exactly what should happen. The veil between worlds is presented as effervescent, porous, and fantastical, and so when we cross over we shouldn’t be surprised that what we see doesn’t always flow as naturally as the ‘real world.’ But as a reader, it was disorienting enough that it left me wanting a more clear explanation. It’s like waking in the morning and only remembering parts of your dream–enough that it’s tantalizingly interesting, but leaving you with something you can never grasp, and which ultimately fades beyond memory anyway.

Of course, it’s quite likely that this is exactly the author’s intent. Not every story should be cut and dried, spelled out for the reader–in fact, the best stories are those that leave enough to the reader’s interpretation that they can make their own personal observations, thus making a stronger connection to the narrative than if the writer did it for them. Ultimately, I think it begs for a second reading, and I may eventually explore it again on this blog. After this first read, though, I would recommend it–as long as you’re interested in some open questions. As a book you need to think about, it certainly fits the bill.

Brian Rathbone is the author of the Godland Series. You can find his books on Amazon and Kobo. Brian is also on twitter, and I’d definately reccomend following him–of only for his ruminations on how much animals can teach us. 🙂

Indie Review: The God King by James A West

It seems that most of the Indie books I’m reading are fantasy–and there’s a reason for that. I enjoy writing fantasy, but I admit it’s not my favourite genre to read. Apart from Tolkein and Robert E. Howard, I don’t read a lot of it. Mostly, that’s because I find a lot of fantasy to be ponderous and overwrought. Epic. The great thing about Indie writers, though, is that they write fantasy because they love it. They write what they want to write, not what the publisher thinks will sell. And because of this, the writing (in my opinion) tends to be better.

Enter James A. West. I came across The God King while browsing for free books, and got hooked early on. This is Epic Fantasy at its best. The concept is simple, but captivating: a prince wants more power than he has, and is willing to go to any lengths for it. Of course, he gets more than he’s bargained for–but the nicer twist is that an Everyman Character is granted that power too, and must act as a counterpart to the prince, with precisely zero will to do so. This sets up a satisfying and complex conflict that flavours the book and saves it from being just another ponderous fantasy adventure tale.

We have three main characters; the aforementioned Prince Varis, his Everyman counterpart Kian, and the wonderfully named Ellonlef, Kian’s love interest. This is a nice triad that works well with the conflict posed in the book; while Kian and Ellonlef are obviously on the same side, Varis is much more powerful than either of them. What should be an unstable “two against one” handicap is actually very well balanced. I felt that our protagonists were up against insurmountable odds–which should absolutely be the case in a good story–but that their friendship gave them an edge that Varis lacks.
What’s more, this isn’t a clear good vs evil story. Kian is obviously on the side of right, while Varis is not–but our villain isn’t as much of one as you’d think.  He’s certainly not the stereotype who wants power just because, and to a certain extent he even has a good reason for what he’s doing. He’s not evil for the sake of being evil–he’s evil because his desires run amok and he has no choice but to move forward. Of course, he’s set up as an antagonist, and so Kian and Ellonlef seem convinced that he is completely evil, and must be stopped at all costs. I always talk about stakes: they’re certainly here, as far as our protagonists are concerned.
The really great thing about this, though, is that we as readers get an insight our heroes don’t. We see the foibles Varis has, the very human mistake he makes. We see him shake in fear with the powers he’s unleashed, and his insecurity as to just what he should do with his powers. He’s definitely bitten off more than he can chew, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it now. I got the impression that but for the grace of god, he would have been the hero of the story. A villain of circumstance.

The prose of this book is very good. West has a talent for excellent description–though almost too good in places. He’s got an impressive vocabulary, which is great for any writer, but there were points where it seemed that every noun was coupled with an adjective. It ran against the old writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell;” in being overly descriptive it becomes difficult for the reader to experience the world on their own. This isn’t really a large issue, however; after the opening pages, it fades into the background and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.
And the reason for that is the wonderful World West has created for this book. It’s incredibly vibrant, and I had no trouble nestling into to it even in the opening pages. There are several cultures in the World that are well rounded, even if we only see hints of them; castes and kingdoms which aren’t explored but are still described well enough that they seem complete. There’s also a detailed history that’s hinted at here and there, but feels complete without any gaps. And best of all, the religion of the World is well crafted. Competing beliefs make the world seem real, and the characters more human. I particularly like the way he’s able to combine religious dogma and science; for example, there are three moons in the sky, and the people believe they represent three gods. When the moons are destroyed, it has a crippling effect on the faiths of the people. This kind of chthonic religion is natural and realistic. At the same time, West makes it clear that this has a very real scientific effect on the world; you can’t remove the gravitational effect of a moon and be surprised when the sky starts falling.

