I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.
Books have a mysterious way of catching my attention, and Soul of the World was no exception: something in the cover kept drawing my eye, and the catchphrase on it – Three Must Fight, Three Must Die, Three Must Rise – added to my curiosity. What little synopsis was there was also quite intriguing, promising a world on the brink of both war and change, while unrest and social troubles are running rampant. How could I resist?
The world described here feels almost like an alternate timeline: the colony of New Sarresant has an inescapable New World flavor, although the dominant culture from the continent of origin is French rather than British, and what seems like a mirror of the French Revolution era is also mixed with the seeds of civil war against the Gand southern invaders. In the northern reaches of the continent dwell primitive tribes not unlike Native Americans, in a land where dangerous predators roam free and are kept away from the colonized lands through a sort of magical barrier that keeps them confined.
Yes, the magic: there are many forms of magic in this world, and although at times they can seem overwhelmingly convoluted, they remain downright fascinating: from the animistic kind of the tribes, whose shamans and Guardians can take the powers from slain beasts and employ them at need, to the elemental magic of the colonists, tied to the leylines and manifesting in paranormal-like powers that can go from the ability to hide oneself from sight to the gift of taking over another’s consciousness over vast distances.
The story unfolds from the perspective of three points of view (again the number three coming to the fore…): young Sarine is an orphan surviving in the poverty-stricken Maw district by selling the sketches of the nobility she draws by observing their fetes unseen; Sarine however hides a secret, that of her invisible companion (or should I say ‘familiar’?) Zi, a creature that seems to enhance her ability to tap the leylines, so that her powers will soon become pivotal in the growing unrest that’s bound to end into all-out war. Erris D’Arrent is a career military trained in the use of leyline magic and driven by the need to excel in spite of her lowly origins: she will find herself in the position of doing much more than that as the situation escalates and dangers besiege New Sarresant from many sides. And lastly Arak’Jur, Guardian of the Sinari: a man gifted with deep understanding of his world who finds himself faced with challenges that seem too big, yet never shies away from doing his duty to the people he’s committed to.
This choice of alternating chapters between these three points of view keeps the story flowing at a good pace, despite what looked to me like a slow beginning: I understand now how the author was building the background and the events at the core of the story with a leisurely pace, giving readers the time to acclimate themselves with a world that’s very complex and multi-layered, but still I admit that at first I asked myself several times where all those scattered breadcrumbs were going to lead. I’m very glad that I persevered though, because at some point those threads coalesced into an organic whole, the story literally taking flight and never slowing down again.
As for the characters, Sarine looked from the start the most interesting one, and the one who was easier to grow attached to: she is both a protagonist and our eye into New Sarresant’s society, so that through her we learn the hows and whys of this world and about the huge chasm between the nobility and the commoners, one that parallels the situation that gave rise to the French Revolution in our real world.
[…] watching the nobles eating, laughing and playing at their games when half the city couldn’t be certain where they’d find tomorrow’s meals. This was supposed to be a land of promise, a land of freedom and purpose – a new World.
Sarine is strong, determined and possesses a reservoir of bravery that comes out in the most unexpected moments, one that never takes into account the possible consequences that might befell her: hers is not the unthinking courage of the foolish, but the strength of the selfless hero, and that’s one of the reasons why she takes so little time to worm her way into our hearts.
Erris is an equally fascinating character, what with her need to rise through the ranks and distance herself from her humble origins as a form of vindication: because of my recent re-read of Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, it was easy to draw a parallel between Erris and Field Marshal Tamas, which endeared her to me all the more, particularly when she entertains this kind of thought:
All her career she’d served in an army of lions led by dogs, made to bark and yip for the sake of fools. In the moment she felt no better, but she knew they saw in her a lion. For their sake, for New Sarresant, she could roar, and go into defeat with pride.
Erris’ point of view is however somewhat marred by the abundant use of military tactics – necessary in consideration of her chosen profession, but of little interest to me – and that spoiled a little my appreciation for her journey, but not enough to make me lose interest in it. The character that took me more time to truly appreciate was that of Arak’Jur: at first he appeared like a good man through and through, and I like to see some darkness in a character’s psychological makeup, so that at first his chapters were those that required some effort to hold my attention. With the progression of the story, though, I could see how he was tied to the other two main figures and once again the “power of the three” managed to draw me in as soon as the unfolding events reached their peak and Arak’Jur’s true strengths came to the fore.
Strong characters and the increasing pace of the story make this novel a compelling read, one that’s all the more extraordinary since it’s a debut work: rarely I encountered such a level of narrative control and sophistication in a first novel, and if you consider that this is just the introduction to this world, with much more to come in the next installments, you can appreciate the author’s daring and his skills in handling such a complex, multi-layered tapestry.
I’m already looking forward to seeing how this will move forward…