Happy Halloween! I figure since it’s Halloween I ought to review a novel with some kind of horror element. Well let’s see, The Traitor’s Daughter, “is a dark, rich feast, rife with plagues, kidnappings, political intrigues, bloody crimes, bloodier revenges, arcane upheavals, and the threat of zombies.” Zombies! Perfectly Halloween or so the writer of that blurb would have me think. Unfortunately, my quest to review something horror was a complete failure. While there is something akin to zombies in the novel, albeit not in a traditional sense, they manage to only garner 10-20 pages of ‘screen’ time. As much of a red herring as ‘zombies’ are, it’s nothing compared to the outward appearance of Paula Brandon’s debut novel which reflects almost nothing of what she actually wrote.
See, Traitor’s Daughter just doesn’t look like the kind of novel I would enjoy. I try not to read reviews before I pick-up a novel, it’s hard to articulate my thoughts clogged up by other people’s, but I wasn’t going to read Brandon’s novel blind. To allay my fears I sneaked a peak at the Goodreads reviews to get a feel before giving it a shot. Quite a few of the reviews were lukewarm or negative in large part based on the incorrect assumption that Brandon’s novel was historical fantasy romance – which was music to my ears. Looking at the cover and the overt Jacqueline Carey blurb, I think those expectations were reasonable. So much so that Amazon filed it under Romance.
At first glance, Traitor’s Daughter looks like Gone with the Wind at best and Fabio on the Plantation (pretty sure I made that one up) at worse. The long flowing dress, the articulated ‘D’, and soft blend of a house emerging from a cloud with star pinpricks all over, screams: this is a book for CHICKS! Unfortunately the back cover (below) isn’t much better:
On the Veiled Isles, ominous signs are apparent to those with the talent to read them. The polarity of magic is wavering at its source, heralding a vast upheaval poised to alter the very balance of nature. Blissfully unaware of the cataclysmic events to come, Jianna Belandor, the beautiful, privileged daughter of a powerful Faerlonnish overlord, has only one concern: the journey to meet her prospective husband. But revolution is stirring as her own conquered people rise up against their oppressors, and Jianna is kidnapped and held captive at a rebel stronghold, insurance against her father’s crimes.
The resistance movement opens Jianna’s eyes―and her heart. Despite her belief in her father’s innocence, she is fascinated by the bold and charming nomadic physician and rebel sympathizer, Falaste Rione—who offers Jianna her only sanctuary in a cold and calculating web of intrigue. As plague and chaos grip the land, Jianna is pushed to the limits of her courage and resourcefulness, while virulent enemies discover that alliance is their only hope to save the human race.
So, other than the first sentence and the last clause of the last sentence, Traitor’s Daughter sounds like a romance story between the kidnapped Jianna and the healer Rione. It’s not. Brandon debut is high fantasy with a sprawling plot, political machinations, complex systems of magic, all of which manifest themselves in themes that both men and women will very much enjoy. To someone looking for romance they’re going to be sorely disappointed.
That’s not to say there isn’t a love story - there is sort of – but it’s far more in-line with what a typical fantasy reader would expect in a non-Joe Abercrombie novel. All told, it probably occupies a quarter of the novel leaving the rest of the time for Brandon to flesh out Magnifico Aureste Belandor, Jianna’s father. The fact his name isn’t even mentioned in the novel’s blurb boggles me. Most of the novel is spent on his ongoing political struggle to rescue his daughter without destroying his tenuous position as a Faerlonnish lord ruled by the Taerleezi conquerors.
Maybe, Spectra and
Amazon mixed books up?
The society of the Veiled Isles is one akin to Apartheid. An ethnic minority (Taerleezi) rules by way of conquest, oppressing the indigenous population (Faerlonne) and elevating those few willing to work for them. Those elevated have become a lightening rod to their oppressed brethren diverting much of the unexpressed anger and resentment from the true oppressors. Aureste, one of these ‘betrayers’ has spent his life securing his house’s place under the Taerleezi government. He has hidden his activities from his daughter, sheltered her, and now she’ll pay for his crimes. Brandon examines the lengths to which a father will go to protect his child as well as the sins a child’s unconditional love can ignore.
A distinct lack of moral certitude permeates Traitor’s Daughter. Aureste and his daughter’s captors both feel wronged and view there causes as right and just. To them the ends always justify the means. Jianna and Rione, representing the next generation, become Brandon’s moral center, setup to become the reformer of their predecessors whom are stuck in the memory of past wrongs and outdated world views. It all works spectacularly well creating an emotional investment not just in the characters, but in the political and familial structures Brandon puts in place.
If there’s one black mark, aside from its marketing, it’s that much of Traitor’s Daughter feels like a prologue to a larger arc. The novel is framed by chapters from Grix Orlazzu, an arcane practitioner who’s clearly pegged to the larger story line of the world’s wavering magic. His chapters demonstrate a state of technological advancement that is far ahead of that present in the rest of the world. Jianna and Aureste’s narrative only tangentially touch on this framing, leaving me to wonder how everything is connected, a fact that’s a little frustrating having finished a third of trilogy. Given that the series is already completed and on an accelerated release timetable, I’m willing to give Brandon a pass despite my strong preference for every novel to have a beginning, middle, and end.
Now this I’d like to read!
None of this in Traitor’s
This is a long review that does a bit of a disservice to Brandon’s novel. As a novel, I definitely recommend it. It’s unquestionably one of the better fantasy debuts this year and the series holds a lot of promise. I compare it favorably to Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet (not quite that good) for its audacity to write a fantasy series that focuses on politics instead of war without relying on the crutch of romance and sex. Fans of epic fantasy that enjoy a slow build, ambitious world building, and political intrigue will absolutely eat it up.
In terms of marketing, I have to give it a big F. It’s not romance, or horror (zombies, ha!), or steampunk, or science fiction, or pure fantasy – it’s a mix of all them making Traitor’s Daughter a genre novel, but one that’s hard to pigeonhole in a business that demands the opposite. There’s a possibility the next two installments are a lot more romance that the first. But somehow the skeptic in me thinks that branding the novel as romance was a conscious choice and I find it a bit intellectually dishonest.
Long story short: buy the book, read it, and ignore the cover and the reviews that have a lot more to do with a poorly conceived presentation than any failing of Paula Brandon’s. The sequel, The Ruined City, is due out in early 2012 with the third installment to follow before year’s end. I look forward to spending a lot more time in the Veiled Isles.