There’s a lot to like about this book–but on the other hand, there’s something flat underlying it all. It’s nothing I can put my finger on, but I think it has something to do with the well developed World and Characters as opposed to the relatively simple plot. The story involves Varis reaching for this insurmountable power, then trying to take over the realm, while Kian and company chase him down to defeat him. Aside from some setbacks our heroes suffer along the way, it’s pretty straight forward. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course–it’s still an engaging story–but there’s a clear contrast here. The World and Characters are great examples of how fantasy should be done, while the plot is a pretty straight line from beginning to end. It’s also a rather lengthy book, and although there were parts that could probably have been left out without much trouble, it wasn’t padded, and there wasn’t anything that seemed gratuitous. One thing I really enjoyed about the was the book was written was that the last several chapters are significantly shorter than the preceding ones; this gives the climax of the book a nice staccato feel, and really serves the action well. A nice trick, and a great narrative choice.

All in all, this is a fun book. It’s the first book in a series, and though the next book doesn’t seem to expand on these characters, it’s sure to flesh out the world even more–I’m quite looking forward to it. You can find it on Amazon for $0.99, or on Kobo for free. James A. West is on Twitter, and keeps a blog as well. If you like epic fantasy, this is an Indie Writer to watch out for!

Indie Review: Emperor’s Edge

I’m going to cheat a bit today–this Indie Review features not one, but five books. And, as this is going to be something of an overview, I’ll probably revisit each of them in time. But seeing as Lindsay Buroker is a large part of why I got into the Indie Writer’s community in the first place, I thought it was high time to review some of her work in depth (though I’ve touched on one of her short stories before).

Last summer, I received a free book from Kobo: a collection of short stories and excerpts from Indie writers designed to entice people into their new Kobo Writing Life publishing program. Buroker’s Ice Cracker II was the second story, and was easily the most memorable of the bunch. I found that the first book in the Emperor’s Edge series was free, so I picked it up and gave it a read. Making this book free is a stroke of brilliance on her part–it does a great job of drawing you into the story, and clearly sets up the next book–which explains the fervor of her fans, who wait with baited breath for each new entry.

The series concerns Amaranthe Lockdon, an Enforcer for the empire of Turgonia who finds herself on the wrong side of the law–not by choice, but by circumstance. She spends the series trying not only to redeem herself, but the names of her rag-tag teammates–not an easy feat considering one of them is the legendary and universally feared assassin, Sicarius. This quest for redemption is the overall arc of the series, but each book of course has its own unique plot.
There’s a common enemy too, though I won’t go into too much detail for the sake of spoilers. They’re known as Forge, and Buroker is great at giving just enough information about them book to book to keep the reader guessing–and wondering when it will all be revealed. What’s more, there’s no let down when much of it is revealed in book five, Blood and Betrayal. In the hands of a lesser writer, the revelation would have fallen flat with such a drawn out buildup; here, it’s satisfying and actually left me wanting to know even more. Which won’t be a problem for the work-in-progress book six, as book five lays down some tantalizing clues for what comes next.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t want to give a book-by-book blow-by-blow; suffice it to say that it’s a great series, and well worth reading. Buroker is one of those Indie Writers who serves as an example to others–she’s made a comfortable name for herself already, and her stock is only going up. She’s one that new Indie Writers should be looking up to.

Back to the series. There’s a lot to like about these books, though I find them difficult to define. Most people would tell you they’re Steampunk/fantasy, but there are a lot of elements of detective/crime, romance, sci-fi and pulp adventure (in a good way) as well. And yet despite the mixing of genres, they don’t seem piecemeal at all; in fact, this diversity is a strength for the books. It shows that Amaranthe and company are adept as many different situations, and that Buroker is good at not writing her characters into pigeon holes. They’re versatile and always fresh–as is her writing style–and this versatility is a hallmark of the series as a whole. If I hesitate to categorize these books into a genre, I can safely say that whether you’re a fan of sword and sorcery, rom-coms, or 1950’s pulp scifi/adventure, you’ll find something to like here.

