For five hundred years, the Mahaelian kingdom of Avidar has been ruled by King Jarlath, whose mysterious magical powers make him a force that no one can oppose. He began his reign by uniting humans against the Elvayn dominion, but now even his iron grip can’t stop the kingdom from faltering. Civil unrest may become a serious problem, and General Brice Serholm is sent to investigate reports of rebellion in the one of the provinces. However, his ship is attacked by a group of islanders wielding magic no one knew existed, and Brice is consumed by the fate that befalls his Blade Knights. It falls to his second-in-command, Alun Dronald, to do his duty if Brice will not, even after a brutal battle leaves Alun forever transformed.
In the capital of Cambeith’ar, a man named Cobinian sets a sinister conspiracy in motion. First he kidnaps an Elvayn child, saving it from mutilation so that it will be able to use its incredible magical powers. Next, he gives a special dagger to Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, who is torn between loving and hating King Jarlath. Then, he gives a note to the king’s First Advisor Del’Ahrid, undermining Del’Ahrid’s trust in the king while feeding his own dark ambitions. Finally, Cobinian creates an epidemic of Reavers (zombies) to attack the city.
So, I’m delving into the epic fantasy genre again, this time with South African author Dave-Brendon de Burgh. It’s the only local epic fantasy that I know of, and it’s great to see SA authors branching out. Hopefully De Burgh’s book will be the first of many.
First off, I’m so glad the novel avoids one of the clumsiest traits of epic fantasy – infodumping. There are no long, dreary tracts on travel, architecture, irrelevant history or whatever else the author thought was so cool that the plot needed to grind to a halt for it. No, Betrayal’s Shadow is surprisingly short at only 263 pages, and exposition is kept brief. If anything I wanted to know more, as opposed to feeling that I had to trawl through too much. And without infodumping to weigh it down, the plot can move along unimpeded, making this a fairly brisk read.
But unfortunately there were aspects that dragged me down. For example, the book did not give me a good first impression – it kicks off with a scene where Brice, a blonde, blue-eyed soldier in heavy armour, leads a force of white knights in fighting a tribe of naked, pierced, tattooed black people who are described as “probably-illiterate barbarians” and “savage”. After the fight, Brice wakes up in a hut full of crude furniture and is surprised to find that the tribespeople removed his armour, because they don’t look to him like people who would know anything about armour. Things are not all they seem, but even then, perpetuating these racial stereotypes is unnecessary.
Brice’s racism sets the tone for the parochial world of Avidar. Pretty much every character whose appearance is described is white and blonde with blue or green eyes. Everyone follows the same religion (the Mahaelian Church). People don’t seem to know anything about the world outside of their kingdom. Brice and his Blade Knights clearly had never heard of the island they encountered, even though it was en route to their destination. References are made to areas that were subdued by war, but little is said about lands the king does not control. But there are definitely other lands, because King Jarlath has started something called the Far Continent Project, in which his people will set sail on giant arks to find new lands that they can explore and exploit for minerals, lumber, farmland and living space. In other words, a colonisation project, except that everyone conveniently avoids mentioning what they’ll do to the people already living there.
It wouldn’t be Avidar’s first crime against another race. Centuries ago, the Elvayn were the dominant power, but the humans overthrew them with Jarlath’s help. Rather than wiping them out, King Jarlath chose to keep them as slaves. Because the Elvayn can wield incredibly powerful magic by singing, every Elvayn has its tongue cut out at birth. They’re kept in slave-holds across the kingdom, although they aren’t slaves per se – they don’t do any work (I checked this with the author). There is one case of a merchant using an Elvayn girl as a servant, because rich people are sometimes allowed to use Elvayn slaves, but this comes off as a special circumstance put in place to get a specific aspect of the plot going. In later scenes, people freak out when they see an Elvayn child outside of the slave-holds, so they are certainly not a part of everyday life.
It’s easy then, to see why people hate and fear the Elvayn. Historically they are the enemy. If even a few of them were allowed to keep their tongues, they could easily take their revenge on the Mahaelians. The average citizen doesn’t exactly live in comfort, and has every right to be angry that the king wastes money on the Elvayn for reasons he refuses to disclose. And even if there were no sociopolitical issues, the very idea of mutilating babies and imprisoning a whole race of people for centuries is simply grotesque.
Their continued existence is a mystery that bothers everyone, but Jarlath isn’t exactly politically savvy. He doesn’t have to be – he can single-handedly destroy entire armies on the other end of the continent (which makes for a rather good action scene), so he doesn’t have to be a good king. And he’s not; he’s a tyrant and all-round piece-of-shit human being. He responds to opposition with extreme violence. When Del’Ahrid started his job as First Advisor, Jarlath told him to constantly undermine the governors and ambassadors by playing them against each other. When Jarlath gives a speech about the Far Continent Project, he goes on about how totally awesome the kingdom has become, when in fact it’s only a nice place if you’re a man with money. None of the POVs are from an average citizen, but there are hints about how much people struggle to get by while the wealthy live in luxury.
