Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review - The Goddess's Choice by Jamie Marchant

Short review: An aged king seeks a husband for his spirited daughter, a magically gifted peasant tries to overcome prejudice, and an evil duke schemes to seize the throne in a quasi-Celtic fantasy land.

A gifted healer,
Princess, and an evil duke
The goddess chooses

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: I must admit that I started The Goddess's Choice with some trepidation. The cover announces that it is the first book in a series. It is almost immediately apparent that the story is set in a quasi-Celtic fantasy land. The hero is a downtrodden farm boy blessed with inborn magical powers of healing. The heroine is a plucky princess with her own magical gifts and somewhat anachronistic notions of equality. Added together, the book had all of the ingredients to be yet another drab and uninspiring entry into the ranks of generic fantasy novels. But what Jamie Marchant proves is that even when you start with some fairly ordinary ingredients, if you have a creative and capable cook, you can craft them into something special.

The Goddess's Choice is, at its heart, a story of royal intrigue and power politics set in the quasi-Celtic fantasy kingdom of Korthlundia, a nation welded out of the two former rivals of Korthia and Lundia, held together in a somewhat uneasy peace by the long-reigning and even-handed King Solar. But Solar is aged and has only one heir, the teen-aged Princess Samantha, and royal succession being what it is, the suitors for her hand have lined up all the way around the castle. Samantha is a fairly stereotypical headstrong and spirited princess with two aces up her sleeve: Her unexpected (and somewhat unwanted) power to "see" people's auras, and Darhour, the dour Horse Master who becomes her bodyguard.

Through Samantha's story is interwoven the travails of Robrek Angussstamm, a peasant boy who has the ability to heal animals. For this, and his unusual foreign appearance, Robrek is abused by his father, bullied by his brother, and shunned by the other inhabitants in his village, including the local village priest, who condemns Robrek as a "demon child". This is, from my perspective, the weakest part of the book - that in a world in which magic such as Robrek's actually worked, people like him, with demonstrable beneficent capabilities would be regarded as evil and treated like outcasts. The villagers who surround Robrek turn to him whenever they have an animal with a problem, and then universally stiff-arm him in all other situations. Robrek's own father relies upon his son to keep his farm running, and at the same time beats and abuses him. Granted Robrek's father has other issues, but it seems like an odd reaction. Many fantasy novels use this trope, because it is drawn from Western European history and the hunt for "witches". But the scapegoating of women who were accused of being witches in the real world worked precisely because those women didn't have any actual power, and thus could not defend themselves or offer any real tangible contribution to the community. But in a world in which magic is real and works, turning on someone who is able to wield magic seems akin to turning on your village butcher or blacksmith because they are good at their jobs.

Robrek's shunning is even more perplexing when one realizes that his alliance with a particular horse, specified as being a "Horsetad", is something that almost everyone who sees the Horsestad instantly recognizes as marking him as having the special favor of the Goddess Sulis. This shunning is made further puzzling when coupled with the fact that once Robrek walks out of his village everyone who comes into contact with him and sees his healing powers immediately understands just how valuable his skills are, so much so that one nobleman even tries some moderately heavy handed persuasion in an attempt to get Robrek to enter into his service. Other characters in the book deploy magic, in cases like Darhour's use, quite dangerous and deadly magic, and yet they are regarded as capable and valuable assets by the organizations that employ them. It appears that not only does the "everyone in the village shuns Robrek because he has magic powers" plot device seem counterintuitive, but the story itself seems to realize this. In effect, the reader more or less has to swallow the idea that a tiny zone of bigotry would exist within the confines of Robrek's home village and nowhere else in Korthlundia. This somewhat implausible anti-Robrek animus is unfortunate, because so much of the book is so well-done, and Robrek himself is an interesting and likable character. Robrek's character arc requires him to have a fair amount of resentment and anger lurking beneath the surface, other wise his development from a abused child to a confident and capable adult able to wield a sword, perform a courtly dance, and produce powerful illusions would not be as dramatic. The most interesting part of Robrek's story is his interactions with a trio of unusual horses, who guide his education from boy to man, and without his inner core of rage, this path would not have been as engrossing. Even so, this would have been much better had Robrek's cause for rage not felt so contrived.

Other than thise one quibble, the rest of The Goddess's Choice is brilliantly plotted. Much of the book is centered on the schemes and intrigues of the nobles of the land as they try to position themselves for a position in Korthlundia after Solar's death, and most of the scheming centers around the evil Duke Argblutal and his attempts to compel Samantha to become his bride and secure his claim to the throne. Thanks to Samantha's capabilities, she knows that Argblutal is horribly evil. If that wasn't enough to convince the reader of the Duke's vile nature, Marchant details how he enjoys raping and brutalizing women, and how he deals with followers who fail him by castrating them. When confronted with a means of controlling Solor that requires sacrificing three children, Argblutal simply lines the innocents up for the slaughter. The end result is that Marchant has crafted a despicable villain that gives the entire book a very real sense of menace. Argblutal is so over the top that at times he seems to almost be a cartoonish caricature of an actual villain, but every time he teeters on that precipice, Marchant is able to pull him back just enough to avoid having the story descend into silliness.

Samantha's story of vicious courtly intrigue is intertwined with Robrek's story of equally vicious village intrigue, loosely at first, and as the story progresses, more and more closely. At the beginning, the stories intersect only marginally, when the Princess visits a fair held in Robrek's village on a lark. After they return to their own independent stories for a while their stories again intersect when Samantha's horse is injured while she is traveling near Robrek's village, and further enmeshed when Samantha enlists Robrek's mentor's aid in dealing with a plot against her father. As the story goes on, Robrek's story and Samantha's story become braided together, and eventually merge, with his being subsumed into hers by the end. Along the way, Marchant mixes in some twists and turns which, while not entirely unexpected, add enough spice to the story to keep it from becoming stale along the way. The story builds to a satisfying climax, both romantically and politically, but there are clearly additional mysteries left open that will no doubt loom large in later books.

Although The Goddess's Choice feels at first glance like a generic fantasy story, and in many ways is a generic fantasy story, it is well executed, with interesting characters, compelling political intrigue and religious conflicts, and just enough innocent romance and exciting action to keep things moving. For anyone looking for an enjoyable fantasy story that offers a dynamic mix of intrigue, action, and romance, this book is a good place to find it.

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