Imagine Worf with a smooth forehead and a bit less of a temper and you have Kemen Sendoa, a warrior committed to honour and his country, Erdem. He comes across the tracks of a city boy in the snow one day and follows them, thinking the boy obviously needs some help. He finds the young prince, fleeing a palace coup, inadequately prepared for winter weather and life in general. Sendoa finds himself the reluctant guardian of a spoiled, soft boy who needs to become both a man and a king before he can hope to win his throne back.
Brightley surprised me by writing a book that is both intensely masculine and deeply introspective. Sendoa is the consummate warrior and takes great physical delight in his own exercises, which Brightley describes so well you feel as if you are living in the man’s skin. He is also dark-skinned in a fair-skinned country and feels deeply the slights and suspicion that he is continuously subjected to. We discover that the war hero has his own issues, even as he helps the prince overcome his.
Brightley’s prose is unpretentious, direct and often understated, which lends it the power of simplicity and perfectly suits the temperament of the narrator. The plot is a little slow-moving, because of the introspection I mentioned earlier. Sendoa thinks deeply about everything he does and shares his reflections with us. While it does slow the action down, it also increases our respect for him. He has thoughts worth listening to.
And there is plenty to think about. Not only has there been a coup, but war is looming, and the country is badly frayed. Prince Hakan is not going to be given the luxury of growing up slowly.
Most of the book is taken up with the relationship between Sendoa and Hakan, so these are the characters drawn the most deeply. The others were never richly developed but this is due at least in part to the fact that we see relatively little of them. I must confess, I sometimes had trouble remembering who matched which name, because I didn’t have a clear enough picture of the character and because Brightley didn’t provide very many “memory hooks” to help us recall who she was talking about. I would perhaps quibble also that so many of the characters were good. It is a strange thing to complain about, but it seems to me that a little more darkness would have been appropriate, and Hakan’s path, while not easy, could have legitimately been more difficult.
I heard it said once that fantasy is the only genre where you can write nobility without irony, and this is precisely what Brightley has done. There is genuine nobility of character here, without pretension.
Still, this was an enjoyable book. I do enjoy having characters I can cheer for, and watching the relationship between warrior and princeling develop was enriching. I do hope we can see Sendoa confronting his own issues more directly in the sequels and that Hakan will have greater challenges thrown his way. I finished the book intensely fond of both of them.