Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review: The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu

I can't remember where I first heard about this book, but it quickly got my attention. However, I didn't purchase it at the time and forgot about it. Then, it was on special on Amazon (free!) so I got it and read it over a period of a few weeks, with, alas, some frequent interruptions due to travel.

Overall Impression
This book was better than I expected. I was very hesitant to start it at first given that I had never heard of the author, but it had a cool airship on the cover so I eventually gave it a go (yes, I know not to judge a book by its cover, but let's face it: it happens). The book starts off a bit slow and heavy, particularly given all the new terminology (particularly the Russian-sounding words) and intricate world building, but it picks up the pace eventually and turns into a pretty interesting story.

The book is about the land of Khalakovo, an island duchy. A young lord of Khalakovo is set to marry a daughter of Vostroma and all the duchies gather together. However, rebellious plots are underway to make use of a rift in the fabric of the world and destroy the duchies. The Grand Duke is killed as a consequence and all hell breaks loose. The characters have to smooth tensions or brace for the coming war, while at the same time trying to figure out the mysteries of the rift and of a young boy who is the key to everything.

Like a good epic fantasy, this book takes its time building momentum. You're not quite sure at first what is relevant, but the wedding between Nikandr and Atiana seems to be a key issue. As the story progresses and you learn more about the world, the scope broadens and you realize this is truly an epic story: the fate of the world itself is in the balance. The main problem is the 'rift', some otherworldly phenomenon that is causing all sorts of problems for the characters from dwindling crop-yields to a wasting disease.

The idea, which I summarized in the Overall Impression, is that there is a rebellious faction that seeks to overthrow the duchies. Throughout the story, they summon powerful spirits, hezhan, which are used to attack the other characters. This creates an interesting tension on several levels: there is conflict against the rebels, between the duchies to place the blame, between the characters as they seek to understand the rift and the boy Nasim, and within the characters themselves as they explore their past and their place in life.

The book has three main viewpoint characters: Nikandr, Rehada, and Atiana. The story revolves around all of them and a few significant others, like Ashan and Nasim. The three main characters are interestingly flawed. Nikandr is your typical good 'prince', but he suffers from an illness he's trying to keep secret. Rehada is a prostitute and Nikandr's lover, but carries a deadly secret given her association with the rebellious Maharraht. Atiana is Nikandr's bride and is particularly gifted at taking the dark and traveling the aether, though she is at times very innocent and used by others.

Ashan and Nasim remain mysterious throughout the book. Ashan is a powerful Arahman, able to summon/use the power of several different types of hezhan. Nasim's mystery is the key to the book, so I won't comment on it here. There are a lot of other characters that are introduced throughout the book, but most don't play as key roles as the ones I've mentioned here. It is sometimes difficult to keep everyone straight given the odd names and the occasional use of nicknames.

Setting / World Building
One of the first impressions I got from the book was a similarity with Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher. In both books, people bond spirits with particular elemental properties and can then use them to affect the given element. For example, Rehada can bond with a suurahezhan, a fire spirit, and can then control fire. The exception is that in this book only some people can do this, whereas in Furies of Calderon (practically) everyone can.

In order to bond a spirit, or hezhan, one has to use a particular gem: "jasper for earth, alabaster for air, tourmaline for fire, azurite for water, and opal for the raw stuff of life." I'm actually not too sure what that was meant by with opal, since it summons a lightning hezhan (a dhoshahezhan). The names, as you can tell, are complex: jalahezhan for water spirits, vanahezhan for earth, suurahezhan for fire, and havahezhan for air. It can be very confusing seeing all these names in addition to the Russian terminology thrown all over the place.

In addition to the gems and spirits, there is also something the women of the duchies do: they go down to a cold lake and "take the dark." Doing so they project their spirits, or minds, or something, out into the aether and are able to sense different things, such as the rift, and can possess other creatures, generally birds for communication.

Despite the level of technology (lots of guns and muskets), magic has a strong place in the world. Ships glide through air currents supported by their special design and the guidance of people summoning air spirits. There are some pretty nifty sky-ship battles in the book. While in general, I didn't get a good sense of the setting (cold, snowy mountains is what I pictured nearly the whole book), the world building in terms of magic and its interplay with technology was pretty neat.

Final Thoughts
The book was more enjoyable than I thought. I wasn't expecting much, but the book delivered a good, simple tale with a blend of magic and technology. Though parts felt at time a bit generic, there was plenty of cool things to keep me interested and wanting more. The magic system was intricate and quite  complex. Perhaps too complex: even at the end, I'm not sure I had all the pieces together regarding the magic. The book does feel long enough to end the story in a single volume, but in the end you realize it's part of a series and there is more to come. Many of the plot lines do end, though, so the end is still mostly satisfying. 
Will I continue in this series? Maybe. While I liked the book, at this moment I wouldn't immediately dive into the sequel (The Straits of Galahesh).

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