I’m not a big fan of political books – those that are all about trading for advantage, calculating relationships, etc. Yet I like this book, which is all about those things. It and its sequel, Gatherer of Clouds, are one huge mass of carefully calculated strategy manipulation.
Russell makes it work because despite the background and concept, he shows the politics through a finely focused lens of personal, intimate relationships. Despite the book’s title, this book is less about Shuyun, the initiate, than about the Shonto family – about Shonto Motoru and his allies. Despite a large cast, Russell does an excellent job of creating credible, individual characters. There are half a dozen that stand out, and only a few key characters that are never fully realized.
Russell smooths the way by creating a believable, well thought out world for his characters to inhabit. He steers clear of the ‘all that is Oriental is magic’ trap some Western writers fall into, building his empire on an amalgam of real-world cultures. If the prose seems restrained and under-emotional, that ties in with his world’s values.
Note that this isn’t really a stand-alone novel. It’s effectively the first part of a larger volume cut in half in the days before massive tomes were more common. You can read this book alone with some satisfaction, but you really need to read the sequel to get the full story.
All in all, highly recommended – even if, like me, you get bored by fantasy politics.