Mild Spoilers: A very enjoyable read. The two leads are wonderful and the ghost plot line is original and engrossing; the world is very fully drawn and richly developed. The story was not nearly as violent as Bloodraven, though there is a brutal rape scene. The book is crazily long: my Kindle puts it at over a 1000 pages. To be honest, I thought it far longer than it has to be for the story it tells, though Nunn is such an engaging writer that it doesn’t drag. Surprisingly, given the length, several of the story lines actually felt unfinished: for example, what happens with King Drane and the Guntharians, with Ashe’s father. I kept expecting Illya’s family to arrive, which they never did. I would have loved more on the ghosts.
Instead we mostly get the courtship between Illya and Ashe, which takes hundreds of pages to reach fruition. The two leads are so likable that you don’t mind at all, and the sex when it finally arrives is wonderful. But I couldn’t help feeling it could have come at any number of points earlier, including when they are prisoners of the Guntharians or during their escape, and have been almost as satisfying.
Bottom line: I really enjoyed the book, but it did not have the same impact on me that Bloodraven did.
There’s a moment about a third of the way through Bloodraven, when Yhalen, the young forester who was taken prisoner by ogres and then brutalized by them, uses his powers to heal his erstwhile captor, who had also raped him, though not with the same cruelty.
“Why?" [Bloodraven] asked instead. "Why do such things when my death would have benefited you far more?"
Yhalen bent over his knees, resting forehead on his forearm, perhaps not willing to answer, or not able to, strange creature that he was.
"Is that the way your people think?" he asked finally, as he turned his head to peer up at Bloodraven through the thick fall of the hair around his face. "That death is more beneficial than life?”
There are many, many things that I admired about this book: it’s a great high fantasy epic, with superlative world-building, compelling characters, action, adventure. But the book goes much deeper, exploring themes that have a resonance far beyond sword-play and magic.
Like the best books, it avoids easy answers for the complex questions it asks. The Ogres are a fascinating species. They are genuinely frightening and horrible, but they are not simply monsters. They are an entire culture--a peculiarly violent and non-adaptive one. There is almost nothing about them that appeals to the reader. They are brutish, violent bullies, with no ability to value anyone weaker. They destroy with wanton violence, but have no gift to nurture or create. They truly see death as more beneficial than life.
It is only through understanding them that Bloodraven’s actions can be seen as forgivable and that he can achieve stature as a genuine hero, which I think he does. There was another passage that struck me.
[Bloodraven] fingered the cloth, marveling at the tightness of the weave. The things that the men of the lowlands were capable of never ceased to amaze him. Those few stolen items that trickled up to the northern tribes were bartered at high prices, for even the mountain humans who worked in fear of their lives for the tribes, did not create such clever things. But then again, perhaps they were capable, but chose not to share with the race that had hunted and oppressed them for generations. Understandable. If he were in the same position he’d have offered nothing more than the simplest tasks demanded of him. Not for the first time he considered the tribal chieftains of old fools for choosing to make war with the humans instead of ally with them.
This is Bloodraven’s analysis. He is the sole product of this culture who seems able to question its basic premise: the only value is in strength. He is the only ogre we meet who understands the contradiction that the ogres can see the value in the cloth itself but show contempt for the world of tasks that go into actually creating it. He can do this because he makes the effort to understand another’s perspective, whether it’s the people who will spend hours upon hours carving useless decorations in a chair or embroidering a piece of cloth just to create beauty, or the slaves who choose not to devote those hours of labor for masters who kill them on a whim and treat them with merciless brutality.
Ultimately, he becomes a stand-in for the nation-building emigrant: those visionary people who were forced to abandon the country of their birth because of its total failure to provide opportunities to grow and develop.
Yhalen too comes from a far more beautiful, but similarly non-adaptive culture, one that can survive only in the protected isolation of its Forest. All it takes is coming in contact with a far more violent people to highlight the limits of his people’s most cherished beliefs.
The bond the two of them create is epic--literally: it leads to the creation of a new, mixed people, human and ogre, that will nurture the dreams of all, instead of taking pride only in the ability to kill those that are weaker.
It’s a great story.