REVIEW: From Whence You Came by Laura Anne Gilman

REVIEW SUMMARY: A return to the Lands Vin or an entree to new readers of a secondary fantasy world where magic flows from wine.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Centuries before the events of the Vineart War, a young Vineart steps out of his vineyard to face a threat to trade from Sea Serpents

MY REVIEW:
PROS:A thoughtful examination of the consequences of magic; stands alone and away from its progenitor series well.
CONS: Novella feels a little more like a slightly incomplete novel than a full fledged novella.
BOTTOM LINE: A libation for new and old readers to Gilman’s world of the Lands Vin

In the Vineart War Trilogy (comprised of Flesh and Fire, Weight of Stone, The Shattered Vine) there are numerous references to Bradhai, a legendary Vineart who solved the problem of Sea Serpents centuries before. A figure from history more legend and myth than anyone actually distinct, his legacy still remains intact in the time of the novels.  However, legends are not born, they are made. And they don’t start as legends. They need to earn their status.

From Whence You Came, a novella from Laura Anne Gilman originally funded and created by a successful kickstarter project,  is now available for purchase and tells the tale of Bradhai, a character who is already a Vineart, albeit not that far removed from his status as an apprentice. In point of fact, he is still seeking Master status, but in the meantime is a competent, rather than a superlative Vineart. Bradhai is far from the legend and myth that he is considered to be in the time of the Vineart War trilogy.

The Vineart War follows the story of Jerzy, a slave who rises into the ranks of Vinearts just in time to discover a plot that threatens all Vinearts.  It has rich and deep worldbuilding that allows readers to learn about Vinearts and the making of wine and spellwine from his perspective from the ground up.  From Whence You Came is the story of Bradhai’s rise to legend as he wrestles with the depredations of Sea Serpents, threatening to end sea trade forever.  Thus, the worldbuilding is not as intense or as deep as the Vineart War. Readers who have read those books will have little difficulty, but I think that readers who prefer to be swept along will find the worldbuilding sufficient to work with and follow the story.

The novella works on two levels–giving a view of how Vinearts and the world of the Lands Vin used to work (and there are distinct differences across the centuries) as well as being a lighter footprint of worldbuilding for new readers to the universe. In addition, the consequences of using Vineart Magic and the solutions tried to deal with the Sea Serpent problem has special resonance for readers of the series.

The characterization in the book is the other bright part for me. Getting to see a legendary hero as a real and flawed person is a strong technique, and the author takes full advantage of that. We see him coming into his own as a Vineart, and glimpses of his realization of what he might accomplish, and how that might make his fortune and his name as a Vineart. The other characters are well drawn, especially Deshai Harini, the scholar from the mysterious island of Varsham who turns out to be crucially central to Bradhai’s efforts against the Sea Serpents.

What didn’t work? Well, I felt that this novella was really a novel being straightjacketed into a novella. Again and again, I got the feeling there was more to be said, more between the lines, a couple of subplots not explored, especially in regards to characters other than Bradhai. In reading the notes to a novella by Harry Turtledove long ago, the author admitted that the novella in question ‘wanted to be a novel’, but the author won. In this case, I think Gilman was not completely successful in her similar wrestling with the story.

Overall, it was very welcome for this reader to return to the amazing fantasy world where magic flows from wine. I think the novella works well enough as an entree that if you aren’t inclined to start with the Nebula nominated novel Flesh and Fire, this is a way to try Gilman’s work, and her secondary world work in particular. Prosit!