A Star Reckoner’s Lot is a fantasy novel by Darrell Drake. It’s set in Sasanian Iran, imbuing it with a mythic feel. This is assisted by the use of astronomy as functional magic, and the appearance of a great many seemingly supernatural monstrosities.
The world feels like a hard-edged version of the Thousand and One Nights. The supernatural is a pervasive and accepted part of life. There’s a strong dualism at play, between servants of the Truth, and servants of the Lie. The former are typically the authorities of humanity – kings, noblemen, driven by a desire to bring peace and order. The latter are a diverse group of murderous supernatural creatures, generally referred to as “Divs”. They range from murderous snake-women, to insect-like soul feeders, and forty-armed titans, bent on the destruction of humanity. This is a world where the sword and spear have a place, and martial virtue is prized – but it runs alongside a strand of morality which prizes order against chaos. This is a world where the border between the real and the unreal is tenuous at best, where dreams and illusions are likely to carry truths and to bite back. There’s a sense of the familiar here, wrapped around the close friendships and affections that people share – but accented by the strange – marriages between siblings, or the ability to draw on the alignment of the stars to wreak devastation upon ones enemies. It’s certainly in a unique epoch, and its blend of the familiar and an unfamiliar culture makes for an intriguing read.
The protagonist is Ashtadukht (henceforth Ashta), the titular star-reckoner. Ashta isn’t a particularly good star-reckoner. She draws on the power and wisdom of the stars, and sometimes it works perfectly – she might reveal a murdered; often at the same time, it may not work as expected – the revelation may be made by a tunnel of fire which plows through a wall before incinerating the culprit. There’s power there, and she struggles with its unpredictable nature. She’s driven in her quest to defeat the div who killed her brother. The emotions that propel her down this path are seldom visible, but lurk like icebergs in the conversations and observations that she makes to her travelling companions. She’s also notably merciful; a star-reckoner’s job is to exterminate divs and half-divs, servants of the Lie. Ashta has a tendency to slap them around and send them packing, but has a capacity for forgiveness which is uncommon. Watching her try and square this circle, a desire to do right by the divs and her own quest for vengeance, wrapped in the emotions she has for her departed brother, surrounded by an unpredictable power – well, she’s certainly full of surprises. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out exactly what she’s feeling – but a lot of the time, it doesn’t seem like she’s entirely sure either.
She’s joined by her companions – her straight-laced cousin, who bears her some affection, and Waray, a half-div and general murderous lunatic. The former is led by duty, and cares for Ashta as family. He’s the foil for AShta’s slightly divergent opinions, and a brook against Waray’s excesses. The half-div, by contrast, is a mystery, of sorts. She speaks cryptically, or at least vaguely, and seems unable to provide a straight answer to most questions. She’s also given to utterly appalling (though for the reader, often hilarious) pranks. There’s a suggestion at the start of the text that something isn’t quite as it seems in the life of Waray – or indeed that many things aren’t – and this is one of the character mysteries that drive the narrative.
The plot moves across the years, blending seamlessly between chapters. It can be tricky to tell how much time has passed, but that actually fits into the mythic tone of the story. But it follows Ashta and her companions as they journey around Iran, seeking out divs causing trouble and trying to prevent it – whilst keeping an eye out for the one which ended Ashta’s brother. There’s a lot of opportunity for reflection in here, and some great bantering character sections. But there’s also some truly impressive magic, and debates around truth and morality. These are, though, mixed in with duels, the occasional siege, and a non-zero amount of derring-so. It’s a complicated story, this one, with depths that deserve to be plumbed in a second or third reading. But it’s also an adventure, a tale of heroism and villainy, battle and betrayal. It’s a fresh voice, and one which deserves to be heard. Give it a shot.