TRANSFORMATION by Carol Berg
Roc, 2000, 439 pages, 0451457951, Mass Market Paperback, $6.99
I consider this book to be my favorite of Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah trilogy. I suppose that has a lot to do with the focus on the relationship between Seyonne and Aleksander and the apparent simplicity of the story itself. And by simplicity I only mean that the other two books in the series expound so much more on the soul terrain and other related aspects of the larger story. In Transformation I merely enjoyed the book for what it was, as it could have easily stood on its own as a single story. So I suppose what I mean to say is that I loved the trilogy as a trilogy, but I also loved Transformation all on its own.
Transformation is one of the most tightly focused fantasy novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The narrator is Seyonne, a slave purchased by Prince Aleksander of the Derzhi Empire. During the beginning of the novel their relationship is established, followed quickly by the introduction of the main plot, and then the arrival of demons in human guise working for some larger, nefarious (naturally) purpose. What follows is a detailed character story with deep emotion, smooth interaction, a cohesive direction, and a lovely, emotionally touching end.
Readers benefit greatly from the first person point of view taken by Seyonne. It allows for immense depth of character, and anyone who prizes this element of a story will be quite satisfied. From page one we are given some idea of Seyonne’s personality, as well as Aleksander’s, as he gives us a clear picture of his first thoughts of the Derzhi prince. Their interaction from then on continues to reveal even more about both men as they develop, and it’s during these parts of the story that I believe the novel is at its best.
Seyonne’s refusal to let himself wallow in his past, and his attempts to put thoughts of his homeland out of his mind, are wonderful, if sad, elements to the story. His struggle with knowing that he must do something to protect Aleksander, yet his inability to access the power he had in his youth, before his capture and enslavement, illustrates his frustration and helplessness while at the same time proving his strength. He continues to be determined over his path and his oath despite not only those obstructions but also the social wall between himself and Aleksander. He is largely unable to explain what he is trying to do, both because he cannot speak openly and because, even when he is bidden to be frank, his experiences from his enslavement prevent him from doing just that. In addition, Aleksander is not the most receiving of his information at the beginning, though as time progresses, we see the change in the prince and his ability to believe and trust Seyonne.
Aleksander himself is an intriguing and complex individual. As is frequently mentioned in the novel itself, he seems to have two sides to his personality. He is brash and rude and uncaring so much of the time, and yet when he knows himself to have been wrong, we see the gentleness he possesses. We also see that he feels for his people, even those of lower standing. When a woman in the street is cursed and abused by one of Aleksander’s own entourage, he helps her up and sends her along, then strikes the man responsible for hurting her children. This startles Seyonne most certainly, and does so even more as the prince immediately retreats back into his callousness.
Aleksander is no flimsy royal heir, either. He is a warrior and brilliant at concocting and implementing schemes. He knows exactly what he does, and even the letters he has Seyonne write for him are worded perfectly with a blend of clear meaning and underlying implication. The rulings he makes during civil disputes, despite how agitated he might be at having to sit through the long sessions, are beneficial for all parties. When at one point he tells Seyonne, “The death I had planned for you was an artwork,” one could certainly believe it.
While these two are at the forefront of the story, the peripheral characters do not suffer. Characters such as Durgan, Kiril, Llyr, Rhys and Catrin are all portrayed well though they are not explored as deeply as Seyonne and Aleksander. And it’s as well that they aren’t, otherwise it might detract from the purpose and the flow of the story.
But one other character that the reader benefits to see is the Lady Lydia. She is both a strong woman and a likeable character. She never backs down to Aleksander, and she makes her opinion known though it drives him mad. The difference between Aleksander’s initial descriptions of the “she-wolf” and the reality of the character are obvious, as are the reasons he feels that way about her. I, personally, expected to meet a cold, unlikable female when she was first mentioned, but, when her entrance was finally made, I was surprised and elated to find myself very wrong. Her feelings toward Aleksander are also not what they might seem, and I enjoyed seeing that bit of depth added to her.
Over the course of reading I made several comments to others about how much better Carol Berg approached her character in slavery than many other authors I’ve read. Sometimes writers fail to touch upon the truth of the individual or really focus on him in favor of various events or some complicated exposition about his past life that really has little to do with the story at hand, and which often causes lack of cohesion. None of those things get in the way of Transformation, however. Seyonne keeps himself very focused on the present, and the tension we experience through his refused recollections offers more sympathy than any long, detailed paragraph about horrors he faced. The brief, unexpected notice of a scar caused by his hand being nailed to a door for a week was more striking than an entire chapter devoted to a story of the event. When we are finally introduced to his history, it’s with perfect timing and slow revelation that keeps the reader both interested and clear about what’s happening.
The supernatural aspects of the book were well done and not overplayed. I liked the concept of the soul terrain and the pairings the Ezzarians had to make in order to properly search and destroy a demon. These things also had a direct part in the peoples’ law about slaves, which only gives us further explanation for Seyonne.
The end results in the plot are also well worked and move along at an appropriate pace, not being rushed nor dragging along. It allows for a few surprises between characters as well as some extra, startling suspense just when things seem to be closing down, and by the end every character and every event is resolved, down to the last letter that wraps up the novel with a tidy period and proof of the characters’ full development.