Thursday, March 14, 2013

Priestess of the White

Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Hefty (598 pages)
Publication: December 27, 2005 from Harper Voyager
Premise: Auraya, who saved her village from a massacre when she was younger, is now one of the White, the five immortal priests and priestesses who use the power of the gods to protect the realm. The gods have declared that Hania must ally itself with surrounding lands, but that's all the more difficult when mysterious sorcerers in black are attacking the kingdom and Auraya is trying to maintain her childhood friendship with a heathen Dreamweaver.
Warnings: largely offscreen portrayal of violent death, implied offscreen incestuous sexual abuse (very brief)
Recommendation: If you're willing to be patient, there are some good thoughts and details here, but it moves a little slowly and tends to spend time rehashing old territory when it needs to be moving forward.

What gives this one strong worldbuilding:

One advantage Trudi Canavan's style here is that the reader gets to step inside several cultures and mindsets within those cultures. Auraya herself carries the bulk of the narration, but the first voice after the prologue is that of Danjin Spear, her mortal adviser in diplomacy. Soon after that we see chapters from the Dreamweavers, magical healers who are anathema to the Circlian faith, as well as the Siyee, a race of flying people. Individuals outside of any set group also provide interesting tangent perspective-- Emerahl, a sorceress who's been eluding the notice of the White for over a century, has compassion for individual people who cross her path while interacting with people in general as tools to an end. Canavan nails the mixture of humanity and immortality well; these people are going to make mistakes and eventually die regardless of what this sorceress does, so she wants to help without making them her responsibility. The trade-off between safety and helping often lands her in tough positions that show off her thoughts and motivations without making her too gentle or too overdone as an uncaring immortal.

Culturally speaking, the Siyee are by far the most interesting. Their mythology tells them that they used to be landwalkers until the goddess Huan offered them the chance to fly if they gave up some of their size and strength. They accepted, and so now they live in high peaks and forests, mostly living from plants because their arm-wings don't have the strength to use conventional weapons-- while they're proud of their freedom of the skies, they're also vulnerable to normal humans seizing their territory and killing them when they don't know how to fight back. Between these deaths and their naturally low birthrates, they have to make decisions as a population based on the very real possibility of their species dying off. If they choose one alliance and have to serve as aerial battle scouts, many of them will die, but without the protection that alliance offers, they will slowly die as a species without the land necessary to feed themselves. It's a well-defined struggle that highlights both their fears and their courage, and all the more interesting after having seen some of their cultural traditions to help explain the reasoning behind their decisions.

Not far behind the Siyee in terms of group interest are the Dreamweavers, sorcerer-healers who are sworn to use that power to help anyone who asks it, regardless of that person's nation, loyalties, or spiritual affiliation. A century ago, the Dreamweaver leader Mirar was killed by one of the White for becoming a dangerous threat, and many citizens started killing every Dreamweaver they could find. The fear wasn't entirely unfounded, since Dreamweavers are capable of sending terrifying nightmares and otherwise using their powers for evil, but now all the ones who remain are sworn only to healing, even if seeking their services is against the law. They exist in a state of tension that magnifies Emerahl's individual struggle--their intentions are good, but their nature means that they run the risk of being persecuted or attacked. Leiard, Auraya's friend and Dreamweaver mentor from when she was younger, is especially nervous when he walks into the central Temple to deliver a message for her. It's obvious that people see him as an unclean heathen, and many of the more powerful priests have the power to read minds, which leaves him all the more vulnerable. He eventually agrees to become an adviser to the White on Dreamweaver matters for a time, but fear of knowing that he's working with the group that killed his people's leader never entirely leaves him.

This fear plays well into what may be the book's best mechanic: Dreamweavers link minds to share thoughts and skills and memories when they gather together, so it's not uncommon for people to end up with link memories from those who are long dead. When a Dreamweaver goes too long without linking with others, he or she also does without the magical affirmation of one identity separate from others and can thus lose track of which memories were directly experiences and which are secondhand. Leiard starts to hear the voice of a long-dead Dreamweaver because he possesses so many link memories from that person that his own identity is blurring, adding concerns of the past from someone who violently disagrees with Leiard's choice to work with the White. The mind-link use of magical Gifts reinforces the interwoven nature of the Dreamweaver community, though they're also interesting elsewhere. 

In short, everyone with a certain amount of Gifted power can do the same basic things, but some people are better in certain areas-- in the case of the White, the gods will sometimes bestow unique Gifts to help the White accomplish their divinely-chosen tasks. Dreamweavers maintain the respect and influence that they do, even through the fear, because their use of herbs and Gifted healing is more effective than anything that the priests and priestesses can offer. Auraya, in a move that will doubtless be relevant in the sequels, spends some time wondering whether she could, out of a genuine desire to save souls from oblivion, get the Circlians to learn Dreamweaver skills so well that no one needs or wants to become a Dreamweaver. It would mean the end of that culture and of the sacred commitment to universal healing, but-- to her eyes-- it would also stop people from becoming heathens and harming their own souls. Canavan does a great job of showing why people have the ideas and ironclad convictions that they do, and that's excellent for setting up the clashes that will doubtless ignite in the sequel.

