I really wanted to like this book, truly. I’ve heard so many good things about it and I really tried, but it took me three goes to get past the first few chapters and that’s always a bad sign. The premise is intriguing: two countries, two religions, two forms of magic, two royal sons fighting a long-lasting war that only one of them can win, both endowed with powers. Interesting ideas about faith. But a book can’t just be about ideas, it has to be a story first, and that’s where this book failed for me.
The setting is evocative of ancient Greece or Rome on the one side, with its pantheon of gods, and on the other is vaguely eastern, with its rajah and mysticism. There’s not a lot of detail beyond the immediate surroundings, not much sense of long history and there’s an element of info-dump sometimes. For instance, we are given a great deal of information about Rezzia’s gods right at the start - what they represent, even what they adherents wear. It’s impossible to take in.
The war itself is quite bizarre. Rezzia and Pawelon are separated by a deep gorge, the main crossing place being protected by a walled citadel on the Pawelon side. The Rezzians march out from their camp into the gorge, across the plain at the bottom and try to climb up to the citadel. Meanwhile the Pawelons simply pop them full of arrows and spears as they climb. Lots of them get killed, they withdraw, they try again. And this has been going on for ten years. Now, I’m not exactly skilled in the art of war, but hasn’t it crossed anybody’s mind that perhaps it’s time for Plan B? Like maybe march down to that nice big lake at the end of the gorge and boat across into Pawelon? Or at least try to find another route across the gorge, which is hundreds of miles long? No?
The characters fall into matched pairs. Caio and Rao, the two princes. Ilario and Aayu, the two friends. Lucia and Narayani, the sister and lover. Vieri and Devak the king and rajah. Strategos Diulio and Indrajit the two war chiefs. All neatly symmetrical. Even the personalities and traits of the two are matched, in many cases. The two princes are both terribly good people, wanting above all to help their people. The two friends are suitably sturdy, loyal stalwarts. The king and rajah are both domineering characters, cruel and intolerant towards their children. And so on. But none of them really captured my attention as real people rather than symbols. Lucia had potential, but as far as I read we never really see her character in full flower, she is no more than victim of the Black God and, through her own goddess, hyped-up warrior.
Apart from the logic flaws of the war, I had two main problems with the book. One is the writing style, which seemed very stilted and somehow clunky. There were phrases that made me laugh out loud - even though I knew what the author meant, it just came out wrong. And there was great deal of describing what characters were feeling, rather than showing it. Now to some extent this is inevitable when what they're feeling is religious fervour and dogmatic belief. It's hard to show such things. But it gave the whole book a slightly distant, artificial feel to it, so that I was never fully drawn into the story.
The other problem I had was the magic. On one side, the characters called on the power of their individual gods to intervene in their affairs, which they often did. They were physically present and even showed themselves, sometimes, or gave specific instructions, or led the characters to do certain things. And they used their powers in battle, although not always with the expected results. The other side had sages who acted as magicians, capable of great feats of magic which they, too, used in battle. The end result is two sides hurling thunderbolts at each other, essentially, and frankly, I just hate that sort of magic. It's really not interesting.
I got about a third of the way through before giving up. This is just not my type of book. It’s not that this is a bad book, in any way. In some sense, it’s a very good book, tackling some interesting concepts in quite an ambitious manner. It may be that the whole book, or perhaps the whole series, would resolve some of the issues I had with it, who knows. I suspect, though, that the author is more interested in the ideas incorporated in the story than the story itself. On the plus side, it's a literate and thoughtful piece of work, and I understand why it appeals to so many people. It's just not for me. One star for a DNF.