I have been aware of these books for quite some time now, mostly because they were supposedly so filled with slashy subtext that they had certain varieties of fangirls salivating madly over them. Now that I’ve read them, I see where the reputation comes from.
To start with… the relationship between the two male leads, Seyonne and Alecksander, is the strongest, most interesting one in the book, and their friendship is all tinged with Destiny and so forth. When the book starts, Seyonne is a slave, a member of a conquered race who used to have magical abilities that were forcibly removed from him by his captors. Alecksander is the heir to the empire that conquered Seyonne’s people, an unapologetically arrogant ass, and Seyonne’s owner. Things get complicated when Seyonne helps Alecksander break a demon curse (he can still sense magic… just not use it…) and by doing so recognizes that Alecksander has a special, sparkly soul underneath all of that arrogance and cruel social conditioning, and Seyonne considers it his sacred duty to protect him so that he can fulfill his potential.
About halfway through it, I started thinking to myself that the BBC’s Merlin and Seyonne really ought to have a talk. Both of them find themselves in the unenviable positions of protecting (from a position of servitude and in a climate that is incredibly hostile to magic, of course) complete jackasses who are someday supposed to blossom into compassionate, wise human beings. The only difference is… Arthur’s thoughtlessness has nothing on Alecksander. In fact… he kind of makes Arthur look like a saint by comparison.
Things get really interesting when the demons who would really like to take over his body enchant Alecksander in such a way that it disrupts his coming of age ceremony, and the prince suddenly finds himself on the run with his slave (who he has begun to trust by this point) on the slim hope that they can find some of Seyonne’s people free and still in possession of their powers so that they can lift the enchantment. I might mention here that the enchantment basically causes Alecksander to be a sporadically-shapeshifting were-lion with no control and no idea when he’s going to turn next. And Seyonne’s the only one who can keep him calm and call him back to himself.
As the book progresses, we get to find out a lot about Seyonne’s past, and he’s reunited with some of the people who were important to him before he was enslaved, and it all fits together very nicely… but even when we get to meet the woman who had been his wife, and we find out that they shared a bond because of their magical experience that is extraordinarily profound… the way the story is written, it has nothing on Seyonne’s relationship with Alecksander. And this isn’t me hating female characters here… Lydia, Alecksander’s arranged bride-to-be, is a really cool lady who helps Seyonne out a lot and manages to have personality and grace in a culture filled with a lot of macho posturing… but it’s not her confidence and trust and affection that saves Alecksander’s soul or keeps Seyonne fighting the demon at the end long past when he should have been spent.
I read it in three days, which means that it’s gripping enough to keep my attention for long stretches of time. It really is interesting to see Alecksander undergo his transformation from spoiled prince to compassionate leader, just as it was to see Seyonne regain his confidence in his abilities. Oh… and did I mention that in the magical plane where Seyonne goes to fight demons, he has wings? Yeah. Score another for the fangirls. We love us some good lookin’ angsty men with wings.
This is the second book in the trilogy that began with Transformation, and though it suffers somewhat from "middle book" syndrome, it is still interesting enough. It's the book where everything that Seyonne thought he knew about the rai-kirah (the demons) and his people's purpose turns out to be… not false, exactly, but much more complicated than he ever thought it could be.
There is a lot that happens in this book. And while I know that's par for the course in high fantasy novels like this one, I had a hard time seeing how some of the parts were supposed to fit together. There's Seyonne's search for his son who was born "tainted" and information about what it means that some Ezzarians are born like that, there's his time with Blaise, who can do things no Ezzarian could, there's the search for Balthar and what he knows about the whole puzzle, and there's all of the time Seyonne spends in the demon realm. As a reader, I see how each of them leads to the next, but I felt like sometimes I wasn't sure which storyline or purpose I was supposed to care about most. And the time he spends on the other side of the portal goes on forever, and I don't feel like we get enough payoff. Yes, Seyonne finds out some key things while he's there, but the balance of confusion and illumination seems off to me.
There is good stuff here… don't get me wrong. The idea that the rai-kirah were once part of the Ezzarians, the part that let them shapeshift that the Ezzarians tried to banish in order to prevent a terrible future that one of the seers saw… that's… extreme, but epic. There are all kinds of interesting possibilities that open up, and the idea that the rai-kirah remember what it's like to be corporeal, but only vaguely, and so the replicas of "real" things they make with their magic are always a little off. Then, there's the explanation for why they've been possessing humans for all of these years… emotions make them feel, make them remember, and negative emotions are often the strongest. And some of them grew to like feeding off of fear and anger. And of course, there's the fact that Seyonne ends up merging with a rai-kirah named Denas… the very thing he's been fighting to keep from happening to people his whole life. Again, pretty compelling stuff. I just wish we hadn't found out about all of it in the middle of long stretches of Not Much Happening.
