I don’t remember how I heard about these two books (The Initiate Brother and The Gatherer of Clouds) by Sean Russell, but I’m glad I did. Seldom do I find Fantasy novels based on ancient Japan, and seldom do I find myself so captivated.
The Yankura family has ascended the Empire’s throne after the plague wiped out most of the previous dynasty, and the Emperor is a hard man to figure out. He trusts no one, and schemes and undermines, afraid that the older Houses will turn against him.
Lord Shonto is a lord of such an ancient House, and though he sees the Emperor fears him and his influence, and knows the Emperor wants him and his House gone, he still performs his duties for the Empire. He is to travel to the province of Seh, where the barbarian hordes are amassing, and he is to protect the Empire from their greed. He is helped by members of his House, his allies, his daughter Lady Nishima and his Spiritual advisor; a young Initiate Brother called Shuyun, who seems to be destined for great things
I hardly ever call a book perfect, but I can’t do anything else but call this duology just that. Sean Russell manages to paint a beautiful picture while telling an engrossing story, set in a fictional Japan. Now, anyone who knows me, knows I’m very interested in the ancient Asian cultures (among other ancient cultures like the ancient Greeks, etc.), so whenever I find a vaguely Asian race or culture in a Fantasy novel, I’m delighted. But it was hard for me to find a Fantasy novel that actually took place in pseudo-Asia, until I found the Barry Hughart series concerning Master Li and Number Ten Ox, and that’s based on China.
So this duology definitely caught my attention, and it pulled me in from the first moment I set my eyes to the page. What a marvel! The characters are great – love them or hate them – and I must admit that I had Shuyun as my favourite from the moment he arrived on the scene, but there are so many others worthy of mentioning. Lord Motoru Shonto, Lady Nishima, Lady Kitsuna, Sister Morima, Shimeko, general Hojo, Lord Butto, Lord Komawara, Jaku Katta, Tadamodo Katta, Osha, Lady Okara, The Kalam…they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and that makes them more than just characters. That made them people. You had no choice but to root for them.
The flavours these two books possess astounded me, to be honest. It’s so earnest, so Japanese, and I loved it. I kept thinking to myself that this was what I’d wanted for my Eastern Empire in my own first novel, but I don’t even come close. I’ve much to learn.
These novels had everything I could want from a Fantasy novel (even though the Fantasy aspect is very small): political intrigue, love, honour, duty, scheming, strategies, different cultures colliding, battles, political and social functions, the whole shebang. Couple that with the pseudo-Buddhist monks and sisters, the use of chi and feats that seem to be inhuman at times, and I’m a happy girl. The ending had me both smiling and clutching my chest, because I was both glad for certain characters and heartbroken for others. I immediately went online to see if there was more to read in this world, and I was really disappointed when I learned there wasn’t. Perhaps some day, in the future.
I think I’ve never truly felt like this about any novel, and I can’t put into words how much it affected me. All I can say is that I feel like this duology is perfect in every way.