Hmm. It’s a toss-up. On the one hand, Roberson’s writing at full force here. All the delightful sensory details that made the dry deserty world of Tiger and Del a reality are present. You can feel the dust coating your face in Roberson’s lushly realized world. And she neatly establishes that it’s a world in flux — the Hecari invaders are an ever-present threat, without overwhelming the story. Bethid, one of the secondary characters, is the first female courier… and she’s young… but older enough than some of her newer colleagues that they’re literally astounded that there was once a time, as little as two years ago, when the guildmasters didn’t think women should be couriers.* But wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied? Maybe it’s because there are only two books in the series so far, but yeah, I felt hungry in the bad way at the end. Like, there was a lot of fluff and a lot of awesome, but not necessarily a lot of meat on the bone.*
On to the plot!
Okay. So Audruan is told by 14 diviners that the baby she is carrying now HAS to be born in Atalanda. This presents her family (4 kids and a husband) some difficulty. On the one hand, the Hecari have destroyed their town and their country. On the other, she’s already 5 months pregnant, they’re JUST getting to the karavans’ stopping off point, it’s late in the season, and no karavans are heading their way all the way. To get to Atalanda in time, they’ll have to separate from the group and take a route that skirts dangerously close to Alisanos, the dangerous, magical wood that moves of its own volition. Humans don’t survive Alisanos. If they escape — and that’s a big IF — they’re deeply and profoundly changed. In the molecular “you might be a demon” sense, not the “w00t! I’m a fairy princess!” sense. Okay, but so they find a karavan… the one being led by our boy, Rhuan. Rhuan’s a godling, and he and his cousin Brodhi are on a quest to prove themselves worthy of ascension. Rhuan’s doing it to prove that he should be allowed to remain amongst the humans, and Brodhi’s doing it to prove he’s enough of Alisanos to become a full-on god of the forest. Failure = neuter-dom… so basically, this is a literal “prove your manhood” test. They both want to become real boys. They’re drawn into Audrun’s family’s lives most awkwardly, and, in Brodhi’s case, very much without his consent.
The characterization is very together. Gender roles are present, but I think it’s clear on some level that they’re performative, and not essential. Like, many of the female characters are all, OMG RHUAN/BRODHI/::INSERT NAME HERE:: IS ACTING CRAZY ARROGANT/BRAVE/PROTECTIVE BECAUSE HE IS A MALE! but really, a lot of the women emerge as… noble characters in difficult situations, in ways that are often unnoticed by the people around them. That’s powerful stuff, I think, in that the characters themselves are so deep in their gender roles that they don’t even notice they’re high-fiving particular masculine traits done in particular ways, even when the women are capable of, and actually do, more. Considering that Brodhi and Rhuan are both in it for the retention of their man-bits, I think this is a very conscious decision on the part of the author.
Now, you might be going, “Ria! If you’re saying all this, then what the hey was lacking?” To be honest, I’m not sure. I think partly it was the Hecari. They seem to be an amalgamation of the Romans (they decimate in the military sense), the Huns (nomadic military people who demonstrate their conquest of the landscape by building tent cities in the market squares) and Africans (they’re… dark-skinned?). This last is part of what squicked me out. For phenotypic people of color, we have Rhuan and Brodhi, who are 1. mixed and angsty about it (minus 5 — I’d take off more but I’m starting to give up on finding a not-angsty mixed person in fantasy. Tanis Half-Elven killed something deep inside me.), 2. only pretending to be human so even though they’re tan that doesn’t count (minus 10 — I am tired of the brown people not being human! Damn you, Justice League!), and 3. only that color because when they get seriously demonic they’re way more red then brown (minus 5 — I wish I had a color code. Then maybe people would leave me the hell alone on the train.). Then, we have the Hecari. Who are brutal, tribal, and the total baddies of this world. Plus, I think Alisanos is going to end up eating them. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t have brown-skinned people totally kicking the asses of neighboring countries, and whatever. But I am saying that if you’re going to have a world where there’s a total mix of types of white people (the diviner, Ilona, is olive skinned, Audrun is beige, Audrun’s daughter is milky, etc) then it’s odd and a bit disconcerting to see that the majority of distinctly not-white people are the conquering “barbaric” hordes. [sarcasm] They totally oppress their women too, like way more than our folks, even though it’s established in story that Bethid’s only recently been allowed to be a courier, single women are vulnerable to assault, and no one likes or respects the whores. That’s part of how you know they’re barbarians. And, you know, not us. [/sarcasm] Hrrmph. What sucks is that this characterization felt sincere, not in-char to prove a point, like some of the other gender-as-role stuff I mentioned earlier. :-/
*To be fair, some of the Alisanos scenes are still resonating with me. Roberson’s lyrical description of the dangers of the forests, and the ways it can change you, are somehow eerie, sad, and awesome, all at the same time.