BRIEF SYNOPSIS: This book of intrigue has everything: a strong female protagonist, a feudal society riven by religious differences, sentient non-humans occupying the holy land and a seemingly weak ruler driven to despair by the death of his eldest son. Complications abound, making this book almost seem more history than fantasy – which is all to the good.
PROS: A solid, compelling, complicated, interesting plot.
CONS: Characters are often types rather than fully formed individuals – perhaps a natural consequence of there being so very many of them.
BOTTOM LINE: Anyone who likes his or her fantasy to be as intellectually complex as it is entertaining would do well to pick up this book.
Sasha is the daughter of King Torvaal Lenayin, one of ten royal siblings; but she is no longer a princess. She gave up her patrimony when she was eight years old to become the uma, or student and acolyte, of Kessligh, a warrior who saved the kingdom of Lenayin through the exceptional use of military strategy before Sasha was born. Sasha lives several days’ ride from the capital of Lenayin, in Baerlyn, where she trains daily with other soldiers, though in a different style; she studies svaalverd, which appears to rely more on leverage, swiftness and grace than on brute force. She wears breeches, not dresses, and her hair is cut short to accommodate her fighting.
Sasha also wears a tri-braid on the side of her head, a mark that she is sympathetic to the pagan Goeren-yai and does not identify as a Verenthane (a religion essentially undefined, but which seems somewhat analogous to Christianity). In fact, Sasha is a Nasi-Keth, a third religion that has some relationship to the serrin, a non-human race that lives on earth – in fact, which populates the holiest land of the Verenthanes – but whose origins are unexplained in this novel. Nasi-Keth is not explained, but may well be a religion without a god, and therefore like Buddhism; but perhaps it is even analogous to secular humanism. None of the religions is explained in any detail.
The action starts when Sasha’s brother, Prince Damon, arrives in Baerlyn with news that Krayliss, the Great Lord of Taneryn (and the only Great Lord who is Goeren-yai, even though the population is more than half of that religious persuasion) has killed Rashyd Telgar, the Verenthane Great Lord of Hadryn. Rashyd’s forces were within the borders of Taneryn at the time, though no one knows why. Damon and the Falcon Guard ride to arrest Krayliss – and to do so before Krayliss can reach Sasha and garner her allegiance to the cause of the Goeryn-yai in a divided land. Everyone is jumpy because of a coming Rathynal – a meeting of all the lords with the king in the capitol of Lenay, accompanied by ritual games of strength and honor. In addition, there’s talk of war by the Verenthanes to reclaim the Bacosh, the Verenthane holy land. Under these circumstances, the possible removal of a Goeren-yai lord – the only Goeren-yai lord – is ripe with danger.
Feeding the talk of war is Koenyg, the heir to the throne, who seems to be engaged in political machinations of all sorts while his father, still grieving the death of his eldest son twelve years ago, retreats ever farther into the arms of the Verenthane church. Koenyg has no problem at all with the idea of a holy war, and has promised that the king will turn his head should one of the provinces descend with force upon the Udalyn Valley to wipe out a small, insular group of Goeren-yai. Two Goeren-yai children catch up with Sasha to plead for their home. When she becomes their champion, the royal family is torn asunder.
This is a complex and absorbing book. The political problems are layered and many, many arising from the fact that Lenayin is made up of nearly independent provinces with feudal lords who want more real power. While George R.R. Martin chose the War of the Roses for his Song of Ice and Fire series, Shepherd seems to have chosen England in the time prior to the Crusades and before the signing of the Magna Carta as a loose model for his series. “Loose” is the operative word here, though, because Shepherd is clearly world-building on a massive scale, not strictly aping history, and his creativity shines through on every page.
Although maps and character lists are often despised as the signs of a limited writerly imagination, in this case the reader will find them extremely helpful. Shepherd describes territory well, but there’s nothing like a map to tell the story of where a valley is in relationship to a capitol. In addition, there are so many characters that it is difficult to remember who is who and belongs to which province. Telling characters apart is made more difficult by the fact that Shepherd sketches a number of individuals with only a few strokes, concentrating his character-building skills on Sasha and the people immediately surrounding her. For instance, Sofy, Sasha’s younger sister, is a girly type who is every inch the princess; Teriyan, the leather worker from Baerlyn who is a warrior in every bone; and Krayliss is a big, blunt, bluff leader of men. Even Koenyg seems like a one-dimensional bully, and one is left wondering what drives him to war. This story is very big, though, and it is just beginning; it seems likely that we will find out more about all of these characters as the series progresses through the coming three volumes.
Sasha is an excellent opening to A Trial of Blood & Steel. The interweaving of war, politics, religion, geography, family and a non-human race are skillfully done. Anyone who likes his or her fantasy to be as intellectually complex as it is entertaining would do well to pick up this book.