The setting is decidedly Steampunk, and this is probably the easiest way to define the books if you want to do that. Turgonia is a militaristic empire with a long Imperial history of war and conquest, which has taken precedence over the arts, business, or scientific advancement. But that’s changing. A new Emperor–Sespian–has been crowned, and though he’s too young to officially take the throne, he’s established a new paradigm that many of the more conservative people of the Empire find hard to swallow. While this conflict isn’t really at the heart of the series, it plays a large part, and serves nicely as a sort of “dynamic backdrop.” It causes ripples that affect the characters indirectly, and as the series progresses, those ripples get larger–or, rather, we start to see the turbulence beneath the waves.
The science of Turgonia is based, of course, on steam; you have trolleys that require a furnace, mechanical beasts guarding enemy hideouts, and stream trains galore. There’s also a healthy helping of the other trimmings one would associate with steampunk; swashbuckling fops, a system of magic that borders on science, great costumes, urchins and aristocrats. And did I mention a kraken? In addition to this, there’s an undercurrent of a mysterious alien technology. All of it makes for a vibrant and simply fun setting.

But the real strength of these books are the characters. Amaranthe is the perfect example of the type of female hero so desperately needed in fiction. She’s not helpless eye candy always in need of rescue, and she doesn’t depend on the male figures for her strength; in fact, the men in the books look to her for guidance, without her asking for such reverence. It’s simply earned, because she’s a strong, intelligent presence, and she knows what she’s doing. She has her faults, too, but even these turn into strengths in terms of the way she’s written. She’s impulsive, takes unneeded risks, and has been known to let her emotions get in the way of the mission. But none of these faults are because she’s a woman, like so many other women in fiction–they’re because she’s human. I have a lot of respect for Buroker for writing such a strong female character, and I hope to see a lot of writers follow in her footsteps.
Amaranthe’s counterpoint is the brooding and dangerous Sicarius, long ago the Emperor’s personal assassin, but now exiled with the coming of the new regime. He, too, is looking for redemption, though he doesn’t know it until Amaranthe comes along–or at least doesn’t believe it’s possible. Their relationship–and yes, there’s a certain romantic spark–is convoluted, mostly because Sicarius is so reluctant to express himself. He comes across as a cold, unfeeling killing machine, but the scenes he shares in private with Amaranthe are touching and sweet. The great thing about Sicarius is that he’s a well textured character–but only Amaranthe and the reader know it. He’s easily my favourite character in the series because of this, and I delight in every snippet of information we’re tossed as readers. The mystery is what drives his character, and that’s something I always enjoy–but there’s another layer here because despite the mystery, we get a clearer view of him than the other characters.

On a side note, I can’t help but imagine Sicarius as Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Which, I suppose, would make Basilard the giant Fezzik, with Maldynaldo cast as Inigo Montoya.

Which brings me to Amaranthe’s band of misfit teammates. As supporting characters, they’re remarkably well rounded, and they serve as a further counterpoint to Amaranthe and Sicarius. Akstyr is a young street kid with a criminal past who’s teaching himself the “mental sciences” (magic); Books is the…uh, bookish librarian who excels at research, but not so much in fighting; Maldynaldo is an unapologetic womanizing fop with a heart of gold (and knows it); and Bassilard is the mute muscle, erstwhile bouncer, and surprisingly good chef. There are other companions introduced in later books, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. All of them make a great team; they’re diverse enough that they stand well enough alone, but together their skills combine in surprising ways to get the job done.
The best part is how they relate to one another–Bassilard is a friend to all, though he distrusts Sicarius more than some; Maldynaldo makes a show of teasing everyone, including Amaranthe, though he’s not as shallow as he puts on; Akstyr refuses to show how much he cares, or how much he appreciates that others care, but hides it so poorly that everyone can see through him; and Books always seems uncomfortable, though you can tell there’s no place he’d rather be than at Amaranthe’s side. It’s a wonderful cast, and reading about them bickering or teasing or performing mundane tasks is half the fun of the series.
One of the things I like most about this series is that each book centers on one of these secondary characters, sharing the Point of View with Amaranthe. In their featured book, we get to see into that character’s thoughts and background in a much more intimate way, elevating them from secondary character to front runner. This has the result of making all of them seem like fully realized main characters, which is no small feat. It’s rare (George R. R. Martin and Stephen King being the only examples that come to mind) that a writer can have so many compelling characters sharing the spotlight without any of them seeming washed out. Characterization is certainly one of Buroker’s great strengths as a writer.

