Friday, July 27, 2012
I finished The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) almost two months ago and have struggled to write a review. It’s not that the book is bad or that it’s great, mostly it’s due to my own crazy schedule and a feeling that I have nothing more to add to the many other reviews out there. So, this is a bit different than my usual review, more of a reflection, but hopefully it serves an ultimate outcome that is at least similar to that of a review.
The Winds of Khalakovo is a debut novel, the first in a trilogy called The Lays of Anuskaya, and one of the many debuts that Night Shade Books has put in the last few years by relatively unknown authors who are doing something a bit ‘different’. With that said, The Winds of Khalakovo is a pretty standard set-up for an epic fantasy published in the current environment: an interesting world, a sort of elemental-based magic, politics of repressed peoples and aristocracy, and a non-western setting. As I’ve come to expect from debut books, the weaknesses tend to be most glaring in pacing, with the typical trouble of balancing showing and telling, info-dumps, and the set-up for the bigger events to come in future books in the trilogy.
Overall, The Winds of Khalakovo is quite successful – the characters are well-rounded and interesting, the Imperial Russian-inspired culture feels fresh (even though non-western settings has become quite popular in the past year or two), the gypsy-like culture of the indigenous Aramahn is well-done, and the action is as much political as physical.
And it’s the politics that I’ve kept coming back to in my almost 2-months of thinking on this. The politics of The Winds of Khalakovo are widely praised as the biggest strength of this book. However, the reaction that I can’t help but come to is this: if the politics in this book are praised as a complex addition to the fantasy genre, what does it say about the genre as a whole? Or to put it another way, if these are good politics, then fantasy must be full of really badly (or perhaps, simply) presented politics. And in my opinion, that is a very sad fact.
When I use the term politics, I’m not really speaking of the politics we are bombarded with by media in our society today (particularly during an election year here in the US). What I am speaking of are the complex relations of people in power, who want to be in power, who were once in power – from the top of society all the way down to the interactions among the least of a society. The shifting alliances, the lies, the truths, betrayal, idealism, heroism, morality, religion, sex, best intentions, selfishness, and flat-out evil, inhumane actions. It’s the politics of people and their interactions. It’s what drives our world and it’s what all too many fantasy novels completely lack. It’s what turns a good story into a compelling novel.
In my opinion, the politics of The Winds of Khalakovo are not complex or particularly deep – I found them rather linear and predictable. But, they do play a central role in the book, much more so than in many other books which tend to focus much more heavily on individual goals and motivations (there’s plenty of that here as well) rather than the complex interactions of many individuals, government, societies, etc. This has only made me realize more and more why those that are praised at the top of genre belong there – they do the politics well. George RR Martin and K.J.Parker immediately leap to the top in this respect. Other authors I love at least have their moments – David Anthony Durham, S.L. Farrell, and RobertJordan (for all his faults it’s the politics of that series that I enjoy the most).
I have neither the intention nor the inclination of diving into the reflection and going deeper into these politics I’m envisioning and how the fantasy genre most commonly fails to succeed in this area. I’m not sure I’m the person for it. But it is an observation that’s been bugging me for a while now. And hell, it probably mostly comes down to my individual tastes and what really compels me as a reader (incidentally, the other thing that compels me the most is almost the opposite of these politics – the mythic, almost poetic telling of an essentially archetypical story).
OK, back to The Winds of Khalakovo. I’m not really intending to criticize this book on its politics – relative to the rest of the genre it does pretty well in this regard. The book is enjoyable and I look forward to finding the time to read the sequel, which reactions indicate is a great follow-up and a large improvement in Beaulieu’s writing. This is yet another promising debut from Night Shade Books, and the direction that they are taking these days is a truly exciting development in a way that I haven’t seen since the early days of Pyr. Knowing nothing else other than that a book has been published by Night Shade in the past couple of years is enough to make me interested.