WINTERBIRTHA novel by Brian Ruckley
(2008, Orbit Books)
The Godless World, book 1
The Black Road, banished a hundred years ago, returns to exact vengeance on the northern Thanes, with a surprising ally that could spell disaster for the world.
-- First reading (ebook)
I'm not sure why I had so much trouble reading this
book. It was set in a world that was fully-developed, with a rich
history. The quick battles were interesting, the characters
introspective, and the other species different enough to give thought to
how they regard humans in general. Part of it, I think, was that the
characters' names were so close in style, indicating affiliation, that
it was hard to tell them apart until their setting or actions dictated
it. There were also very many characters in a lot of unrelated settings
that felt confusing, because they were so similar to other settings. And
in the end, while the story is far from over, it didn't have the hold on
me that made me want to immediately pick up the sequel to see what happens next.
I think the most exciting and interesting part of the book occurs almost right at the beginning, before we get to know the characters well, at the Winterbirth ceremony. As the chief of Kolglas (I don't know what title to give him, actually) laments the loss of his wife and oldest son from years ago, and his youngest son Orisian arrives back from the birth of the Thane's first grandson, they celebrate the ceremony of Winterbirth, the start of winter. It's hard to know if this is an annual ceremony, or if it's something that happens on a longer timescale than ours (such as in Game of Thrones). Regardless, the castle is celebrating, everybody is happy, and they have hired traveling performers to perform. Only these performers are not who they seem. It becomes suspicious when they ask everyone to come out into the courtyard, after which the Inkallim reveal themselves, and kill everyone in the castle.
Orisian manage to escape due to the support of the halfbreed Inurian. His sister Anyara is taken captive.
There is a lot of history in this book, almost more than I can swallow in a single read. That, even more than the mass of characters, makes the book difficult to read. Long ago in the world, the gods got fed up with the fighting between the five races of the world, and left. But the Black Road believe that the last god to leave left a book of fate, which describes when every person will die, and they want to convert the rest of the world to their religion.
Meanwhile, the Kyrinin are a secretive and spiritual race that live off the land. The Fox is the more peaceful group of these strange-looking people, while the White Owl seem to live only to make war on the Fox. One of the five races has been eradicated, for being overly violent, and the others are unheard of in the land, except maybe one that might watch over the Kyrinin burial grounds.
The humans are divided into several groups. There are those devoted to the Haig Thane of Thanes, who rules this part of the world, and their names reflect that. The story mostly focuses on Orisian Lannis-Haig and his sister, but there are peeks into the Haig castle, the Kilkry-Haigs, and others whose name must end with -Haig to show their loyalty. Taim Lannis-Haig has brought his forces south to support the high Thane in defeating a rebel Thane. But the High Thane has dual plans, in that he wants to weaken the Lannis-Haig and Kilkry-Haig as well.
Enter the Black Road, who are loyal to the Gyre Thane. They've teamed up with the ruthless Inkallim and the White-Owl Kyrinin to overwhelm the Lannis-Haigs. They kill the Lannis Thane, and Kanin Horin-Gyre takes possession of Anduran and the Lannis lands. By the end of the book, he's taken control of them all; there are few survivors, for they kill everyone. It seems difficult to convert the population if they're all dead, but there may be another purpose underlying all this.
The story follows a lot of people, but most of these are ancillary to the story. Taim, for example, spends the book trying to get back to his homeland to defend the already-destroyed Lannis lands. The High Thane and his ministers plot the defeat of the Lannis Thane and then the Black Road. The Kilkry Thane sends his son to help the Lannis', but ends up defeated, his son killed. Even the story following Anyara didn't have much to do, as she's taken by Horin-Gyre and imprisoned, then escapes and ends up meeting with her brother.
Orisian and his protector Rothe barely get away from the sack of Kolglas, and end up on Fox territory, where Orisian is healed by the Kyrinin Ess'yr. Because of Orisian's friendship with the Na'kyrim Inurian, a halfbreed human/kyrinin, they are allowed to stay in the Fox lands for a time. When they are finally escorted out, they meet up with the fleeing Anyara and Inurian.
The key to the series, I think will be Aeglyss, the na'kyrim who instigated the invasion of Anduran. He has unbounded ambition, and probably unbounded power, but no idea how to use it. He kills Inurian in a fit of rage when Inurian won't teach him how to use the Shared to his full potential. His allies among the Horin-Gyre dismiss him as irrelevant, and the White Owl sentence him to die. But at the end of the book, he's tied to a rock, and transforms himself. The history of the world tells of the na'kyrim wars, where the halfbreeds used their power of the Shared to take control of the world. After the war that destroyed them, the power of the na'kyrim is almost nothing. At least until now. I think it was inevitable that it would return at some point. I expect a lot more death once he is able to focus his power.
The rest of the book is given to two points of view. Kanin Horin-Gyre is impotent, but still an interesting character, as he fumes at the escape first of Orisian, then Anyara. He wanted to give this gift of the last of the Lannis' to his dying father, who dies before this can happen. Kanin leaves the rest of the fight to his sister Wain and the Inkalllim Shraeve, and we don't hear any more about them, except that they manage to take control of the last Lannis stronghold.
Orisian, in the meantime, travels across the northern country, crossing the mountains with his escorts, and moving towards the port city of Koldihrve. In this time, he sees the love that Ess'yr had for Inurian, as she puts it to rest, and he starts to fall in love with her as the journey progresses. I think his acceptance and curiosity toward the kyrinin culture and beliefs makes him an interesting character, in that he seems to be the only one who doesn't think of them as beasts. If he can ever end up bringing peace back to the lands, it might be one of acceptance. But that seems like a high wall to breach. I think by the end of the book, Ess'yr begins to love Osirian, too, but it's hard to tell. Her brother Varryn supports her decision to continue, even though his spite toward humans is as bad as the humans' distain for the kyrinin.
I was expecting a large battle as Kanin reached Koldihrve only a day after Osirian, but was pleasantly surprised at the result. Orisian meets up with an old na'kyrim who helps them get to a ship in port, while Ess'yr and Varryn meet with the Fox who live there also, one of the few places where humans and kyrinin live in peace. Kanin discovers them all as the ship is preparing to leave, and they almost don't make it. Kanin's people are disorganized enough that they meet Osirian's almost one-on-one, and all of Orisian's people end up surviving, though Rothe might lose the use of one arm. Varryn even goes back to save Rothe at one point, though he's under no obligation to do so. I think their time together, as always, fosters understanding and respect, where before Rothe and Varryn only had stereotypes and legends to guide their beliefs.
Kanin is left on the dock screaming in rage as the ship departs. Orisian is transported to the Kilkry-Haig castle, where they meet up with Taim and the remains of the Lannis army. The story will continue...
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