There’s an added bonus to these books–Buroker has started a second series based in the same “world,” 20 years earlier. I’ve only read the first book, Encrypted, which is about Tikaya Komitopis, a cryptographer (and another strong female character) who is sent on a mission to decrypt an alien artifact. This one focuses a bit more on romance, but there’s a fair amount of action and fun in the same vein as the Emperor’s Edge novels. And, a certain young assassin makes an appearance as well. Recently another novella–Enigma–was published in this series, and a sequel to Encrypted is coming soon.
I love it when writers visit their world through different characters and viewpoints because it gives the reader a much more rounded view of the setting. Any story has to concentrate on something “world changing,” otherwise it’s not worth telling–but this can throw a pair of blinders on the reader as they concentrate on the only story being told. When a writer examines the other side of the story, the world suddenly becomes much more real. David Alastair Hayden and J. M. Ney-Grimm are other examples of writers who do this well.

So there you have it. It’s only touching the surface of these wonderful books, but as I said, I hope to revisit them individually here for a more thoughtful review. In the meantime, I hope this serves as a decent overview, enough at least to convince you to check them out if you haven’t already.

You can find Lindsay Buroker at her blog, or on Twitter. Her books are on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords,  and Kobo–and the first book, The Emperor’s Edge, is free!

Indie Review: Who Walks in Flame

Flame-Project-Transparent1-813826_600x480As an avid reader, I tend to keep to certain types of books–and, honestly, certain authors. Reading Indie Fiction is changing that;there’s so much wonderful work out there that it would be almost irresponsible not to test new waters. And my favourite part about reading Indie work is finding that occasional diamond in the rough, an example of writing that’s so good you wonder why you didn’t find it sooner. Who Walks in Flame by David Alastair Hayden is such a book.

It’s a short story set in Hayden’s lush fantasy world of Pawan Kor. Bregissa the Skald is charged with leading an army to victory against an ancient nemesis–if she can hold her allies together long enough. There’s a Witch King, a host of reptilian infantry, and an enormous flame breathing dragon. What’s not to love?

When I read the blurb for this book, I knew it was right up my alley; I’ve had a couple of Hayden’s books on my reading list, unopened, for quite a while now, and Who Walks in Flame was a great excuse to finally get going. I approached this book eagerly, and wasn’t disappointed. It perfectly sets up his writing style and the feel of Pawan Kor–though I’ve found his newest novel, Chains of a Dark Goddess, to have a unique flair that keeps this world fresh.

The opening words of a book are crucially important; they not only set the tone of the book, they act as a litmus test for the reader. If you can’t grab their attention in the first pages, you’ll fight for their attention throughout. But it’s a special kind of writer who can do it in the first sentence. This book had me from the beginning, and never let go.
And this is what I loved about the story as a whole. Hayden does a tremendous job of creating a compelling story. The bones of the plot are pretty straight forward–Bregissa leads her army against the witch king Khuar-na and his Scorch Walker, accompanied by a faithful companion who has more to lose than he’s letting on–but Hayden is able to weave it into something that seems almost mythic. Better yet, as fantastical as some of the events and characters are, they’re completely believable and I never found myself having to suspend my disbelief. This is good fantasy.

Bregissa is at the heart of this story, taking even second place to her conflict with Khuar-na. Don’t get me wrong; the urgency of this conflict is well described and will obviously have repercussions for the world. For the people of Pawan Kor, it’s do or die. But Bregissa’s story is much deeper.
On the surface, we have a woman who’s not only willing, but more than capable of leading an army–yet has to earn the respect of the kings she’s gathered together before she can accomplish anything. There’s also the relationship with her lover Kerenthos, who would do anything for her, even at the risk of his own destiny. But the real story here is that Bregissa is a remarkably powerful person, more so than the others in her life know–and this power has come at a grave cost. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s say it involves a betrayal and an evil act that is (perhaps) justifiable. This act gives her character a satisfying depth, and she ceases to be the resolute and unfailing hero she”s presented as in the opening pages. She’s not an anti-hero–I found myself sympathizing with her easily–but neither is she  a spotless soul.
If there’s one thing I didn’t like about this story, it’s that Bregissa isn’t explored enough. I got invested in this character more than the others, and that makes me want to know more–but the story is under 50 pages, and we only get hints of her origins, potential, and the arc in between (save for what happens in the plot, of course). I thought that this story served as a backstory for some of Hayden’s other books in the Tales of Pawan Kor series, but none of the plots of those books seem to reference the events in this one. Of course, I haven’t read them yet, so I may be presently surprised; still, I was disappointed to not get to know Bregissa more in this story.

