Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Winds of Khalakovo - Bradley P. Beaulieu

The Winds of Khalakovo is the first novel in the “Lays of Anuskaya” sequence from Bradley P. Beaulieu. It’s a doorstop of a book, filled with a deep, involving setting, characters circling each other with intrigues and agenda’s, and a plot which starts with a mystery, and evolves into an adventure with extremely high stakes.

The setting of the novel, the titular Khalakovo (which is as difficult to spell correctly as it looks), is a triumph. An archipelago sits within an endless swirling sea; the islands, toweringly mountainous, are connected by airships, carving paths in a continual maelstrom of wind. The ships are kept on course through the use of elemental magic – each ship having at least one individual aboard who can summon and control the spirits of the wind.
If that weren’t enough, the unique geography has been given human institutions a distinctly Russian patina. There’s a set of loosely aligned Dukedoms, under a non-hereditary first-among-equals. 

There’s a collective of wanderers and keepers of magic, implied to have been displaced in the past by the very ‘Landed’ Dukedoms they now serve. And there’s a rebellious offshoot of that collective, determined to throw aside the ‘Landed’ and change the world, for better or worse. It sounds complicated – and it is. Beaulieu manages to introduce a great deal of this through inference; hints or assumed knowledge are mentioned in dialogue. The history and structure of the world gradually unfolds before the reader, if they manage to keep up with the barrage of names and places. The setting, frankly, has an astonishing depth. Whilst I’m usually a fan of world-building through incidentals, in this case the reader can feel cast slightly adrift. People with complex names are performing complex actions, which at least initially, are rather unfamiliar. As the narrative context grows, these issues slowly disappear – but be aware that this is a world dense with concepts, and rewards the reader who gives the text their full attention.

From a character perspective, the reader is presented with several different points of view. It’s not overwhelming – there’s nowhere near the level of view switching that readers of George R.R. Martin will be familiar with. It’s also interesting to see that the majority of the view time is split between women, one way or another – and Beaulieu isn’t afraid to show off his female characters as smart, competent protagonists. They suffer their share of pitfalls, of course, but in their relationships, and their actions, they’re far more than foils for the men of the piece. The relationship between the mistress of a Duke’s son and his wife-to-be is fraught, conflicted, and quite capable of putting the reader through an emotional wringer. The Duke’s son, our other protagonist, has at least a basic level of competence – no  helpless orphans here, but a youth raised to power, grappling with the uses and consequences of the same. Beaulieu manages a veritable plethora of character interactions – loves, hatreds, reversals, betrayals – and manages to make each of his characters feel unique, and alive.

As usual, I won’t get too far into the plot, for fear of spoilers. However, I will say it picks up momentum, and higher stakes, as the narrative moves on – and the reader gains more context for and investment in the world, and the consequences of the character’s actions. There’s some periods of narrative lull, which might perhaps have been  better paced, but typically, given the size of the text, the pacing works well. It takes a while for the narrative to pick up, but when it does, it has serious momentum, and proves very difficult to put down.

Overall, this is a well-constructed piece of epic fantasy. It has complicated characters, in a unique setting, with a decently paced and compelling plot. We’ll see how the follow-up novels go, but this one is worth giving a look.

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