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Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Winds of Khalakovo - Bradley Beaulieu

Earlier this week I criticized Brandon Sanderson's new novel Alloy of Law for being shallow.  Bradley Beaulieu's debut, The Winds of Khalakovo, is the polar opposite.  Where Sanderson wrote something light and breakneck, Beaulieu has offered a deep and deliberate novel.  It's also the closest thing to Russian literature I've come across in fantasy, including novels written by Russians.  Having read my fair share of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I wasn't sure that I needed that particular style in my genre reading.  It turns out that not only was I happy to revisit that somewhat masochistic style, it's something I want to see a lot more.

The story centers around Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the trade crossroads of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya.  The protagonist, Nikandar, Prince of Khalakovo (although not the heir), is set to marry the daughter of a rival Duchy.  Of course, he's not in love with her, instead he showers his affections on Rehada, an indigenous Aramahn whore.

Amid this tangled web of love, a conspiracy begins to brew with other Duchies vying for power, and a fringe Aramahn group known as Maharraht who would see the entire system upended.  To a modern reader these dynamics will be reminiscent of the United States involvement in the Middle East.  Impossible loves and a rejection of western ideas, I say?  How Russian, you might respond.

Winds is just that.  The world, characters, and plot lines all maintain a very Eastern European texture that call to mind the Middle East, Crimea, Poland, and yes, Russia.  So much so that Nikandar dances the preesyadka and wears a drooping mustache while the Aramahn wear layered robes and live a life of nomadic self-improvement.  Driving the point home are Russian words interspersed throughout the novel like danyet, and dosvedanya, a habit I admit to finding somewhat annoying (Ari Marmell's intelligent discussion on the subject).

Beautiful cover for the
sequel by Todd Lockwood
To anyone who's read some 'Golden Age' Russian literature, the themes in Winds will be familiar, especially suffering as a means of redemption.  Rehada, in particular, although not exclusively, is subjected to this device.  She also falls into the tradition outlined by Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky who wrote, "Russian literature has a bad tradition. [It's] devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs."  Where the suffering love affair exists on the surface of the narrative, the undercurrents of rebellion against western (new?) ideas are more subtle and probably more indicative of a Russian nascence.

Beaulieu's world casts the Duchies as an imperialist culture who've conquered the archipelagos and subjugated the nomadic Aramahn people (Tartars?).  Known as the Landed, the Duchies are at odds with the Maharraht who reject the way of life forced on them and would sooner see it all end.  It would be somewhat misleading to call the Landed western, but the sentiments are the same as in Russian lit.  The rejection of the new and outside, in favor of the old and insular.   In Crime and Punishment, Doystyevsky uses Raskolnikov and his tragedy to call for the return of Russianism by rediscovering religion and national pride.  So too does Beaulieu with the Maharraht, although his conclusions may differ from those literary forefathers.

Themes and symbolism are great, but the damn thing has to read well too, right?  And for the most part, Winds is just as successful in that regard.  Beaulieu draws convincing, layered characters that fight for themselves and their loved ones far more often than an ideal.  In short, they're real.  His prose is more than capable, and his dialogue has a poignancy that fits the thematic tones perfectly.

Unfortunately, there are times when Beaulieu lacks clarity in both his description of action sequences and his explanation of world mechanics.  Winds takes the (now) popular approach of worldbuilding by inference, most popularized by Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen.  I'm a fan of the approach (generally), but oftentimes it forced to me flip back to see if I missed some detail.  This lack of surety is most often reflected in his magic systems (notice, the plural) that never seem to bridge the gap between cause and effect.

Likewise, many of the novel's action sequences take place on airships moving in three dimensions relative to one another and stationary objects beneath them.  The end result is usually confusion about who's where and what's going on.  Perhaps the best example of this is in the second chapter where I had to read a scene three times before grasping what was happening.  I was so frustrated by it that I put Winds down to read the aforementioned Alloy of Law.  Further compounding these moments of confusion is the novel's inconsistent pacing with peaks and valleys that likely contribute to its Russianness (come on, War and Peace is a slog).

In the moment, each of these flaws seems dooming.  On the whole, amid such dynamic characters and meaty themes they fade into the background, taking little away from the experience.  As a debut author Bradley Beaulieu is suffering growing pains in bringing new (old) literary traditions to genre fiction.  I've glossed over a lot of the intricate plotting in favor of discussing the bigger picture, but I can vouch that The Winds of Khalakovo is high fantasy full of magic, swashbuckling, and political intrigue.  I applaud what he's done here and can't wait to see what's next.

It should also be noted that Beaulieu's publisher, Night Shade Books, has made a concerted effort to bring new voices to the forefront.  I wonder how many other presses would take a chance on this novel.  Sure, it's epic fantasy, but it's also unfamiliar.  So for that, thumbs up to the Night Shade team.

The Straights of Galahesh, book two in The Lays of Anuskaya, is due out April of 2012.  You can find  Beaulieu on his website or on Twitter.

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At December 1, 2011 at 10:28 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Interesting points, Justin.

I might be wrong, but I think the pacing Brad uses is a feature, not a bug.

I think the leisurely amount of time the novel takes to really get the ball rolling would be the biggest ding against it, in my book.

At December 1, 2011 at 10:31 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I think you might be right. That's why I mentioned it contributing to the 'Russianess'. Because that may absolutely be a stylistic choice he made.

The slow pace getting started, but then also Part I has a point that could be an end to Book 1. And then Part II has almost an entirely new beginning middle and end I felt.

At December 1, 2011 at 10:54 AM , Blogger Mazarkis said...

Great review. The only time I got confused by the action was at the end, and I put that down to my own lack of attention to previous (magical) detail. It's not a book that allows you to slack off.

At December 1, 2011 at 11:25 AM , Blogger Cursed Armada said...

Wow, I didn't know there were so many underlying themes in this book. I have never dabbled in anything Russian, so I wonder if many of these Russian ideas/concepts will go right over my head?

At December 1, 2011 at 11:33 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Keep in mind I could be completely full of shit. I've got an interview in the works with the author to find out ;)

At December 1, 2011 at 1:05 PM , Blogger Scott said...

I really want to read this now. Thanks Justin!

At December 2, 2011 at 1:26 PM , Anonymous Fantasy Nibbles said...

This looks fantastic, thanks!

At December 4, 2011 at 4:01 PM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

I need to read this. I love that cover too.


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