Limyaael

[info]limyaael @ 03:07 pm: Review of Carol Berg, Transformation/Revelation/Restoration.
I've never done a proper review of these, more like a few 'OMG!squee' posts. So it's time. Unfortunately, I can't quote from these books to show you how wonderful they are, because I don't have them with me at the moment. But I can do a detailed review, thanks to my overly crowded with useless details of books I read years ago memory.



Brief Summary: Transformation, Revelation, and Restoration are the three books of the Rai-kirah saga, by Carol Berg, a relatively new author. She has two other books out since the trilogy, but Transformation was her first published. They concern the Ezzarians, a group of people who spend their lives in a secret demon war, either actually fighting it or supporting those who do. The fighters work in man-woman pairs, the woman (the Aife) opening a portal into a possessed person's soul and the male Warden going through and forcing the demon out or killing it. However, the Ezzarians haven't fought for sixteen years at the time this story begins, since their country was conquered by the Derzhi Empire and most of the Ezzarians were killed or sold off as slaves. Even the ones left as slaves have been stripped of their sorcery, leaving no way to continue the demon war. The narrator of all three books is Seyonne, who has been a slave since the first days of conquest and learned to forget his past as a Warden- until he sees a spirit in his new master, Prince Aleksander, that the demons are trying to take possession of. So he has to save Aleksander and most everyone else from a threat that no one else has the ability to fight, without even his magic to aid him.

Setting: It might sound cliched, but the setting is anything but. There's no trace of the normal temperate, castle-dotted, pseudo-English countryside of most fantasy novels. The Derzhi Empire mostly spans a desert and the countries around it, with outposts in mountains and grasslands and jungles. Ezzaria is the kind of gentle forested nation that a lot of fantasy elves live in, but the books don't spend a lot of time there, and its people are not elves. They're specifically described as bronze-skinned and dark-haired (meaning that most of the cover pictures are inaccurate, unfortunately). Berg's setting is one of the few devoid of typical fantasy races, unless you count the demons, and it's also one of the few worlds where I don't miss them.

This gives Berg a lot of room for innovation. There are very few scenes of the travelers merrily camping in convenient clearings and shooting whatever happens along in a few minutes. There are scenes of them struggling to get through fetid cities, or serving as slaves in royal palaces, or having to conserve water like mad to get across the desert. When they travel, they take a reasonable amount of time, as well; Berg's one of the best authors I've ever seen at condensing journeys where nothing all that important happens. She doesn't think we need to know every conversation that Seyonne and his minder, Fiona, have in the second book, and she's right. The action keeps moving.

The different kinds of societies are also fascinating. The royal politics in the Empire are literally cutthroat, and the villains don't make convenient stupid mistakes so that the heroes can win. (This trilogy is yet another series not to read if you get depressed too easily from your reading material, because Bad Things Happen to Good People. Constantly, and suddenly, and with great violence). The Ezzarian society is matriarchal, because of an old myth that the mortal mother of a god's son fought back her husband for years while her son grew to manhood, and therefore proved herself worthy of wise leadership. But the women are not perfect, as they're too often portrayed in other fantasy books. There is no Mother Goddess worship. The very strict Ezzarian religious rituals are questioned, held up to the light, and broken in pieces. I rather like this.

And when it's revealed just what kind of complex and artistic society is in place among the demons, and the reason why they seek out and possess humans, the chances of having a less than complex view are forever destroyed. I know a few people who got disgruntled because demons seem like the bad guys in the first book. Keep reading. The Ezzarians are much less than saints.

Characters: Seyonne is one of the most remarkable fantasy heroes whose minds I've ever been privileged to share. He's yet another example of how some traits that make horrible, flat stereotypes in the hands of bad authors can produce a masterpiece when a master uses them.

He's got a tortured background, yes- sixteen years a slave, stripped of his power, and forced to work for the Derzhi who beat and despise him, then confront a demon somehow, without aid. But he doesn't have the typical and overblown fantasy abuse victim reaction to this. He doesn't fling himself on the floor and cry at night, nor dream of destroying everyone around him when his "real" parents or magical powers find him. (For one thing, he's in his thirties, and his parents were loving, not abusive. For another, he's had magic, and had it stolen away from him. That's the whole problem). Seyonne endures. He envisions what he will look like when old, and until he actually looks like that, he doesn't think he has the right to look back on the past or even complain. He might seem passive for the first part of the book, but only until he sees the first demon. Then he springs into action, however unwillingly.

He's also, even though a first-person narrator, able to move the focus of the story to other characters. This is something that doesn't happen most of the time with one narrator, third-person or first; the author might create a remarkable protagonist but make her completely self-involved, or just unable to see such light in other characters as she discovers in herself. What I said about the difficulty of instilling perceptiveness in a fantasy character is true. A step to right or left, and it leads back to the protagonist or seems resoundingly alien.

But Seyonne is able to see when Aleksander starts having problems sleeping because of the demon, able to accept that, yes, Aleksander does have something in his soul that demons want despite being arrogant and cruel and a slave-owner, able to decide that he's going to help despite only his own sense of duty compelling him. And by believing that and trying to save Aleksander, Seyonne succeeds in moving Aleksander beyond the stereotype he seems to be at first. That first book is well-named. It's all about transformations in the characters, in the soul more than the physical.

Seyonne possesses one more trait that makes me like him an awful lot: he suffers, but he doesn't angst about it. The moment he tries, one of the other characters is there to smack him upside the head. There is no glorification of whining as there is in a lot of series with a teenage protagonist. The other characters tell Seyonne that's he wrong, show him how to move past it, and give him other things to concentrate on. Or, on occasion, they do things to piss Seyonne off. Seyonne is very fun when he's pissed off.

There's a lot I can't say about the villains of the story without giving the plot away, but I will say that Berg keeps pulling back the masks and revealing the human underneath. From the demons to the obligatory evil god to the man who developed the rites that strip captive Ezzarians of their sorcery, everyone isn't what you think him or her to be at first. And that applies to the "good" people, too. One reason that Seyonne gets so pissed off is because of what he discovers about the true origins of the demon war in the second book. And even though he knows what it means to keep on pushing for the truth, he does it.

Plot: Avoiding major spoilers means that I have to talk more about structure instead, since you definitely can't go fifty pages without something major happening. The trilogy has a pattern that sustains itself in a manner quite unlike the typical fantasy trilogy. Each book is part of the same continuing story, but each has a different focus- meaning that although you have to read them in order, the whole thing isn't just a march towards the coronation or wedding at the end of the third book. I thought I knew from the beginning of the first book what the ending of the third one would be. I was wrong. It had nothing to do with it. Aleksander is part of the story, as the Prince of the most powerful nation in the book's world should be, but it isn't really his story. It's Seyonne's, and he changes the world in many ways, horrible and graceful, while not wanting to. I've rarely seen the story of the reluctant hero done so well.

Final Analysis: Worth reading- if you can stand the brutality, the lack of angst, the twists, the glorious characters, and the first-person narrator. I think more people can than have read it so far.



Berg is one of my five favorite fantasy authors now- the only one that I ever started liking that fast.

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