Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Straits Of Galahesh - Bradley Beaulieu

The Straits of Galahesh is the second in Bradley Beaulieu’s “The Lays of Anuskaya” trilogy. I had a look at the first book in the series some time ago, and found it to be a rather original take on epic fantasy, with inspiration from contemporary struggles and from the Russian literary tradition.

Those themes continue in the sequel. We get to see a bit more of Beaulieu’s world this time around. Alongside the renaissance urbanity of the duchies, there’s also some time spent looking in on their near neighbour, the Empire of Yrstanla. The Empire feels like a far larger polity than the Duchies, with sprawling borders that are in a state of constant flux – battling with the seemingly barbarian Haelish, and, more recently, looking covetously at the overextended Duchies, now roiling from the events of the first book, and not greatly prepared for strife with their neighbour.

This is an Empire built on blood and gold, with a firm eye for realpolitik, and a tendency to both institutions and violence. They’re an interesting social contrast to the squabbling Duchies – if seemingly less diverse, the more absolute power of their Emperor allows him to get the Empire rolling in one direction with a relative minimum of fuss.

There’s a fair amount of heavyweight politics in this volume – mostly settled around the marriage of one of the Duchie’s own to one of the more important nobility in Yrstanla. There’s a lot of half-said sentences, and more than a little scheming, especially from the Matra on the side of the Duchies – the women who can utilise a form of astral projection to act as spies and saboteurs. They are, as yet, unable to access the Empire, in part due to the storm wacked Straits of Galahesh – and they’d dearly love to have eyes on the other side. The Yrstanlan’s, on the other hand, would very much like to get their hands on a Matra of their own – information being power. Cue rather a lot of shenanigans, and an atmosphere which is more than a little redolent of the Cold War – each side trying to gain an advantage over the other, in time, resources, or information.

From a character standpoint, we’re all over the place. Some of the time we’re looking in on Nischka, Prince of one of the Duchies, now looking for a cure for the spiritual disease wracking the islands – also known as the Wasting. He’s put his other responsibilities on hold for this, and in trying to discover more about the rifts which seem to cause the disease. This is a cooler Nischka, one with something less in the way of prejudice, challenged by the events of the last book to re-examine his role in society, and the way in which that society portrays those around it.

We also get some time with Soroush, leader of the insurgent force known as the Maharrat. These outcasts from their pacifistic people, who suffer somewhat from the prejudices of the Grand Duchy, make a great contrast to the rather staid Duchy-dwellers. Soroush is an intelligent, driven man with a history of personal tragedy – and his clashes with Nikandr are rooted in what both see as being on the right side of their ideals. In any event, Soroush’s energy courses through the narrative, and galvanise it on the occasions when it lulls a little.

The Al-Aqim from the previous book serve as something like antagonists.Two of the three individuals who shattered the world centuries ago, they’re now in search of the pieces of an artefact which allowed the, to do so. Mullaqad is the more energised, the more direct, with a sort of bluff honesty mixed with a disturbing knack for cruelty when masked as necessity. Sariya, on the other hand, weaves her way between the words on the page, her presence felt in influence, rather than seen, her words coming from the mouths of others. Quite what they’re looking for their artefact for is obscured, at least as the text begins – but they’re certainly willing to throw everything they have into doing so, and doing some terrible things to make sure that they succeed.

The plot, much like the Russian saga’s it seems to take a tradition from, is dense. Thick with names, and with plots and counterplots. There’s a lot of introspection here, a lot of people trying to decide what to do, and rather less of them actually doing it. The pacing for the first two thirds feels a little slow as a consequence – but it certainly picks up in the back third, and the conclusion is fast-paced, compelling, and carries with it all the emotional investment for which the slower portions laid the groundwork. It’s not a quick read, but it is one which will make you think, and feel, and ask questions.

On that basis, it’s a decent read; I’d say you’d have to come at it after reading the first book in order for it to really make sense, and if you do so, be aware that it’s laying out threads for the concluding volume to pick up and run with.  It’s heavy going at times, but is also a good read, and will replay your investment in the series.

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