BREATH AND BONE by Carol Berg
Roc, Jan. 2008, 449 pgs., ISBN: 978-0-451-46186-5, Trade Paperback, $15.00
It’s often difficult to write reviews for books I really like, because I’m so busy fan-girling over them that I can’t gather my thoughts together well enough to form any well-crafted paragraphs. When I sit down and prepare to write, all I can manage to do is visualize what I liked, the scenes I enjoyed, and the characters that enthralled me rather than just write about them. Sarah Monette’s The Virtu and Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword are two good examples of this and, if you’ll recall, it took me months to complete those reviews despite all of my best efforts and my love for the stories.
Carol Berg has been the exception to this rule, though I do admit to writing only one review despite reading five of her books prior to this. Transformation was my first of her works as well as my fan-girl dream of 2003, but, rather than get stuck on that review, it came forth with all the expediency I could wish for and with more clarity than I would have dreamed.
I can’t hold such expectations for Breath and Bone simply because my mind hasn’t been working with the same gears as it was when I read Transformation but I can hope to come close. As my first completed novel of 2008, it was incredibly satisfying and I fear that I may have been spoiled for whatever else I may read this year.
I regret that I did not review Flesh and Spirit when I completed it back in August, but that won’t hinder me from reviewing this one just as eagerly as I would the opening volume. I shall attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum, as always, but I must warn those who may potentially read Breath and Bone that, if you’re capable of putting together the pieces based on mere references or phrases, then you may wish to tread carefully. I’d be very displeased to know that I’d ruined any of this book’s revelations for someone.
And it’s just as well that I start off talking about revelations since that’s what seemed so prominent in the first few chapters of this book. There were numerous questions left open at the end of Flesh and Spirit, some to do with the plot and some to do with the characters. The ending alone left us wondering about Prince Osriel and who or what he was, what he was going to do with Valen, and whether or not Valen would survive the doulon withdrawls (and, if he did, whether or not he’d survive his sensory disease afterward). Then, of course, there was the matter of Jullian and Gildas or, on a larger scale, the issue of the entire kingdom, which was, at the end of the first book, in a very bad situation.
Breath and Bone answers these questions and then provides so much more that it leaves one surprised. For certain there were aspects to the story that I simply didn’t expect when I read Flesh and Spirit, and I’m glad that I didn’t figure it out sooner. That would have stolen the opportunity for me to do my happy song and dance routine every time something new and revealing came up.
The story picks up at Gillarine Abbey where Valen is being kept in wait for Prince Osriel’s arrival. He is doing remarkably well with his oath not to run away considering that he spent so much time avoiding pureblood law in the past. But his desire to help his friend Jullian is foremost on his mind, and he will do whatever he needs to in order to keep his promise of rescue.
But he can feel his disease and the withdrawls of the doulon coming upon him, and he has no idea how his new master will take the news of his servant’s impending uselessness. Osriel is as much a mystery to Valen as he ever was. All that remains clear, for the time being, is that everyone is involved in the same trouble, namely dealing with Sila Diaglou and her Harrowers.
As a character, Valen is interesting because he represents so many different positions in the story while still hanging onto his almost naïve way of thinking. In him it’s easy to still see the child Valen who went through so much pain and confusion. Yet, at the same time, the adult is taking on so many responsibilities that I suspect even he is surprised. In a way, it seems as though he grows up throughout the course of Breath and Bone, no longer stubbornly refusing (or, perhaps, fearing) to become a part of the world and take part in its destiny for him.
Since this story is written in the first person, Valen is, of course, the character with whom we should be most concerned. But he isn’t the only one of interest. Osriel, Saverian, Voushanti, Sila, and the others also have stories to reveal. Osriel, for certain, drew me in quite quickly. But I can’t get too deeply into the others without risking unfortunate spoilers, so I leave that to your own enjoyment.
So much of this story is classically Carol Berg, and by saying that I’m really referencing parts of Transformation and the other books in that series. She’s awfully good at pulling together what would, for someone else, seem like unrelated threads of plot. She does clever things when it comes to family and friendships, and there’s always something new for the protagonist to come to terms with and learn before he can begin making changes. There’s also that slightly annoying, but ultimately necessary, habit of some characters to be ridiculously incapable of having open minds and just listening, even if the person they’re listening to is a renowned liar. (She also has a penchant for redheaded characters that, personally, I can’t help but find agreeable.)
Because I’d like to touch on it briefly, I’m going to mention the Danae. I’m not going to discuss it more than superficially only because so much of that involves plot that I don’t want to reveal out of turn. I’d simply like to acknowledge my admiration for that race as Berg developed it, with its ties to dance and the natural world. There are rules to that society that she managed to bring out subtly and, in doing so, made it that much more powerful. Likewise, her portrayals of some of the Danae characters that come into the story are beautifully done. But one of the things I liked the most was that the Danae, despite their intense beauty and awe-inspiring forms, were not perfect. In some ways they are greater than humans but, at the same time, they still have very human flaws in their characters.
Overall, I can’t sing enough praises for this book. That I sat down on a school night and completely failed to read my assigned Aristotle and Augustine of Hippo in favor of spending about eleven hours reading this says that I was sufficiently captivated, I think. Of course, I’m already in the habit of recommending Carol Berg to other fans of fantasy (or those I’m trying to convert to fantasy), but I have to at least officially suggest Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone to anyone who hasn’t read it yet and to anyone who loves a character driven story. Really, the characters are the gems in her work, and I wouldn’t miss out on meeting a one of them.
As a more personal side note, I just have to mention that books like this make me cry. Stories that involve the theme of becoming a part of something bigger and more wonderful than oneself, and of having known it before but never really recognizing what it was that was calling to you, those kinds of stories strike some kind of chord. I wonder how many other readers will experience that kind of reaction during parts of this novel.