01 September 2011

Lord of Snow and Shadows

Another old review of mine:

Sara Ash, Lord of Snow and Shadows, Book 1 of the Tears of Artamon (Bantam, 2004)


Sarah Ash’s new trilogy opens with the artist Gavril Andar falling hopelessly in love with Astasia, the daughter of the Duke of Muscobar. Fortuitously he discovers that he is the son and heir of the recently assassinated ruler of Azhkendir, a buffer state between Muscobar and Tielen. Naturally he hopes that this might be the answer to his romantic problems. However, the Duke of Muscobar hopes to marry Astasia off to Prince Eugene of Tielen in a bid to avoid a ruinous war. To further complicate matters, Gavril soon discovers that he has inherited more than a bleak, poverty-stricken northern state. The dynasty to which he is heir is founded upon possession of (or, rather, by) a demonic force that will gradually devour his humanity but which he must use if he is to avenge his father’s murder and defend his people against Tielen aggression.

The place names locate this novel rather too obviously in a mythical analogue of Russia. That quibble aside, Ash develops her world with loving attention to detail, building up a vivid picture of a late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century Russia without the external threat of Napoleon (we are told that Prince Eugene’s father decisively defeated Francia in a sea battle a generation earlier) but also without the internal unifying force of a czar. The result is a collection of squabbling duchies at various stages of modernization. In some senses Muscobar is the most modern with the common people beginning to resent the aristocrats who exploit them. At the other extreme, Azhkendir remains thoroughly feudal much to the discomfort of Gavril who has been brought up in decadent Smarna.

One of the strengths of Ash’s writing is her characterization. Even her minor characters feel like real people rather than stock figures. You feel that their words and actions are driven by their various personalities and situations rather than the demands of the story. As for the major characters, they are in most cases complex figures with complex personalities and motivations. Take, for example, Prince Eugene of Tielen. He could so easily have been presented as the stock villain of the novel and Ash makes no secret of his obsessive vision of a Rossiyan Empire reunited under his leadership. However, she forces us to sympathize with him by making him the viewpoint character at various points. Thus, in addition to Eugene the ruthless expansionist we get to see him as Eugene the loving father of sickly, crippled Karila. He is torn between the memory of his dead wife and the political expediency of marriage to Astasia Orlov. Perhaps most surprising is the barely suppressed homoeroticism in his feelings for his young protégé Jaromir Arkhel, the last survivor of a dynasty that once challenged Gavril’s father for the throne of Azhkendir.

Given the demonic aspect of Gavril’s inheritance, it is no surprise that the supernatural plays an important part in this novel. Ironically Gavril initially denies the existence of magic and the supernatural and only reluctantly comes to acknowledge the true nature of his inheritance. Prince Eugene has no such doubts and makes full use of the skills of his court alchemist to bolster his military advantage (for example, turning condemned criminals into werewolves to be used as a kind of commando force).

Magic of a different kind plays a crucial role in Gavril’s struggle with the demon he has inherited. As he settles into his new role as ruler of Azhkendir, he befriends the serving girl Kiukiu. Like him, she is an outsider. Although a faithful servant of the Nagarian line, she is despised because her mother had been seduced by a follower of the hated Arkhel clan. However, and again like Gavril, she has inherited something more from her father. She discovers that she is a guslyar, a ‘ghost singer’ with shamanistic powers – powers that she uses to aid Gavril.

The book is very well written and Ash brings it to as satisfying a conclusion as is possible in the first volume of a trilogy. Naturally, since it is a first volume, she has salted it with unanswered questions to pique the reader’s curiosity about what happens next. I am certainly looking forward to the next stage in the larger story.

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