The red pen:

Fascinating though it is to look at some of cultural tensions that Canavan has constructed through different eyes on all sides of the situations, new perspectives aren't always a good thing. As the book progresses, we see more and more little snippets (about two pages long) from characters who are there just to witness something unusual, like an advancing army or a collapsing hill, and then are never heard from again. We have time to hear about their daily habits, just enough in the way of place in the world and quirks to establish this person as an individual instead of a generic sketch, and then the person vanishes without a trace. In moderation, this sort of thing can serve as a reminder that the world is full of people who have no idea what's happening but are unwillingly caught up in great events, but as the book progresses, this escalates from an interesting novelty to an awkward addition to the main narrative. This is especially egregious when Auraya takes a side trip to try to form an alliance and the reader is taken on a six-page detour through the eyes of a saccharine child of that culture; we hear about her aunt, the secret passages in the palace, and her innocent perspective on the offer of alliance, which differs in no substantial way from the last offer of alliance. New narrative perspectives should provide something unique, but many of these bog down in providing detail that is either unnecessary or won't be relevant until the sequels, if ever.

Even some of the most potentially intriguing character perspectives fall flat. Early on, we're introduced to Tryss, a young Siyee teenager who wants to invent a hunting harness that would allow him to use weapons from the air. He has a crush on Drilli, a girl who supports his inventions, but most other Siyee (particularly his cousins) are both jealous of him and contemptuous of his ridiculous ideas. This is a decent starting point, but that dynamic continues essentially unchanged for a good half of the book, and the agonizingly slow teenage romance element eats up space and thus slows down the more interesting arcs. On some level, this part is a victim of tropes: Tryss is an innovator in a stagnant culture and thus going to be successful after triumphing over adversity, because there's nowhere else for this bit to go. 

The novel's main love story suffers from similar problems because it feels telegraphed from the first scenes that the characters spend together. Pointing out the second participant's identity would probably entail spoilers, but suffice to say that when Auraya is inexplicably happy to see the same person in scene after scene, the obvious guess about what's going to happen is probably correct. This relationship eats incredible amounts of time and space-- like Tryss's fight to have his work respected, there are only so many places this can go. There's tension and attraction, both of them deny it, and then they fall into bed together after a late-night business meeting. The arc is similar to the overdone "this forbidden love cannot be" bits of The Unincorporated Man, doubtless because writers who want to inject romance into sweeping societal epics often go with similar relationship dynamics in lieu of spending lots of time on something new and different. The problem, both here and in the Kollins' book, is that the result is endless time spent on a dull and trope-ridden romantic arc that serves as a plot-steering mechanism instead of a source of real emotional tension.

The largest problem begins in the prologue: in short, Auraya doesn't seem to experience human difficulties with anything. The spoiler-light version is that her village is under attack and taken hostage, and it looks like the alternatives are the White giving in to negotiate with essentially terrorists or the whole village being slaughtered to make a point and then kicking off a war in the region. Auraya has thought of a solution overnight after seeing a clue in a dream and thus manages to avert an international incident that seems about to burst over the wise immortals and diplomats trying to prevent it....all in the middle of her teenage years when she's been raised in an isolated village and is relying on nothing but common sense. It's not impossible on its own (though it is deeply melodramatic), but it establishes a trend of Auraya being able to solve problems either because she considers obvious solutions that somehow no one has ever tried before because there's stupidity in the water or because she has magic powers that no one else shares. There's a fine line between presenting a problem to which a character has (or is) the solution by virtue of experience or mindset and presenting a problem that a character can solve Because Reasons, and this unfortunately trends toward the second, with Auraya struggling when it's convenient to the plot that she do so.

All five of the White have this problem to an extent, but they're so generic that it's almost hard to tell them apart beyond their one designated character trait apiece: one is the stoic leader, one is the stern teacher, one is the fanatic, and one lucks out with two character traits by being both promiscuous and nosy (she is also magically the weakest of the five, which is an issue for another day). They're clearly supposed to be well-rounded people, but they end up seeming like contrasts to Auraya, who seems to ooze sickly sweetness. Little touches like Mischief, Auraya's pet veez (talking squirrel-ish thing, apparently bred to be annoying and allegedly cute) certainly don't help, given that she named it that in order to say things like "and I must set aside some time for Mischief" in conversation. It is beyond aggravating to see the thing speak in baby talk and perform the time-honored function of pets in fiction everywhere by sniffing visitors and really liking people who are trustworthy, relationship potential, or both. Just once, I would love to see someone's dog absolutely love the villain-- but I digress. It seems like the creature may have a role to play in the sequels, based on some heavy foreshadowing, but the meantime it's the overly-cloying cap on Auraya's disturbingly good nature; it's hard to tell if she possesses any actual character flaws, and that makes her less human than her immortality ever could.

On the whole, Priestess of the White presents and intriguing set of interlocking societies that can share strengths with each other but are also vulnerable to uneasy cultural tensions and clashes that may be quite good in the sequels. Unfortunately, the narrative spends so much time going over old ground, particularly when it comes to romantic relationships that feel devoid of real tension anyway, that it's hard to stay engaged with the story. Odds are I'll give her next project a try, since some aspects of this were genuinely great, but I won't be rushing to the bookstore on release day.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Age of the Five trilogy. The third, Voice of the Gods, came out in 2007. She is currently at work on the Millennium's Rule trilogy; the first, Maker's Magic, is slated for release in 2014.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Daughter of the Empire does a better job with political intrigue and the delicate work of building alliances, both on the smaller scale of clans and families and the broader scope of a completely alien species and culture. 
~For a different angle on someone given strength and power through service to the gods, try Kelly McCullough's Broken Blade. It's darker and more cynical, definitely flavored with some fantasy noir.

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