Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Whisper of Leaves - K. S. Nikakis

Forest prophecy conflict.


This is a fantasy novel.

There are no barbarians, wizards, thieves or dancing girls in diaphanous skirts.

There are no dark lords, princesses, dragons, castles, knights, fairies, elves, sorccerers or armies.

There are no girls that fight werewolves and bonk vampires, or guys that hunt monsters.

In other words, this is a sort of book that I really haven't come aross much of before.

It isn't high fantasy, and it isn't down at the other, heroic fantasy end either.

I was emailed and asked if I would like to check it out, and after looking at the website and seeing the forest motif I thought, sure, why not, I'd been meaning to have a look at some more Australian fantasy.

Mostly at the moment I suppose I'd call it neutral, or quiet fantasy perhaps.

The prologue introduces a prophecy via fortunetelling, or precognition, whichever you prefer to call it, and some poetry of the sort Aragorn carries around in the Lord of the Rings.

It then jumps scene to the main character, a girl named Kira. Kiraon in this language apparently means a type of owl.

The word for world here is definitely forest, and her people are called the Tremen. No, there are no giant earthworms, sorry.

Kira lives in a small, isolated society cut off from the outside by the rather large amount of trees. Her people are divided into clans, with taboos against intraclan breeding, presumably to keep the smallish size population from developing extra heads or arms.

She is a highly talented healer, and even has some supernatural level of ability it would appear, at times. This drives the major political conflict, as she is quite young, and also a woman, so a threat to the generally male power structure of her society. The best healers are the rulers here. The small warband they keep for defence, and pretty much never used because of how isolated they are, are called Protectors, and are very much subservient. Not in the way James Barclay's are, though.

There isn't actually much of a good versus evil theme going on at all in this novel, although our sympathies are clearly supposed to lie with Kira, and one other character to a lesser extent, this time an adult woman. She is the wife of the chief of her people, the Shargh. Their society is reminiscent of David Gemmell's Nadir (mongol tribes). When one of their people stumbles across the Tremen and Kira is seen, they realise their prophecy is at hand, as she clearly resembles what is mentioned therein.

This provokes a raiding conflict, and the green and unsure Protectors aren't ready in a military sense, or to deal with the weapons and tactics used against them.

Interestingly, you see almost none of the violence, unless Kira is directly involved or in sight. She is a healer, so this is not often. If you are expecting great swathes of fighting and magic, this is not the book for you. She is not a healer in the Dungeons and Dragons cleric smites them with a mace and blasts zombies, and she does not use a weapon at all.

In fact with the time spent between the two women and societies it actually reminds me a little of James A. Michener at times, and Centennial or something like that, giving the points of view of both groups of people without declaring either lot The Bad Ones.

The physical novel itself is a trade, but only about 400 pages, and the line spacing is quite wide. So it won't take forever, and you won't be able to knock out camels with it, like a punch from Conan would.

The language used is a little formal, or stilted at times, the sort of thing you would expect in a high fantasy type book, but not all the time, and happily not in general conversation between characters. The large number of new names for things may take a little bit of getting used to for people that don't come across that often, and there is the odd instance of a sentence or two of a whole pile of these at once. Pretty standard fantasy sort of stuff, otherwise.

Names of food go the opposite way, so you have a fruit called sour-ripe, and sweetfish, and nut bread, and swearing in the same vein such as 'heart-rot'.

There is also a romance angle. Although Kira is quite young, and somewhat of the adventurous tomboy sort with treeclimbing and leaping and exploring of more interest to her in the past, there is an attraction to a Protector named Kest.

So, mostly about politics and medicine and trying to deal with upheaval and newly encountered small scale conflict, with a possible quest in the offing as the blurb mentions.

I generally prefer the sword and sorcery or heroic fantasy end of things, but this book was quite readable, if not thrilling, and a new sort of story, to me. The romantic subplot is just that, so it is by no means a romance novel or even romantic fantasy, but is quite clearly written to appeal to majority female fantasy buying audience, and the author is indeed a woman. K.S. stands for Karen Simpson it seems, an author with an academic background. Neither the romance angle or the 'fantasy novel' language made me roll my eyes at any time.

No reason I can see that fantasy fans wouldn't like this book, presuming they aren't looking for Brooks, Brust or The Black Company. If they can get over all the new names for things, including animals and plants, there is not much of a stretch for mainstream readers to take this on, where, with not huge alterations you could have an historical novel of sorts.


3.5 out of 5

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