One may have noticed that it’s been quite some time since I reviewed anything other than anime. There are reasons for this, but the lack of book reviews, in particular, has been because I have been working my way through The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and it is an absolutely hellish slog. Six incredibly thick and plodding books down, with four to go, and I am taking a break. And since I have been so overwhelmed by such a lengthy series, wanting something shorter and more enjoyable… naturally the first thing I read is another series. Heh.
I am now becoming familiar with the work of JA Andrews, in her Queensland universe with the Keepers. The first I read was the Keeper Chronicles trilogy, and now I have read the prequel trilogy, Keeper Origins, as well as her novellas set within the same universe, Ghost of the White Wood, The Black Horn, The Deal is Struck, and I particularly enjoyed her take on “Gifts of the Magi” in Candlelight Gifts, which I happened on right around Christmas time. All in all, I am fast coming to appreciate her enchanting skill as a storyteller.
Set some centuries before Chronicles, Origins consists of Dragon’s Reach, Raven’s Ruin, and Phoenix Rising. For all that it is named for the origin of the Keepers, it much more closely follows the origin of Queensland as a unified nation, especially the rise of its first queen, Issable. Preferring her nickname of Sable, she is the eldest daughter of parents murdered, along with most of their village, by foreign raiders. Bereft and abandoned in a big city, Sable took it upon herself to protect and provide for her younger sisters, Talia and Ryah, using only her keen wits, her unconquerable determination, and a gift, of sorts, where she is always able to tell if someone is lying or telling what they believe is the truth.
Seemingly trapped in the life of a thief, working for a ruthless gang lord who exploits those under him without even the slightest qualm, Sable has come to rage against those who step on others. And when she finally finds a way out, her hope is stolen from her even in her brief moment of triumph. Thus does the world seems to conspire against her, with danger closing in, but then, in her moment of need, it is as if the hand of fate itself leads her to those who can help her, a small acting troupe of surprising resource. These become as family to her, and they are the grain of rice which seeks to tip the scales in the face of both foreign invasion and the traitorous manipulation of a powerful, dangerous woman. From the slums and streets of the city to the magical wilds of the woodlands to the savage wilderness of the North to deep caves of the dwarves and back again, from the shadows to the stage to the grandest religious temple to the battlefield and eventually to the throne, Sable’s journey winds ever onward, through countless perils and pitfalls, to her destiny, turning the fate of the world on the hinge of her voice. It is the voice of a woman who comes from nothing and becomes a queen, no matter who discounts her along the way.
A story like hers can be very tricky to pull off. I mean, this could easily have turned into any sort of nightmarishly overdramatic mess, but Andrews produced a classic fantasy adventure of exceptionally high caliber, pushed forward by the central cast and their intertwining stories. Many of them have known terrible heartache and woe, but still they persist in living, and confront the pain of personal tragedy hand in hand. The threads which begin in the first novel, and resurface in the second, are all brought together again in the third, giving shape to the world as we know it in Chronicles.
The characters are lovable in a way that feels real, too. The way some of them rib at each other, the way they fall in love, how they work together, the discussions they have and what they teach each other, their hopes and fears and nightmares, all of it feels genuine in a way that scarce few storytellers I can name really manage. Even their flaws and mistakes feel believable to a point that I can’t really blame them, each of them representing themselves as doing the best that they really know how to do. And it was glorious seeing some characters who show up in the later stories appearing here as well, though I will avoid spoilers on that count. 😉
There are, of course, some things which my overly analytical brain could not avoid noticing and having to choose to ignore for the sake of a good story. The size of this land, for instance, is apparently so small that every corner of it can be reached within days of anywhere else, and troops from both sides of this war somehow manage to keep materializing as if out of nothing, crossing great distances most rapidly, which strained a certain credulity. As did the overall scheme of the true villain of the story, which seemed oddly convoluted and incoherent in its execution, though brilliant in its premise. The magic system is incredibly soft and undefined, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the explanations they sometimes share feel almost extraneous, even when it’s so Sable herself can learn.
On which note, they never addressed one issue which later generations of magic-wielding Keepers face: why is it that their kind are now born only once per decade or so when, back during Sable’s time, dozens of them are walking around all at once? What changed in the meantime? Speaking of, there were two groups of elves in this story, and where we know what happened to one of them in Chronicles, what happened to the other? And could we not have gotten even a tiny glimpse of the fate of this invading Empire, preferably confirming whether or not it finally collapsed under the weight of its own short-sighted brutality?
So I’m not going to try and sell this as a “perfect” story by any means. But whatever flaws can be found, and whatever unanswered questions can be named, the overall experience was still highly enjoyable and very well done. Themes of power and freedom, and of those who seek either or both, run throughout this story, and are presented, like the characters, in a very real, human light. People have adventures, form unexpected connections despite obvious differences, and the good truth ultimately triumphs over nefarious deception. It is, in short, a very good story, told very well, with ups and downs, twists and turns, and I could hardly put the books down. 🙂
Rating: I give this at least 8… no, make it 9 stars out of 10.
Grade: hmmm, B-Plus? No, make than an A-Minus. 🙂
I really look forward to reading more of JA Andrews’ work!