Talulah Sullivan has gone to a great deal of effort to create a layered, intricate world of interlacing cultures. Unfortunately, she’s made far less effort to make it accessible to newcomers. Disclosure: I read the first 50 pages closely and carefully, trying to tease out the meanings of dozens of neologisms (with little success). I read the next 50 as I would any other book (but with less comprehension). For the remaining 300 pages, I skimmed each page, dipping in and out for a few pages of in-depth reading every chapter or so.
Ms. Sullivan notes that the invented language of the book is heavily influenced by “Choctaw and Chickasaw”, and perhaps if I were familiar with those languages, I’d have felt less out of my depth. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about them or about their origin cultures. While I was able to follow the base actions in the plot, it’s primarily a book about culture clash, and I found the cultures so opaque as to be nearly incomprehensible. Sullivan is clearly aware of this criticism, and, in her Author’s Note, attempts to make a virtue of it. I’m not convinced. I’ve been reading SFF for several decades, and I’m not a novice at – or averse to – figuring out complex ideas. I’m a fan of a dense, complex story. This one, in my view, just didn’t provide enough of a toehold for a reader to ever gain their balance. Worse, because it was so opaque, I lost interest.
The book begins well enough – lots of neologisms, etc., but I assumed it would be one of those books where, gradually, we begin to see the background and backstory behind it all. And there is some of this – protagonist Tokela crosses a forbidden barrier and meets another set of people quite different from his own. But the book largely drops that thread, and even so, doesn’t ever make use of it to do more than hint at what’s happening. I found it a shame – I started off enthusiastic, and even at the end, I thought the cultures were well-considered. Unfortunately, I was no longer really interested in them or the characters. I think I might have been, if I’d understood better what was happening.
Just one example – Sullivan uses the term oških ‘to refer (I think) to new adults. But in one case, she uses ośkih. Was that a typo, or an intentional variant? I still don’t know, even though oških is used throughout the book. Similarly, ša and sa.
All in all, it came across as a book that’s too proud to unbend enough to say hello, and therefore one I didn’t really get to know.