Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: Sasha by Joel Shepherd

The cover art for Sasha by Joel Shepherd (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) sets the stage well for the novel within. The image is of a young woman, dressed in practical clothing that clearly points towards battle in spite of a lack of armor. The woman has short hair, working-class hands lacking any signs of femininity and the image lacks the sexualization common with cover art featuring women. With armored soldiers in the background and the young women at center and elevated, the scene immediately brings Joan of Arc to mind.

Sasha is the first book in A Trial of Blood & Steel, a planned quartet set in Shepherd’s imagined world of Rhodia. Sasha takes place in the nation of Lenay – a mountainous nation loosely ruled by a King, with a dozen regional provinces separated by terrain, tradition and language. It’s a patriarchal warrior society featuring two dominate religions. The Goren-yai is more spiritual, almost animalistic with a distinctive Celtic feel about it and significant inspirations from places as wide a field as India and Papua-New Guinea. The Goren-yai are typically the common people with the ruling class following the Verenthane faith – a patriarchal pantheistic religion that has much in common with strict, hierarchical, Judeo-Christian faiths.

The lay of the land and its peoples plays an integral role in Sasha – Sasha, or Sashandra, is the daughter of the king – a man of the Verenthane faith. But Sasha has forsaken her birthright to become an apprentice to the king’s former military advisor, Kessligh, a follower of the Nasi-Keth – the Nasi-Keth is as much a philosophy as religion which concentrates on rational thought and logic as inspired by the non-human serrin peoples of Saalshen. Sasha follows the Nasi-Keth teachings while retaining the blood of a Verenthane as she is raised among the Goren-yai – while internally conflicted, she is a child of the nation of Lenay as few can claim. Troubles erupt as the Verenthane elite push to become true feudal lords against the wishes of the fiercely independent Goren-yai. Sasha emerges as a reluctant leader – a political pawn, a populist hero, a skilled swordswoman, and head-strong young adult with all the inherent pros and cons.

As the title suggests, this book centers on Sasha and its success stands on her shoulders. Sasha is by far the most realized character – she is one of the best fighters with a sword in all of Lenay due to her following a specific, disciplined fighting technique taught by her Nasi-Keth master. However, for all her prowess, the form does have its weaknesses. Sasha herself follows right along – she has the intelligence and strong personality necessary to stand out in the patriarchal society on her own terms. The flip-side is that Sasha is head-strong to a fault, emotional, stubborn and oozing with the typical short-sighted, ‘I know everything’ attitude of so many 20-year olds. It’s only Sasha’s many faults that save her attaining the dreaded Mary Sue label. The comparison to Joan of Arc seems only surficial at this point in the series – similar circumstances, but Sasha is not re-telling of Joan of Arc’s life – it’s a beast all its own. Unfortunately, other characters in Sasha are not so well developed. Most come across only half-formed – many are given great beginnings, but the follow-through is lacking.

With Sasha, Shepherd plays a bit with a few fantasy tropes – Sasha is born into nobility and has rejected it, strong female protagonists are still the exception, complex politics are embraced, medieval feudal society is not romanticized, and there is a total lack of magic. None of this feels genre-bending and certainly not forced – this is the story with such intentions often fading into the background. The result is an intelligent book – politics are serious, magic doesn’t solve problems, mistakes are made. This gives Shepherd’s world a realism often lacking in epic fantasy and earns the comparisons to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire that it’s often given.

Everything I discussed above helps make Sasha a good book – but what makes Sasha a great book is its readability. Sasha is addicting. The pace is perfect. Very little time is spent with a true introduction – we learn the world and its characters through story of the book rather than an extended prologue. As I was reading Sasha I would loose time, I would read another chapter because I just had to, and I lost the very precious commodity of sleep – I’m not sure there is a greater compliment I can give a book.

Sasha is the story of a tom-boy princess who gives up her royalty, it’s the story of a divided nation, it’s a story of religion and intolerance, it’s the story of a legend being born, and it’s addicting. If Sasha is any indication, A Trial of Blood & Steel will become a force to be reckoned within the fantasy world and I highly recommend it. 8/10


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks for the heads up on this series!

Dannie said...

Wow, excellent, well-thought out review. You've definetly peaked my interest.

Patrick said...

Glad you enjoyed it! I have Sasha and its sequel in my "books to read" pile, and I guess I should move them up in the rotation.=)

John Anealio said...

I really want to read this one. Funny enough, there is a photo of me reading the back cover of Sasha in the booklet of my CD.

Neth said...

I'm glad you all appreciated the review - feedback is always nice (particularly when it feed the ego :P )

@Patrick, @John - you guys definately need to read this one.


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