LORD OF SNOW AND SHADOWS by Sarah Ash
Bantam Dell, 2003, 574 pages, 0-553-58621-1, Mass Market Paperback, $7.50
I picked up this book by chance during a close-out sale, and if you were to ask me why I chose it among so many titles still remaining in the store’s inventory, I really couldn’t say. I’ve seen it around before, certainly, but I don’t usually linger in the “A” section of the shelves, so I suppose I passed over it all this time.
On the whole, I’m really glad I chose this book. I was skeptical when I began reading (some of the earlier dialogue kind of irked me—too many exclamation points), but I quickly warmed to the world and the characters. It’s not perfect, of course, and there are a couple of things I got a little nitpicky about (like the spelling of chymical and alchymy when everything else was spelled normally…but at least it was done consistently), but Sarah Ash has done a good job of creating a unique world, and I’m willing to overlook the little stuff in favor of the whole picture.
One of the best things about this book was the setting—that’s not something I’d usually say, but it turned out to be true. Each country visited has its own little quirks and its own set of rules and problems. If I’m understanding the text correctly, it’s all loosely based on Russia (the larger group of countries is called Rossiya)—which, I suppose, would make Azhkendir something like Siberia…more or less.
But the story begins in Smarna where the main character, Gavril, has just begun his career as a court painter (following in his mother’s footsteps). But it isn’t long (not long at all, in fact) before he finds out that his destiny is leading him somewhere else—to Azhkendir, his father’s country, where he’s to inherit not only his father’s rule, but also his legacy (all of which is, of course, news to Gavril who had no idea his father was equivalent to a king). Of course, no one ever bothered to explain exactly what that legacy was and, the more Gavril finds out on his own, the less and less he wants it.
All of this is set against a backdrop of political intrigue and countries vying for power against one another. It’s a rather complex storyline, come to that—with all the subplots floating around, you’d have to make it an epic TV series instead of a movie just to have space enough to carry it all out. There were moments when I experienced sheer frustration—I mean, when you get that many stubborn and hard-headed characters in one place, it’s bound to happen. But I’ve come to expect that from fantasy novels.
That aside, I was intrigued by some of the pre-history of the characters. For instance, the clan feuds between the Nagarians and the Arkhels (dragons and owls…I liked the opposition there) and their respective skills. The history of the Magus also intrigues me (it hasn’t really been revealed just yet, but that’s okay—there’s a whole other storyline coming out that involves the Magus), though he isn’t a main character in book one; no doubt he’ll become more prominent in book two. The history of Artamon and the rubies (on which the title of the trilogy is based) hasn’t yet been fully explained, but I’m really curious about that as well.
I read a few reviews that complained about the characters and claimed they never really developed. I’m not entirely certain I agree with that. For one thing, it’s my experience that people change slowly over time—so to have characters who are slow to change might not be really exciting, but it’s more realistic. Second, this is a trilogy—you can’t have all the development happening in the first book. Otherwise, where would you go after that? From my point of view, the characters have only reached step one. I reserve my judgment on them until I’ve read the next book or two.
The character who developed most was probably Kiukiu—she goes from being a timid, uncertain little thing to finally knowing who and what she is. I really liked that. As far as the others, well…unfortunately all of my favorites were disposed of, sad to say (I won’t name names). And while it’s good that the author isn’t afraid to kill off her own characters, there are just some cases where you kind of sit back and think: really? You really had to go there after all that? But I suppose it’s fair to say that the plot wouldn’t have moved forward otherwise.
The end of this story is really just setting it up for the next book (for which I’ve read the blurb, so I’m expecting good things…not to mention more frustration). There is resolution on the current storyline, thankfully, but the epilogue is definitely meant to whet your appetite for the possibilities.