As mostly a reader of YA fantasy, I don’t follow a lot of news about adult fantasy releases but I kept seeing this book everywhere, and ended up requesting the ARC because I found it to be an interesting premise. And after having finished it, I’m still not sure how I feel about it, so I’ll probably be processing my feelings through this review. Be prepared for an incoherent mess below.
And this is where I don’t know what to say. As it’s a debut, I’m usually very generous and the writing style is not something that is very high up on my scale while rating a book for it’s enjoyment. But right from the beginning, the writing in this book kept me hooked enough that I wanted to know what was going to happen next; but, I also never felt emotionally invested in it. The plot just meanders from one point to another and I frankly wasn’t sure what the ultimate goal was. There are also many time jumps which I felt prevented me from getting to know the characters better, particularly because I thought the character growth happened during the time jumps which we never got to see. The pacing is also pretty slow throughout with only a couple of intense scenes in between, but I really loved the way it became action packed towards the end. The last few chapters really were what redeemed the book for me.
This book is essentially a portal fantasy where the characters can travel from one world to another using the Maze and mailships and I thought that was a cool idea. There are also multiple kingdoms with their own gods, cultures and beliefs and I think the author did a good job differentiating between them all. Even the landscape and climate of the different places visited are described very well so we are able to keep track of them. I won’t say I completely understood the method used by the mages to channel the power of the gods, but there was enough information to follow the story and not feel confused. And the best part was that characters here used no labels and it was a very queernormative world.
Csorwe is a very sympathetic character in the beginning when we realize what her destiny is, but all that quickly changes when time passes by. We never get to see her train and become the fearsome right hand of a powerful mage she is supposed to be and that was disappointing. There was this sense that she wanted more from her life but she was too passive to ask for it. She was also mostly impulsive in her actions, just making in the moment decisions and not thinking through long term consequences. I wanted her to feel better and be more confident about her desires, but I truly wasn’t so emotionally attached to her that it would have upset me if she didn’t get a good ending.
Sethennai is the very powerful mage/wizard who has an air of mystery about him and he seems very detached, so that’s exactly how we feel about him too. We never get to know him or feel connected to him, but I also couldn’t see why Csorwe and the others were just so drawn to him and wanted to please him all the time. Tal is the youngest son of a prominent family who hasn’t done much with his life and just wants to feel loved and does all kinds of impulsive for the attention. But he was definitely one character who brought some laughs to the proceedings with his caustic dialogue and rivalry with Csorwe.
Shuthmili is a young powerful mage who has been brought up in almost a cult like environment and her realizing that there’s a whole other world outside, that she can make her own choices and her budding relationship with Csorwe are some of the best parts of the book. Oranna and Zhiyouri are quite compelling in parts but I wasn’t always sure what they wanted.
To conclude, I think this debut has a lot of potential and I did go in with some expectations, so I was a bit disappointed because I couldn’t connect to it. There’s a very detached feeling to the whole story and characterization, so even when something bad happened, I didn’t feel much. I’m a bit unsure whom I would recommend this to but if you enjoy portal fantasies, maybe you can give it a try. If you enjoy very character focused stories, then this might not be the right choice. I also think the author did a good job tying up a lot of threads towards the end, so I am feeling pretty satisfied, and not very compelled about picking up the sequel but we shall see.
PS: Thank you to Netgalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.