Thursday, July 11, 2013

Stormlord's Exile, Glenda Larke

I feel like I should really title this "Ode to Fantasy Fiction." I think I'm a fairly eclectic reader,  generally speaking. Maybe, with the common thread of something different, something not easy to figure out. I like to be surprised. I mean, it's fine to know that everything is going to work out in the end, but that's just common sense. I feel like this book is a really good example about what fantasy fiction can really bring to the table.

It's kind of...coincidental that I picked this book after finishing Unholy Night. In that review, I tried to focus more on matters of faith than religion. That's not going to be possible in this one. So, I'll repeat my disclaimers: 

1)      If you are hyper religious, and find any negative portrayal of religion bad or blasphemous, don't bother with this book or review. You'll probably just be unhappy.

2)      If you are hyper non-religious, and don't see the point in discussing religion you may want to stop reading this review here. I'm going to go into the thoughts religion, which you may not enjoy.

See, one of my favorite things about the fantasy genre is it's ability to criticize society without pissing anyone off because the people/places/things they criticize aren't real. How can you get pissed they're criticizing a religion/politics that don't exist? This book does that and more.

OK, confession time: I don't really remember the first 2 books in the Watergivers trilogy. I vaguely remember them, broad strokes, but the details? Nope. Not really. But I've got enough to sketch out the world for you.

So, there is a massive desert that's divided into 4 parts. The "country" is called the Quartern and the 4 regions are the Red Quarter, the White Quarter, the Scarpen Quarter, and the Gibber Quarter. I swear I'm not telling you this to bore you, or bog you down, it's just easier to explain this way. I wouldn't do that to you. The Quatern is ruled by an elite class of people with magical abilities, called rainlords or stormlords depending on their abilities. Over time, this class has become...well, assholes. The Quartern survives by having these lords bring water from the sea in the form of rain and rationing it to the whole Quartern. The people are pretty much all poor, except for this elite group. Varying degrees or poor, but still basically poor. And there is little if any possibility of improvement. Now they've gotten so out of control they think they can/should cut off water to those "other" quarters. 

So, our main character, Shale, was a street rat in the Gibber. Turns out the Quartern was running out of stormlords and Shale had enough power to bring water (with some help). Terrelle, our heroine, is another street rat from the Gibber. She has the power to waterpaint, and what she paints, happens. Over the first 2 books, a lot happens. The two are imprisoned and escape. Score victories and come across new and powerful enemies. Make friends, lose them, etc. The first 2 were obviously good, since I read the 3rd (even if it did take me an inordinate amount of time). They're fast paced and keep you turning pages.

OK, so, back to religion. It's clear the author isn't a fan of religion. Faith is another case entirely. Terrelle is actually desperate to put her faith in something, to believe, when she discovers the religion she's always worshipped, the religion of the Scarpen, was fake all the time. Provably fake, according to those in the White. All the religions are portrayed in a negative light. They're involved in politics to the detriment of the citizenry. They're harsh, uncaring, and make use their faith to persecute those they deem immoral, while allowing those who act immorally to remain free despite atrocities. They call their religion the one "true faith," and punish those they believe aren't pious enough. They turn away those who need them most, no matter how devout, and persecute anyone who is different. This is the kind of thing that happens IRL to end up with that disgusting group that tries to call itself a church (I won't even say their name). 

Looking down on women, gays, transgender, even those who act in kindness. Even the kindest of the religions ends up hurting those who believe in it by bogging them down in the past that should no longer hold sway over them, keeping them basically enslaved. However, Larke can say all this, can take a harsh look at religions because, well, none of them exist. They're not even really obviously comparable to actual religions.

And I can't help but think she makes really good points. When religion goes from being a community of faithful who share a belief to a method of governance, it's dangerous. And when religion starts to damn people, to choose who is righteous and who is not, it's dangerous. There are instances in while religion keeps women oppressed, races/ethnicities oppressed, gays and transgender oppressed, other religions oppressed, and on and on in the book. It's not a pleasant commentary.

One of my favorite parts is when Shale exclaims "I just wish people could believe what they want and tolerate what other people believe."

Amen, brother, Amen.

But Larke's commentary goes on. She critiques entitlement/selfishness, to start. I'm talking about real entitlement, not the poor begging and pleading for some help. I'm talking people who have wealth and comfort and yet think they deserve more; believe they are better than others and should have whatever they want because of that. These characters will do anything, hurt anyone, just to get a little more. There are many such characters in this book. One's a straight up psychopath, though they obviously don't have that word in this world. 

War isn't passed over either. Well, there's a lot of war and fighting to move the plot, so that's not a surprising claim. But Larke does such a great job at portraying it as the horror it is without making it gorey or depressing. Pointing out the sadness and how there's never a real victor - even if your cause wins, good people still died to win it. Maybe it's the lesser of evils, but it's still an evil (not literally, we've moved on from religion :P ). Some fantasy writers avoid this, consciously or not, by making the bad guys actually evil. Not just people with different philosophies and the desire to impose theirs on the world, but actual, objective evil. There's nothing wrong with that. I like those books too. But here, we have the ability to show it's not all black or white. There's a lot of gray. There's a lot of good people fighting for a bad cause. The clearest example of this is Shale's brother, who was kidnapped, enslaved, abused, victimized, and then made into a violent man with little/no compassion  Shale struggles to reconcile his memories of his brother with the man he became. The man Shale has to war against. I think, in the end, the message is, does war ever really have a winner? Or just lesser losers? 

One of the best things Larke does is create a transgender character, and to highlight his life and struggles.  In the Quartern, homosexuality is not looked down upon, and neither is being transgender.  But in a neighboring country, it is. It's a sin. Neither of these things is over emphasized. When it affects the plot, it's highlighted; when it doesn't, it's not. Just like the other characters. 

It's not all seriousness though; the book isn't preachy. It's really not. The characters have depth and humor. The plot moves swiftly without missing anything. It's complex, but not confusing. There are even little fantasy gems where you recognize something they're discussing, but it's not the way you think about it. Like this moment where 2 soldiers are in a foreign land talking about strange animals called alpiners, aka horses, and how they, oddly, wear shoes. The soldiers are used to riding pedes, segmented, many legged creatures with mandibles and antennae. Sounds familiar, right? I love these kinds of ideas.

One caution. Though this is the final book of the trilogy, it doesn't quite feel finished. I mean, you get a conclusion to all that's happened over the 3 books. All the characters get what they deserve, there's a happy ending. There are no cliff hangers. It just feels like there might be room for follow up. Maybe the next generation. Or maybe the next century. I don't know if that was intentional or not, or even if I'm misreading it completely  it just feels that way to me. Feel free to comment if you agree/disagree.

So, since I appear to be on a religion/faith trend, I think I'll just go with the flow and try out The Last Testament: A Memoir by God next... :D

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