Avidar is also a crap place to be if you’re a woman. This is pretty common in epic fantasy, but that doesn’t excuse it. The High Cleric in the capital might be a woman, but apparently her brother Del’Ahrid got her the job and one of the first things she reveals about the religion is that it’s based on pain and wives can be punished for not doing their “duty” towards their husbands. Violence against women is frequently used in the narrative. Almost every woman mentioned gets beaten or raped at some point, and the word “whore” is grossly overused. The Reavers (zombies) are created when a man rapes an Elvayn girl. An ambassador is “punished” by having his wife thrown in a jail cell for three days to be gang-raped. Del’Ahrid physically abuses both his sister and his wife, and treats his poor wife like shit because she was forced to marry him and never learned to love him (even though she tries really hard to be friendly and polite).
Most of the abuse is directed at Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, i.e. the court prostitute. She’s there to please Jarlath, who also hands her out to other men. Given that prostitution is her profession, the question of consent is murky, but it’s worth noting that Jarlath chooses her partners, and she feels she can’t leave because she’ll be totally destitute. Thus, she puts up with having to sleep with whoever Jarlath commands her to, and being slapped around, not only by random dignitaries, but also by Del’Ahrid and Jarlath himself. At one point I’m pretty sure that he sends her to a Senator knowing that this guy would beat the shit out of her, just so that he could use that as an excuse to execute the man (but not before the Senator calls Seiria a whore as often as he can fit the word into his sentences). Then, late in the novel, Seiria is revealed to be the victim of what might just be the worst act of sexual violence I’ve come across. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it.
As the only major female character in the novel, not to mention a woman surrounded by men who are either despicable or bland, I wanted to like Seiria, but I found her frustrating. She loves and hates Jarlath in what looks very much like a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Which is fine, but she spends the entire novel agonising about it. When Cobinian gives her a dagger and she sneaks it into the palace (where weapons aren’t allowed) it looks like she might take some action, but instead she just thinks about holding it to Jarlath’s throat and demanding that he admit he loves her, or stabbing him because he doesn’t. Even after witnessing a zombie massacre, all Seiria can think about is the absurdity of loving Jarlath. And I don’t agree with the idea that Jarlath could never admit to loving her – he is powerful enough to do whatever he wants, including marrying a prostitute he found on the street. Seiria has my sympathy but I desperately wanted her to do something other than pine for Jarlath. It looks like she’ll play a role in the next book, but in this one she’s all victim.
Paradoxically, the character I hate the most is the one I consider to be the best-written – Del’Ahrid. He has serious anger management issues. He physically and emotionally abuses the women in his life. There isn’t a moment when he’s not being an insufferable little shit. He’s never strayed from Jarlath’s trust-no-one approach to politics. He’s always suspicious, always critical, always treating his peers like enemies.
But what I like about his character is that it’s more layered than the others. You can always tell how his view of the world differs from others’, and you can understand his stupid behaviour no matter how much you hate it. He’s not as smart and sly as he thinks he is. He believes in protocol and hierarchy above all else, even in the face of death and disaster. He seems genuinely shocked when people act like ordinary human beings instead of always following the rules. His indignation when people fail to show him the proper formalities as First Advisor is quite entertaining. That said, I do find him difficult to read because he makes me so angry. It’s a bit like having Joffrey Baratheon as a POV character.
A few other things before I go. There are aspects of the worldbuilding that I wish were clearer or more deeply embedded in the world. The Mahaelian religion, for example. It defines the entire kingdom and the series, but except for a short section written from the POV of the High Cleric near the beginning, we learn almost nothing about the nature of the god Mahaelal, or the tenets and practices of his church. Characters often swear by Mahaelal, but religion doesn’t feature in their decisions or daily life.
Worldbuilding aside, the book will also leave you with a ton of unanswered questions simply because it’s very much the first of a series. Lots of things are set in motion, while absolutely nothing is resolved, and the second book isn’t out yet. Finally, if you’re a pedantic reader, be warned that this book needs a good edit – it’s full of errors.
But, overall, not a bad read for something that’s not my genre of choice. It pissed me off quite a lot, but it also got me thinking a bit about passive and unlikeable characters and my reaction to them. There are lots of things in Avidar’s society that raise my hackles, but at the same time it’s a society that’s about to undergo a massive change partly because of the things that are wrong with it. What’s also quite cool is that the author has set up a Goodreads group for the series, where he’s available to discuss it and answer your questions (I’ve already gone to bug him). And if you want to read a bit more while waiting for book two, you can check out the prequel short story “A Song of Sacrifice”, about the Elvayn and their Singing magic.