Then there's the end… it seemed… rushed. All of the various plot threads kind of run into each other because… they need to. Seyonne gets condemned by his people again, his wife who he loves so much decides to follow the Ezzarian law and execute him (personally…) and it's only Alecksander and the two other people in the world who think he's not evil who manage to save him. The book ends with… a temporary fix. The rai-kirah are back in the world that they were thrown out of, Vyx has sacrificed himself to seal up the hole in the tower where the evil lurks (biggest disappointment of the book that we didn't get to see more of him or that scene in any more than fleeting impressions), and Seyonne is an outcast to his own all over again and afraid that there's more to come from the evil thing in the tower. That, I suppose, will be the subject of the third book.
The subtext may have lain low in this book, but it was there. The most striking example of it is when Seyonne is in the demon realm, has lost almost all of his memories, and one of the only things he can remember is Alecksander's red warrior's braid. And, when Seyonne's own wife who apparently would have been willing to give up her station and her life to go with him when he got banished won't give him the time of day or listen to him because she thinks he's possessed, it's Alecksander who listens. And he has actually been possessed for a while by the nastiest demon there was. Yeah. He listens where even the loyal wife won't. It is an incredibly romantic relationship, for all that there's nothing canonically sexual about it. I just hope we see more of the two of them together in the next book.
Well, I said I wanted to see more of Aleksander and Seyonne together, and I got it. This installment finds things getting shaken up at the Imperial court by the murder of Aleksander's father, which he gets framed for. Alecksander has to seek allies where he can in his exile, and ends up finding them in the very rebels who used to be his enemies and the remnants of the royal houses of the kingdoms the Derzhi have conquered over the centuries.
As for Seyonne, after traveling around with Aleksander and keeping him out of trouble for the first part of the book, he ends up going into Kir'Navarin, merging with the half of himself that is "demon," losing all possibility of regaining Denas' memories, and playing a very dangerous game with the Nameless God in the tower.
There is a long, sad story here about the Madonai, the faery-like beings that lived in Kir'Navarin, and how they had half-human children who needed to live in both worlds, but the mixing of the races started killing off the Madonai, so they closed the portal, even if it meant dooming their mixed-race children to death or madness… All of this sounds pretty nifty, right? And… it is. But the way that it's presented was… lacking. At each new significant revelation, I found myself thinking, "Finally… took them long enough to give us that piece…" The relevant information was doled out too sparingly, and what was going on in between was… significant, but repetitive. Seyonne thinks about power and how he's going to outwit the nameless god. Aleksander and his crew goes on a raid and Seyonne helps them out but scares them at the same time… we get it.
The climax of events… made sense, but I felt like the second half of this book suffered from a case of "not showing the reader the most important stuff." We get to see day to day happenings in the tower, but the events that actually bring the war to a conclusion and pretty much reshape the world (something that Seyonne always knew Aleksander was going to help do) happen "off stage," by which I mean that the reader doesn't get to be there for them. Seyonne is out of commission by that point, and we get to hear a brief wrap-up that I found immensely unsatisfying. I suppose this is one of the limitations of having a first person narrator, but I don't see why she didn't let him be in the middle of Aleksander's victory. That would have brought both stories to a close more thoroughly.
The epic bromance between the two of them continues… they trust each other a super-human amount. Case in point: Seyonne is ready to let Aleksander kill him at one point because Seyonne worries that he's going to cause the destruction of the world if he gets too powerful. And Aleksander is ready to do it. But at the end, both of them are happy with their lives and their wives who are barely featured, though we are do get to see that both women are capable, intelligent women whose abilities include not taking crap from anyone. It's like… a shout out to female power in the midst of a narrative that is overwhelmingly focused on camaraderie between two men that it's not even funny. I'm not saying that as a criticism or that the author intentionally wrote flatter female characters… there were even female characters other than the wives that had important parts to play, but the imbalance there and it was hard for me to overlook.
I think that a lot of my problems with this series stem from the fact that I would have liked focus in very different places than where we got it. Finding out that Denas was Valdis was a big shock… I wanted to know more about him and Vallyne. I wanted Seyonne to let his demon half keep its memories. I wanted to see Aleksander gaining the trust of the people his had conquered more slowly than he does. I wanted more interaction between Seyonne and Verdonne when he actually finds her. I wanted the parts to feel more… connected than they did.
It had its faults, but I'm not sorry I read the series. It was an interesting take on a lot of fantasy tropes, like the godlike power vs. human emotion tug-of-war Seyonne goes through, the "dark forgotten evil trapped, then rediscovered" plot, and the "people from completely different cultures who should hate each other end up being best friends forever" plot… let's not forget that one. Seriously. I think it's an important lesson that fantasy novels have been quietly sharing with the world ever since Legolas and Gimli stopped arguing and agreed that caves/trees might not be all that bad.