I find my reading material in odd places. Two books I picked up because the authors were having a miserable time trying to attract attention to it, and mentioned that in passing on a forum. This one I picked up because one of the author’s blog posts was referenced disparagingly in a different blog discussion. Obviously, I don’t read books just out of sympathy for a struggling author, I check out the blurb, reviews and sample, as always, but it does lead to some interesting and unusual reading.
I’m not even sure what genre this is. It’s set in a fictional area of Eastern Europe in the sixteenth century, which makes it, I suppose, alternative history, not something I read often. The premise is that two neighbouring countries, once part of a greater whole, have been at war for more than ten years. The main character, Aurora, is the daughter of the War Master of one of the two, and when he dies she finds herself, orphaned and alone, washed down-river into the territory of the other, the enemy. What happens to her there, and the people she meets, form the bulk of the novel.
But this is not a book driven by plot. Rather the focus is on ideas, and quite often the characters do nothing very much except engage in philosophical debate (even when dying!) or play symbolic games of chess. This focus is strengthened by the characters’ near-complete dislocation from their setting. The two estates of Cathendria in Fairgos, the home of Aurora and her father, and its mirror-image Secernere in Mitoch, home of Cashel, the Mitochian warlord, are almost empty of people and virtually nothing is seen of the world beyond; they each exist in a bubble of isolation. Even within Secernere, Aurora spends most of her time alone in a single small room. The characters themselves are not well-rounded or realistic, nor do they ever behave in any way that I would regard as sensible, but then I imagine this is intentional. They read more as symbols, full of meaning, but not necessarily sympathetic.
The writing style is extremely literate, and there are passages where the author has attempted to write in the manner of the sixteenth century, which are only partially successful. She is excellent, however, in the vivid way she describes the surroundings and Aurora’s inner turmoil when she is alone. The dialogue is sometimes too stilted for realism (those outbreaks of philosophy), and occasionally this is jarring. There are some fairly gruesome sections, which I found quite disturbing at times, but the ending was nicely done.
This is an unusual book, and falls outside my usual thresholds of readability - I normally look for depth of character and detailed world-building, which I don’t find here. I do enjoy a thought-provoking theme, however, which this book has in spades. In fact, it’s possibly over-layered with meaning, with the ideas swamping the actual plot. I would have preferred a little more realism and less philosophy; as it was I found myself constantly looking for the underlying meaning of passages, instead of being swept up in the story. This may be the author’s intent, of course, and it’s not a criticism of the book, more a matter of personal taste. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot was going on that just whizzed right over my head, so one for the intellectuals, maybe. An interesting, if not always comfortable, read. And I'm still not quite sure what genre it is (although that's definitely not a criticism). Three stars.