This was a surprisingly good book. Basically, it’s set in a world where Breath is incredibly powerful. Everyone is born with one Breath — the very wealthy can buy other people’s Breath, and can use that to gain heightened senses, the ability to Awaken objects, and increased health/longevity. Sometimes people die and Return with a single, divine Breath, a Breath that turns them into a god.
The Hallendrens have decided to rock this. Their entire culture is built around the nuances of the arts, nuances that can only be perceived if you’ve got enough Breath. This is in marked contrast to the Idrians, who value the plain and the austere. These two nations also disagree on the handling of some extremely valuable mountain passes, and are VERY uneasy neighbors. That’s why the king of Idris is sending one of his daughters, Vivenna, to marry the God-King Susebron. Her marrying a pagan idol should buy them enough time to fortify their defenses, should Hallendren finally declare war. Vivenna is the eldest; this marriage, her duty to her king, father, and people, has defined her life.
Imagine her shock, then, when her father refuses to send her. Instead, he sends Siri, his flighty, frustrating, irascible youngest.* Siri goes into Hallendren, alone. Vivenna follows her, hoping to rescue her little sister from the degradation of this marriage. They both begin exploring a fascinating, colorful world filled with living gods, magic, and myths brought to life.
Both Siri and Vivenna grow noticeably during the course of this novel. They both find themselves at the center of a political plot for vengeance spanning centuries, and end up having to find allies in unusual places. Siri befriends Lightsong, a god who refuses to believe in his own divinity. His struggle with this — as well as Vivenna’s struggles with faith — are some of the major strengths of this text. Vivenna befriends the mysterious mercenary Denth, who promises to help her prepare the Idrians of the city for the war. Denth’s secrets include his relationship to Vasher, his familiarity with the local crime lords, and his eagerness to fan the flames of war.
I greatly enjoyed this novel. Some characters, like Vasher, grew on me during the course of the narrative. While I normally find characters who are grumpy curmudgeons incredibly annoying, his earnest commitment to peace really won me over. Plus, his talking sword Nightblood is hilarious — like, Terry Pratchett’s DEATH hilarious.I really had only two hesitations about the narrative as a whole.
1. Why didn’t Siri ever write a letter home? Or get one?
I know that one of the big deals in the plot is that both sisters are hearing about each other’s adventures, but don’t actually know what’s going on, since they’re in such different worlds. However, one would assume that Siri, who’s crazy home-sick, would at least broach the subject to one of her attendants, especially once she started hearing rumors about Vivenna being in the city. That actually bugged me a lot, since the king of Idris had at least one spy in the city. You’d think that if he was worried about either Siri or Vivenna, he’d not only contact his spy (who is compromised, I know) but would also go the diplomatic route and talk to his Divine Consort of a youngest daughter.
2. Why is Vivenna chracterized as being such a jerk at the beginning of the novel?
Both girls grow into women while in Hallendren. Hip hip. However, what really bugged me was that Siri is presented as being a fey, slightly spoiled, vivacious wild-child. She gives the villagers of her homeland flowers, she is good friends with the cook of her castle, and basically wins over the God-King with her charming impetuousness. Her growing up is more about her learning self-control and learning to embrace her own authority. It’s a refinement, not a drastic character change. Vivenna, on the other hand, is presented as being thoughtlessly cruel, arrogantly pious, entitled, and profoundly naive. She’s humbled, quite vividly, and while she emerges as a stronger, more interesting character, I was a bit uncomfortable at the narrative shaming associated with her earlier self. It was kind of like Siri started out “good,” and became “awesome,” and Vivenna started out with a stick in her butt and eventually grew that into a tree of fantastic-ness. It made me think about the ways stories like this sometimes police gender roles; Siri, while being silly and untrained in the ways of the court, is still girly and innocent in a way Vivenna rejects. I think you’re supposed to like Siri for this girlish innocence, and dislike Vivenna for not being more fun, for being responsible, and for wanting to be useful to her country in a particular way. This was difficult for me, since I found Siri annoyingly like a reformed Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and thought Vivenna was a more realistic character. I’m hoping that part of that characterization issue is because Vivenna is often describing Siri, the annoying younger sister she wants to protect, and Siri is often describing Vivenna, the prim older sister she somewhat resents.
I’ll definitely check out the sequel — the world-building’s tight, the discussions of faith are pretty interesting, and Vivenna rocks. Sanderon’s other works (like the Mistborn trilogy) look fab as well. Maybe Siri will grow on me.
*Note to parents: this is a REALLY poor way to resolve favoritism. Repeat after me: YOU MAY NOT SEND YOUR ANNOYING YOUNGEST CHILD TO BE SACRIFICED TO A PAGAN IDOL.