Last May, I read The Winds of Khalakovo, and reviewed it here at the Functional Nerds. The Winds of Khalakovo is a secondary fantasy novel borrowing from cultures not usually invoked in fantasy–Tsarist Russia and ancient Persia. Throw in a pair of very different magic systems, very non standard cultural issues of duty and honor, a unique archipelago type setting, and oh yes, airships. One must not forget the airships!
The Straits of Galahesh is the second in the Lays of Anuskaya series by Bradley Beaulieu. One book into the series, and the author has expanded the scope of the characters, the conflict and the world that he presents us. Jumping a gap of time from the finale of the first novel, The Straits of Galahesh continues the stories of Nasim, Nikandr and Atiana. The immediate problem only partially addressed and combatted at the end of Winds has grown, and the bonds of duty have driven the trio apart to very different paths.
The author expands the focus of the world and the conflict by bringing to light all three sides of the triumvirate responsible for the state of the world and working to finish the job even now. While the focus in the first novel was narrow in this regard (for all of the novel being epic), the author goes for “bigger and larger” by making the struggles and conflicts and internal divisions between Sariya, Mullaquad and Khamal expand to engulf the islands and beyond.
In keeping with this, and in keeping with the bigger and larger, we add to the mix the Empire that the Dukes of the islands broke away from generations ago. The Empire is flexing is muscles again, and is being driven to look at reclaiming its long-lost province. In contrast to the Russian flavor to the Dukedoms and the Persian flavor to the Amarahn, the Empire has a distinctly Turkish and Ottoman flavor to what we see of it, from mentions of janissaries to the prospect of Atiana joining a harem.
The strengths of the first novel continue to flow into the second. Nikandr and Atiana continue to develop as characters, especially as they are riven apart throughout most of the novel by duty, honor and competing loyalties. While a somewhat weaker pole himself, Nasim together with the two of them provide the three protagonist foci that the novel revolves around.
The author’s writing continues to improve. Now that I know what to expect from the writer, the changes and point of view changes were like beats that came easily and well. There are some nice turns of phrase and experiments with description not seen before in the author’s work, and they are used well. For example:
In the end they made their way back to the road and then pushed hard for Vihrosh. They stopped outside of the city and found a clear stream that ran over gray rocks. While Irkadiy watched the path for signs of pursuit, Atiana stripped and washed the worst of the marsh stench from her cloths and skin. It wasn’t perfect, but it would prevent anyone from asking of it—or more importantly, remembering it. As she washed the clothes, she kept glancing toward the tree Irkadiy was hiding behind, wondering if he was going to pop his head around to steal a look. But he never did. They switched places, and Atiana was not so resilient as Irkadiy had been. She did steal a look, and Irkadiy was looking right at her when she did.
He smiled, and when she ducked back behind the tree, he laughed.
She was too embarrassed to look again, but the sound—the healthy laugh of a naked man in an idyllic place like this—did much to drive back the terror she’d had in her heart since finding the spire.
They didn’t wait for their clothes to dry, but instead trusted to the wind to do that for them, at least as much as it could in the light drizzle. By the time they reached the straits and took to the ferry that would bring them back across the water, the Spar looked vastly different than it had that morning. The sun had already set, casting it the blue color of wet slate. The Spar had never looked anything but imposing, but now it seemed bellicose as well, like a hand upon the hilt of a knife.
In addition, given that there is a five year time time gap between the first novel and the second, it is possible, I think, to pick up the series here and start reading, if for some bizarre reason you didn’t want to read Winds first. In both a brief recap and within the text, the author tells the reader everything they need to know about the events of the first novel to get up to speed with the second. Like me, Brad clearly has read novels where authors have fallen down on the job, and has learned from those mistakes and endeavored not to repeat them.
A few things stuck out in my mind that could have been improved. Maybe its just the style of the author, given that the first book had similar pacing, but the book takes some time to get up to speed narratively to engage me as a reader. It is really only when Nikandr reaches the point in the novel that the cover (slightly inaccurately) depicts that the novel really started to click and take off for me. My patience in this regard was warranted. I do find the contrast between this and the way his co-written novella Strata handles this to be interesting.
When the novel does really get going, though, and momentum builds, the Straits of Galahesh ups the ante on action from the first novel significantly. It would be somewhat inaccurate to say that Nikandr is a action hero, he still is much more of a guile hero, trying to persuade people to join his cause and see his concerns. But he does wind up in more action sequences, and not always by choice or desire. Atiana, too, winds up getting tangled in some sticky situations herself.
The other thing is that a couple of things happen that we are told, not shown. We are suddenly informed that a mostly offstage minor character has leveled up, without prologue or antecedent to explain why she suddenly is that way. It felt like something the novel needed, but some more groundwork would have been better. A different character’s more radical transformation and change feels like a setup for the third novel and I hope that gets more fully explained and explicated at that point.
I am still curious about a couple of the reasons for the way magical technology and development have gone the way they have, especially when the fragility of that magical technology becomes a major plot point. To say more would be spoilers.
In the title to this review, I called The Straits of Galahesh a Russian Bear of a novel. Like The Winds of Khalakovo, this is a thick, dense secondary world fantasy that requires a full engagement from the reader to really get the best enjoyment out of. And yes, given the stakes, and the scope of the novel, this is definitely epic fantasy.
All around, I think the author has matured as a writer. The Straits of Galahesh shows his growth and development as a writer as well as the world of the series itself. Middle books are difficult, and while the problem in the middle book is resolved, there is plenty of setup for the third book. And how! Thusly, I look forward to the third book in the series.