This is a re-read (which reminds me, I re-read The Fellowship of the Ring a while back and should probably talk about that some) and one I never really enjoyed the first time around. Which is weird. When I was about thirteen or fourteen (and, if I’m honest, right up until I was about eighteen) I /adored/ Chris Wooding’s children’s books. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray was, for a long time, my absolute favouritest book ever in the world. And with good reason. I still think I would describe it as the best children’s book I’ve ever read (sorry, Harry Potter fans, but it really, really is). I haven’t, I will say, read it again since I was in my teens, so it may have only appealed to teenage me but I maintain that it was pretty excellent nonetheless. Poison also was particularly dear to me, and has one of the better female protagonists I’ve seen in kids’ literature. So when I found out that there was an adult book by the same author, I was very pleased and promptly bought the omnibus edition of the whole Braided Path series: The Weavers of Saramyr, The Skein of Lament, The Ascendency Veil. I think I must have been… I don’t know, sixteen or seventeen when I got them. And I just didn’t like them, put the book on my shelf and left it there to gather dust, disappointed. Then a couple of days ago, I spy the book after a tidy up in my room, remember my confused disappointment and think of having another go. The outcome is as yet uncertain.
Currently, I have finished the first book, The Weavers of Saramyr. On their own, the three books in the trilogy are a fairly sensible size, but the combined omnibus is a bit hefty, so I’ve only been reading it when I have the time to sit somewhere comfy and just read (and then reading The Golden Bough on my Kindle in the meantime), which may have affected my view a little, but I think my points still stand.
First off, my opinion /has/ improved. I’m not as sad and disappointed as younger me was. But I still have reservations. The book is more traditional, epic, high-style fantasy than I tend to choose for myself. It’s all grand political machinations and broad view and fate-of-the-world style of thing, and everyone takes himself too seriously. Armies massing outside the walled city, intrigue in the Imperial court… you know what I mean. And this stuff… well, it drags a bit. It’s not a particularly stellar example of what it is, so the court politics really do get a bit dull. Especially as some of it is just so predictable. The tone is thus kind of patchy. The bits with the major protagonist can be really fun, but the bits focussing on Mishani or Anais get on my nerves. This, I think, may feel worse because I’ve been reading slowly, in fits and bursts, but I noticed it even when I sat, like today, and just read for a few solid hours.
However, to some extent, this can be excused a little by two things: 1) the setting and 2) the sheer quantity of characters.
The setting is, in a lot of ways, just some typical high fantasy. There are maps in the front of the book. Plural. They don’t look much like Tolkien maps*, really. Ish. And there is the whole gods and spirits being real and there are demons and blah blah blah. But. /But/. Important here. He does it well. The setting is sort of generic pseudo-Eastern, with a quite vaguely Chinese culture but sort of pseudo-Japano-Chinese-something-else names, and he goes into it in lovely detail. At the outset, this feels a bit like too much information to handle – you get all the names muddled up for one – but after a while, it sort of clears up and you get really grateful for all that detail because it makes everything so clear and brilliant to the imagination. Yes, there are wizards and machinations and mutants-what-can-do-magic and the earth is sickening now and it’s all very cliché in a lot of ways, I won’t deny… but he does it well. He has a gift for believable naming, and a talent for world-building, and this does go a little way to negating the irritation you feel in the slow bits, plot-wise.
2) kind of leads on from this. And it doesn’t really sound like a plus, to have an absolute tonne of characters about the place, but bear with me on this. The feel he seems to be going for in the book is a sort of huge, epic-scale, richly woven tapestry of court life and rebellion and plotting factions. If he’d limited his point of view characters more, and made a smaller cast of explored characters, I don’t think that effect would come across nearly so well. Obviously you need Kaiku, Lucia, Mishani and Vyrrch as P. O. V. characters for the plot to work at all, fine. But without Asara, and Tane, and a bit of Barak Koli and Anais and everyone, you would lose the effect of the vast, complex world. And that really does work. If you’re going to write broad, epic fantasy, you should do it wholeheartedly, and he really has. Plus, even the minor characters get enough page-time to worm their way into your affections. Barak Ikati I am slightly looking at you here.
However (again) the characters are not always entirely successful. Wooding tends to be good at strong, believable female leads, and he manages that again here. Both Kaiku and Mishani work really well. It’s the supporting cast that let him down a bit. Bit of background needed, I think (no spoilers, really). Anais is the Empress, Lucia her daughter. You find out pretty early on that, for a reason I won’t go into, some people want to kill Lucia. Anais thus gets a lot of page-time as mother-wanting-her-daughter-not-to-be-killed. All reasonable. But she’s not written particularly well in that role. She struggles between Strong Empress Character and Protective Mother Character and the two never really seem to reconcile very well. She also occasionally does things that seem dense, but is described by /an enemy/ as being a pretty good empress. It just doesn’t sit quite right. Lucia, also not hugely well written, at least can get out of the blame because, well, if you’re a 30 year old man, I’m sure 8 year old girls are really hard to write.
Asara too has problems as a character. To go into hers in depth would involve some massive spoilers, so I’ll leave it just as saying she’s too shallow and callous, too up herself, to realistically do some of what she does. She is an irritatingly contradicting character, and one that cannot be explained away by the hand-waving attempts at self-analysis she gets occasionally. She just… doesn’t fit. He obviously had a lot of ideas about what she needed to be for the plot, but never really succeeded in slotting them all together as a realistic character.
Plot-wise, this is nothing special. It’s not a bad example of what it is, but the pace and tone aren’t great and the plot manages only to come up to “pretty alright” with these issues considered. As I said, the world and characters go some way to apologising for the flaws of the plot and pace, but not far enough.
I’m not as disappointed as I was at 16, and I will definitely read the other two books. I was interested enough to want to keep reading, most of the time, but not completely enthralled. It’s a shame, because Wooding is a pretty excellent children’s author, but this doesn’t work for me. And I don’t think it’s a matter of taste. There are some genuine issues in places, and to be honest, I don’t think this ever could have been a brilliant book, for almost anyone. The idea is ok, but unoriginal, the writing is acceptable, but not great, the worldbuilding is good, but the whole book can’t rest on just that. It’s not Science Fiction.
I might recommend it to a friend, if they were a particular fan of broad-scope, epic fantasy, but always with a pinch of salt about the flaws. I’d never enthuse about it. But hey, maybe the sequels are better. There’s a definite sense of building towards the end of the book, suggesting a quickening of pace at the start of The Skein of Lament, so maybe the best is yet to come. I could come back in a few days, having read the rest, and tell everyone to read it. But I doubt it. As I said, disappointed still, but not quite so much as I was.
*If you’ve never noticed, there is a tendency for maps in fantasy books, especially bad ones, to bear a striking resemblance to Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth in the front of his books. Check if you don’t believe me. An obvious example is Eragon, but that has other reasons… Anyways, find one and have a look. The naffer the fantasy, the more likely the resemblance.