There’s more to tell of Khur-na and his giant dragon as well, and I hope that Hayden revisits this character. There are hints of a great empire in which he enslaved much of the world, and tremendous rebellion in which he was overthrown and imprisoned. I’d be interested to see a sort of prequel for this book that explores what’s sure to be an epic tale. But, unlike Bregissa’s story, hints and teases are enough for Khuar-na. The mystery adds some depth to his character that wouldn’t be diminished if left as is. Although he’s such a great villain that I wouldn’t hesitate to read more about him.

One more thing to note about this story is Khuar-na’s dragon, the Scorch Walker. This beast is massive, and nigh undefeatable. Talk about raising stakes–when Khuar-na rides the Scorch Walker into battle, they reach the stratosphere. The climactic battle with Bregissa and her army is just plain awesome–this is the reason I read this kind of book in the first place.

As I’ve gotten more involved in the Indie Community–and make no mistake, I’ve still just scratched the surface–I’ve definitely found a cadre of authors I’ve dedicated myself to following. Ryan Casey, J. M. Ney-Grimm and Lindsay Buroker were at the top of the list–but now David Alastair Hayden joins their ranks. Who Walks in Flame is a terrific quick read–and it’s free. If you haven’t read this gem yet, do yourself a favour and check it out.

David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame is available for free at Kobo, Amazon and Smashwords. He keeps a nice looking blog, and you can also find him on Twitter.

Indie Review: Star Drake

Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm

As per my new schedule, I won’t always be posting on Fridays any longer–but when I do, it’ll be for a review of an indie work, or an interview with an indie author. Today I’m reviewing a great little story (or pair of stories) by fellow Indie J. M. Ney-Grimm: Star Drake.

J. M. Ney-Grimm writes in a unique–or at least uncommon–genre: Nordic mythology. I’ve enjoyed Norse myths since I was a child, and although these stories don’t involve the familiar Germanic gods and themes, they have a similar feel. When you’re immersed in this world, you’re thinking of trolls, giants, hairy dwarves and buxom women. Okay, maybe not that last part–no Wagner here–but you get the idea. It’s a very particular brand of fantasy, but a refreshing one. Your main elements are present–magic, monsters, and heroism–but it’s somehow more down to earth. I’d say it’s almost “Tolkienesque” in that the stories feel like they’re happening on the Earth we know, but long before our recorded history.

Star Drake features three stories woven together. Gefnen the troll warden searches for a meal for his master; Laidir the zephyr searches for his dear friend Geal, the rainbow; and the sea-lord Emrys and company protect a young boy. It seems complicated at first as the stories ebb and flow, and sometimes each thread only gets a few paragraph’s attention. But before you get twenty pages in, the threads begin to coalesce–or at least hint at doing so–and you see how they’re all inter-related. And this is where the magic of the story comes alive; this isn’t a case where you have a main plot and two subplots. Each thread is dependent upon the others, and they support each other nicely. To explain more would give away too much, so I’ll leave it at that.

The thing that struck me most about this story was the tone. After having read another of Ney-Grimm’s stories, Troll Magic, I was expecting a fairy tale like story with a lighthearted feel. Not so for Star Drake: this one has a deep sense of importance to it, of destiny. It’s still written very much in a storyteller’s fashion, and you can easily imagine it being told around a campfire somewhere in the snows of the North, but it has a satisfying sort of weight to it. At the same time, it has a very dreamy feel to it. The style of writing is hard to describe–I’ve been trying to do so since I read it last week, and still can’t find the right words. The closest I can get is ephemeral. It has an extremely poetic cadence to it, and the words drift across the page like a layer of gauze draped over someone’s shoulder. You get the impression that, while the words are poetic and lilting, the tone belies extraordinarily high stakes.

