The world is one filled with imaginative diversity. There are nations sat in a state of détente, each waiting for the others to show weakness. There’s magic, spread across ethnicities and societies, from quick healing to ripping holes in the fabric of reality. There’s staff-wielders with a penchant for witty repartee, and acolytes trying to facilitate what they perceive to be the narrative of the world. In short, there’s rather a lot going on. Though sometimes it felt easy to drown in all of the detail. Largely it works to build a consistently fascinating narrative space. There’s some wonderful cultural signifiers – whether someone has the hair cut in a particular style, the way a name indicates a social space as well as a lineage. There’s some great discussion of relationships as well – a dynamic of community, of wives and husbands sharing each other, with relationships covering a multitude of degrees. It’s cleverly, sympathetically, originally done. The institutions of this world aren’t our own, but they feel organic, for all that. The author has clearly put some serious thought into the way that their world is put together, and the reader is the beneficiary of that decision.
The characters – well, to be honest, there’s rather a lot of them, starting with Saffron, our teenager-turned-world-traveller. The opening was a bit tough, struggling along with Saffron as she encounters a great many people with several languages, and gets rather a lot of names thrown at her. Still, my confusion seemed to subside alongside hers . Saffron is unhappy, confused, and trying to find a place in our world, which teeters from unpleasant to just about bearable. The author shows us this, lets us feel Saffron react to abuse and a history of unpleasantness, and then throws her and the reader in at the deep end. Watching Saffron attempt to articulate who she is, what she wants, and see her try and shape her own life as well as affect those around here – it’s thought provoking, touching, and emotionally authentic all at once. As a protagonist, Saffron is thoroughly enjoyable to read – and often more so.
Her relationships with the supporting cast absolutely sparkle, especially that with another world-walker, Gwen. Gwen is older and at least somewhat wiser than Saffron, having made what she feels are some serious mistakes before the opening of the book. She has a confident face, over a slightly more turbulent spirit, and her gentle shepherding of Saffron, and her own self-analysis, is insightful and incisive. Saffron, in her wild confusion and gradual acceptance, feels in some ways an avatar for the reader, and also a person in her own right. Gwen, as a contrast, is cooler, more convinced of the art of the possible, less an idealist – and gives us another perspective on Saffron and her situation. Their relationship is emotionally nuanced, and holds a kind of quiet depth, making their scenes very compelling.
Then there’s Zech, perhaps Saffron’s first friend in the world of Kena. Her prose is quicksilver, a sparkling maelstrom of ideas, bouncing off of Saffron for a new perspective. Zech is exhausting to read, but absolutely wonderful – a fireball of a character, and one woho builds a relationship of equals with Saffron, alongside Gwen’s mentorship. Zech is curious, clever, and incorrigible, convinced of her own immortality – and great fun, dragging Saffron into situations and then (typically) out of them. She’s got her own issues as well – and her unravelling of these alongside Saffron make for some tender, heartbreaking, beautifully emotional moments.
They’re backed by a strong supporting cast. I wanted to see more of Zech’s guardian, and of Gwen’s old coterie. The villains don’t get as much screen time as I’d like, and it would have been interesting to explore their motivations more fully. Still, there was enough there to carry the narrative, so it’s a relatively minor complaint.
Speaking of the narrative – after the early acclimatisation to new terms, phrases, characters and cultures, the text rattles along very nicely. There’s some personal things at stake , relationships and antipathies which kept me turning the pages. There’s also some impressive magic, and some unflinchingly drawn combat scenes. The stakes are high, and the risks the characters take are appropriate to those stakes; despite that, the narrative feels very reflective and insightful. Overall, it’s a deeply compelling story, and one that I’m going to be thinking about for some time.
On which note – is it worth reading? Unequivocally yes. There’s some initial hurdles, but the world is grand, detailed, complex and well crafted. The characters carry humanity, depth, and a startlingly appropriate sense of strangeness. The plot seeps into your bones. It’s excellent stuff, and worth your time.