The first time I heard about this book – and trilogy – was on Dragons, Heroes and Wizards where the series was reviewed in its entirety: as it often happens to me, I experienced a sort of mental click that told me it could be a great book, so I added it to my reading queue. Instincts proved once more to be right on target.
Before I start with my review I need to thank Shari Mulluane from DHW for the precise layout of this imaginary world, that helped me find my bearings in no time at all: this is a complicated landscape, and I’ve seen that many readers complained about the difficulty of understanding who was who – and what. The review that pushed me toward this book proved extremely helpful in clarifying those complicated relationships for me, so I was able to dive immediately into the story.
Besieged shows us a divided world, whose divisions are not just racial, but also religious, political and – above all – mental. There are three races, in constant conflict: the self-styled True Men (or Mieren), who act as masters and rulers of the world, looking at others with contempt and undisguised feelings of superiority; the T’En (or Wyrds), humanoids with some peculiar characteristics like silver hair, mulberry-colored eyes and six fingers – not to mention some magical/mystical powers they call “gifts” that allow them to perform otherwordly feats and to access the “Empyrean Plane”, a sort of parallel, dangerous world with physical laws of its own; and the half-bloods (or Malaunje) a mix of the previous two: despised by Men and protected by the T’En, even though looked on mostly as inferior. The Malaunje represent one of the great mysteries of the story, because we learn early on that a half-blood child can be born from two human parents, which would seem to point out to a shared blood in the past: of course the True Men prefer to consider these children abominations, or the result of illicit pairings, rather than take any alternative into account, and the T’En don’t seem to think about it at all. Hopefully the next installments in the series will shed more light on this intriguing matter.
The divisions don’t end here, of course: True Men are hardcore misogynists, in a way that really sets my teeth on edge, so their society is split between a male power base and… the rest. The T’En, for their part, also experience a gender split, inherited from massive gift-related upheavals in the past: it’s not a matter of superiority, but rather of a different philosophy in approaching the way the gifts are handled, one that requires a further split where child rearing is involved. Children are handed over to T’En sisterhoods to be raised by foster mothers, and the males are then returned to the brotherhoods only from the age of seventeen. All these enforced divisions, and separations, provide for very little happiness in this world.
A world that is harsh, cruel. Even in the more enlightened T’En sisterhoods, power games are the expected norm, even when they don’t take the bloody overtones of the male brotherhoods. Yet it’s a constant strife for supremacy where no one can be really safe. And it’s much worse in the cities of True Men, where the cruelty, indifference and power plays at the top create a social and cultural domino effect on the whole populace.
This is the background where the two main characters are born: Sorne, the Malaunje son of a True Man king, and Imoshen, the daughter of a powerful brotherhood’s All-Father. For different reasons they are not sent on their respective paths, but are both reared in seclusion to serve the purpose of the people they belong to. From the very start they are shown as victims, especially Sorne who can be viewed as a case-in-study of Stockholm Syndrome: he not only has been removed and isolated from his people (and tortured and mistreated, to boot), he’s been led to believe and accept the lies fed to him, to the point that he makes justifications for them and wallows constantly in the conviction of his own lack of worth, making him a very tragic figure. Not that Imoshen fares any better, having to constantly review what she knows about the world, and herself, and to adjust to that shifting knowledge.
Such a fascinating, multi-layered background, supports a quick, fast-paced narrative that often changes focus between those two main characters and several minor ones: these elements make for a mesmerizing and addictive story, one that kept me glued to the book, breathless and spellbound. The author’s choice of leaving her readers the effort of discovering the workings of this world along with the unfolding of the story is – from my point of view – a winning strategy: since I don’t enjoy being “spoon-fed” when I’m reading a book, I prefer having to assemble the puzzle by myself, piece by piece. In my opinion this way there is more room for character and story development. Even the violence – and there is a lot of it – is suggested rather than graphically shown: I’m not squeamish (not after having “trained” with GRR Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan, just to name a few, and these authors never use gratuitous violence to be truthful) but still I prefer that the blood and gore is kept in the sidelines.
The book is not exempt from some flaws though: minor ones, like many vowel-intensive and others that seem crafted to make your tongue stumble, even when the reading happens in your mind (Matxin being a prime example) – nothing major, but still distracting; and the black-and-white distinction between True Men and T’En, with the former embodying the worst personal characteristics you could think of for a living being (ruthless, often needlessly cruel, narrow-minded and misogynists to the core), while the latter, even though they feud for power, often staging bloody internecine wars, are more open minded, more “noble” in outlook. I would have preferred a few shades of gray there, to see characters grow on their own rather than be just archetypal representations of vices and virtues. But there is something that really nagged at me: after the two thirds mark in the book, the writing becomes somewhat… awkward, for want of a better word. Shorter sentences that lead to a halting narrative flow, repetition of information already given, a general shallowness in characterization and world-building. At times it made me think that another person had taken up the writing in comparison with the previous sections, or that the author had grown bored with her own story. I would really try and understand if it’s just me, or if other readers did notice something along these lines.
There is however a great deal of potential in this story, and that’s what will keep me reading on – if nothing else because the book ends in a cliffhanger. A big one…
My Rating 7.5/10