The Winds of Khalakovo
A novel by Bradley P Beaulieu
Review by Paul Weimer
“The work on the Gorovna…” Thankfully the wasting had given him a small reprieve—tonight he felt none of its effects.
“Ah, your other mistress.”
Most of secondary world fantasy, since the time of Tolkien, has used a Western European template to inspire fantasy worlds. The language, symbols and building blocks of unique worlds draw, sometimes without even realizing it, from a common set of tropes, images and ideas. Things like the knight in shining armor, riding a charger, the bucolic village that could have come from England, the very descriptions of food, drink, and dress all often draw from Western European history, myth and culture. In more recent years this myopic focus has extended, but even so, there are plenty of cultures whose strata have not been tapped as much as others.
Russia is one of these. Oh, there have been novels set in Russia’s past, but unique cultures and societies based on the grammar of Russian culture are thin on the ground. The only one that comes immediately to mind is Sarah Zettel’s Isavalta sequence of novels.
Bradley Beaulieu has decided to help fill in that gap. In the Winds of Khalakovo, Beaulieu introduces us to a secondary world, an archipelago dominated world. The culture of the Landed, the dominant race and people of the islands, borrows heavily from the Russian. Titles of the nobility have a distinctly Russian bent, as do the names for units of the military, governance, names, and more. Food and drink are distinctly Russian. Clothing on this cold world also features traditional modes of Russian dress as well.
That would be enough invention for an epic fantasy world for many, but Beaulieu goes further, adding in an underclass, the Landless Aramahn, whose culture and customs are reminiscent of ancient Persia and the Middle East, and feel much like the Romany of Eastern Europe. The names for the elemental spirits, the various types of hezhan, that the Aramahn have connection to continues this line of inspiration.
The Winds of Khalakovo focuses mainly on three central characters:
Nikandr, Prince of the Khalakovo , youngest son of the reigning Duke and Duchess of that archipelago.
Atiana is a Princess of Vostroma, daughter of the Duke and Duchess. She has a brother, and two sisters.
The two families, Vostroma and Khalakovo, have carefully arranged an impending marriage between them., and the two have known each other, on and off, since they were children. Atiana’s brother Borund and Nikandr regard each other as friends.
And then there is Rehada. She is an Aramahn, and has been Nikandr’s mistress for some time. And she is, unbeknownst to her royal lover, far more than the wandering Aramahn than she appears to be.
With the politics and tension of the impending marriage hovering over the island, it is exactly at this time that that Maharraht, an outlawed sect of the Aramahn seeking to relieve their oppression, strike out viciously, propelling Nikandr, Atiana and Rehada into their own plans for the future of the islands. And there are others who would take advantage of the chaos, for their own political gain.
Beaulieu takes his time in setting up the central conflict and action in the novel, taking an almost leisurely amount of time to establish his world and his characters before unleashing the first notes of the problem of the novel. While this does allow for readers to get up to speed on an unfamiliar world, I think Beaulieu might have been a bit too leisurely. There are a couple of minor conflicts early on that allow for some character development and tension, but putting off the first major “bang” relatively deep into the book, I think, is problematic. Also problematic, I think, is some of the characterization in the book. The relationship between Nikandr and his sister Victania for example, is something I only really got a handle on from Nikandr’s side—there isn’t a lot to go on the other side to really round out the relationship. The relationship between Nikandr and Atiana, too, I think, needed a little more work and development. The Nikandr-Rehada relationship, I think, is written in stronger terms.
Those issues aside, however, there is a lot here for epic fantasy fans to sink their teeth into. As I said in the opening to this review, Beaulieu has taken the opportunity to mine some unexplored veins for ideas in this secondary world. There is a genius to use Russian culture on a world template—an archipelago, very different than one might expect in a Russian culture inspired novel. Archipelagos are an uncommon and underused setting for secondary world novels. It helps reinforce the secondary world feel of the book and is a great choice, I think, for the world building.
Unusually for secondary world fantasy, gunpowder or something like it does work in this universe. The soldiers and other characters carry single shot muskets, and there are cannon on ships and fortifications.
And then there are the airships. While there are indications that there are ships that brave the aquatic currents between the islands and archipelagos, the primary conveyance between islands are flying ships, powered and propelled by Aramahn who can control spirits of wind and life. Beaulieu takes full advantage of these windship. They are lovingly described in detail, and in contrast to the otherwise Russian terminology, Beaulieu uses Western naval names for ship parts and types of ships. Given the lack of a real naval tradition in Russia, this choice does make sense, but it does break the Russian immersion of the culture a little bit. As you might expect, a lot of the action scenes in the novel take place on board the ships, and there is airship-airship duels and combats. This allows the author to insert a fair share of swashbuckling and feats of derring do.
Another excellent bit of development in the novel is the differing approaches to magic by the Landed, Nikandr and the other families, and the Landless Aramahn. While the latter control elemental spirits and have the most visible magic, the Matra of the families of the duchies have a magic all of their own, their own methods of magic an interesting contrast, and far more subtle than summoning hezhan.
For a first novel, Beaulieu shows a good command of language. The book is written in a third person past tense point of view, except for some special situations. Although I thought it was a mistake by the author at first, those times when he breaks that tense and point of view combination are deliberate, and are a subtle signal to the reader of something I will allow you to discover as I did.
As I was reading this book, which I had purchased for my Kindle, a copy of the book, signed, came up as one of the items offered in the recent Genre for Japan donation auction. Even at that point, I was sufficiently impressed with the book that I wanted a signed copy, and so put in an ultimately winning bid for the signed copy.
And, I will definitely read the next book Beaulieu sets in this world.