And that’s not to say that the stakes aren’t explored; there’s a good deal of action in the book’s 60 pages. The way Ney-Grimm’s characters use magic is certainly interesting, and a scene between Emrys and his friends fighting Gefnen is particularly satisfying. I’d like to have seen it explained a bit more, though; it seems to be elemental in nature, but it’s hinted that there are different levels of magic. I got the feeling that there was an underlying structure to it, but one that wasn’t shared with the reader.

And this is the only real criticism I have for this story. The world it’s set in is vibrant and unique, but it seems taken for granted that the reader will relate to it. I don’t know a lot of the mythology of the Nordic region, and while it’s similar enough to the Norse myths I’m familiar with that I can make educated guesses, it’s different enough that I was sometimes left wondering. Things like the relationship between Laidir and Geal are not explained, and I was confused at to who Gefnen’s master was, and why he was hunting at his command. I’m still unsure as to the significance of the titular creature. Ney-Grimm included a helpful guide to characters in her novel Troll Magic; something similar would be useful here.

Fortunately, many of my questions were answered by the accompanying story, Rainbow’s Lodestone, which follows at the end of the book. I would actually recommend readers look at this story before Star Drake, as it helps set up that story, and serves as some excellent background. On the other hand, it does reveal certain plot points that could be considered spoilers for Star Drake, so I’m a bit on the fence as to which one should be read first. At the very least, I’d tell readers to read them both in one sitting, in whatever order. They compliment each other very well.

Rainbow’s Lodestone concerns…well, I don’t want to give away the spoilers I mentioned, so I’ll just say it could almost be a prequel to Star Drake. It has a different tone entirely than the preceeding story, and it’s a testament to Ney-Grimm’s talent that she makes the transition so smoothly. This story is more lighthearted–much closer in tone to Troll’s Belt–and has an almost “childhood bed time story” feel to it. Despite the fact that it deals with a grim act of mischief, it’s a delightful read. This reminded me a bit more of the Germanic myths I know, so it was easier for me to relate to this story. The enchanting thing about it is the personification of the Rainbow, and the general attitude she has towards her fate in the story. There’s a nice underlying moral here.

All in all, these are wonderful stories and definitely worth a read. Ney-Grimm’s unique blend of Nordic fantasy and fairy tale mentality is a refreshing take on the genre, and the poetic style of writing (whichever tone she uses) adds a special sheen to the work. I read a lot of fiction, and I can honestly say I’ve not come across anything quite like this. Fortunately, Ney-Grimm has a respectable body of work, so there’s more to explore!

You can find Star Drake at Kobo and Amazon; if you’re interested in Rainbow’s Lodestone separately, it’s available in both stores as well. You can find the author J. M. Ney-Grimm at Goodreads and on twitter. Finally, if you’ve been following my blog you may remember a couple posts I did on cover design–much of what I learned there was thanks to a post of J. M. Ney-Grimm’s own blog.

Tapestry–A New Project, and a Sample

All Sizes

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While I’m in the midst of planning the marketing and production of my upcoming collection–The Astrologers and Other Stories–I’m also continuing to write. I have a file on the memo app on my phone that teems with story ideas, and one of them is particularly exciting for me.

Those of you who read The Astrologers (which you can find here, here, and here), will have an idea about the World of this project. The setting is one I created many years ago, but my planned novel never got finished. The Astrologers is a stand alone story I wrote partly in the hopes of rejuvenating that world–and it worked. The ideas started flooding in, and now I’ve pencilled out an outline for a large project.

It starts two hundred years before the time of my planned novel–which I still plan to write one day–and The Astrologers. I wanted to explore the backstory of my World, and in the process, help build it. I’m also planning on featuring a favourite character of mine, the Prophet Osir–a character that never appears in the aforementioned novel, but is a significant figure in its mythology. Now, I get to tell his story.

The project–tentatively titles Tapestry–will be written in three phases. Phase one is a collection of sixteen short stories, each working as character studies; they will be released in four sets, each between 8000 and 10,000 words long

Phase two will consist of four novellas, each following the story revealed through the earlier character studies. These stories are interrelated, and some scenes from Phase one will be revisited from other viewpoints, or otherwise expanded upon.

Phase three will be a longer novel that concentrates on Tobias Osir, a young soldier in the army who is caught in the middle of a religious and political war. Osir is forced to question his faith and his place in the world. It will follow him from his naive beginnings to…well, you’ll just have to read it.

In the end, we’ll have nine separate stories, each interrelated and connected to each other: a true literary tapestry. There’s a specific structure behind this–but we’ll talk about that another time. In the meantime, here’s a sample: the opening of the series. Let me know what you think in the comments!

 

Garden

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click. Alkut stopped for a moment, listening; content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmelus, General  of the Court, watching him.

****

Metedre fell upon the door as it closed, resting her forehead on the rough wood. A heavy sigh shook her shoulders, and yet she wore a faint smile; these encounters were always bittersweet. She bit a lip. More sweet than bitter tonight.
But the guilt would come. It haunted the dark, sang refrains in her mind as she held court with her Emperor. She never ceased to marvel that he didn’t know—or if he did know, that he didn’t care. She would be naïve to think that it was as well a kept secret as she wished, and that thought kept her continually on edge.
And yet she would not deny herself. Tauri was cold, distant—he had an empire to rule, and had no time for her. She had known that even before they were married. She had but one role as Empress: continue the line. That she had, with Ohmelus, and though more heirs would be welcome, her function had been served. Tauri had little to do with her, nor should he. His eyes were on the governance of the realm.
When Alkut’s footsteps receded out of earshot, she stepped away from the door and padded her way, barefoot, to the window overlooking her garden. A small marble bench sat by the sill, and she wrapped her robe more tightly around herself as she sat. For once, the breeze was cool tonight. The soft caress was welcome.
She did not love him, and he had as much as admitted that he had no love for her. Their…arrangement was mutually beneficial, and that was all. Occasionally, she revelled in the thought that all she need do was give the word, and he—and his temptations—would be removed. She need not expend any further thought on the matter, and no one would dare ask questions, even tell the Emperor if she bade them not to. Her quandary would be erased. But then, Alkut served not only to warm her bed. He was critical to the Empire’s survival.
The breeze wafted through the window and brought with it a scent of jasmine. They had been imported from Tornum at her request—and no little expense—and had become one of her greatest pleasures. It was a slave for an overwrought mind, and always served to bring her back down to earth.
Tauri had acted interested when she asked for the flowers, and the Court did as they always did, applauding his decision despite the cost. In the end, it had been to him little more than an opportunity; he’d had the flowers planted all through Ais for the populace to enjoy, and spoke at length about the benefits of bringing such beauty to the normally hot and dry city. Indeed, the white blooms had infested the city, and everyone praised the wisdom of the Emperor for bringing such life to their veritable desert. Not a word was spoken about her own involvement, but that was immaterial. She relished in the people’s enjoyment, and was happy that her own request had benefited them.
Still, she was the only one in Ais with a full garden. Many of the richer caste had flowers in their yard, even grass and fountains—but not a real garden like hers. It was a great indulgence in a realm with more sands than people, and the resources it took to cultivate and maintain the plants was considerable, but nobody begrudged her. Occasionally she held lavish public parties in her garden, welcoming everyone, regardless of caste or wealth. The people often called her The Jasmine Empress because of it, and celebrated her generosity. No regent of the Empire had ever done this for the people, and she knew she would be remembered for it long after she turned to dust. It was a legacy that gave her more pleasure than that of the Tauri line ever could.
The parties were becoming more frequent, and more necessary. Her people had fallen on difficult times; populations grew while resources grew thin, and there seemed to be more problems than pleasures. Her garden had become a bastion of peace, a refuge where people could forget their cares, if even for a short time. Something about the verdant growth entrances the Ozym; they felt grounded in her garden, rooted. She liked to think that being connected to the land gave them a new perspective of their problems—that they were fleeting, however taxing, that these blossoms, properly tended, would outlast all of their problems. She wanted this garden to become a symbol for her people, a sign that the problems of their material world mattered much less than the wonders of the world around them. This garden, she hoped, would continue thriving long after all of them had turned to dust.
She smiled at the thought, her indiscretions of the evening almost forgotten. Then, gazing dreamily out the window, she caught a flutter of movement in her garden, and a small gnomish figure stepped out of a copse of trees. Metedre stood at once, and fled to the door. The Crone had news.