Review by Karen Stevens
The heir of the Duke of Ishtba, Atan, grows to manhood with his father’s lassitude leading to his neighbours expanding their borders at Ishtba’s expense. Silent and brooding, the constant nibbling at the borders fuels Atan’s lust for conquest and he plans to restore his father’s lands. Atan fights his first battle at the age of twenty and returns to find his father has died in his absence. As Duke, he continues his aggressive policies and expands the borders of his land.
Meanwhile, in a nearby village a cloth merchant’s daughter, Raphela, is born. As a young woman she catches sight of Duke Atan by chance and persuades a friend to deliver her to the castle as the gift of a new concubine. Her beauty means she is summoned frequently to the Duke’s bed, and her intelligence and free spirit intrigue him. The pair are drawn closer together, while other lords, particularly the powerful Lord Akar, attempt to thwart the duke’s aggressive plans.
I have to admit straight away that I didn’t like this book for a number of reasons. The main problem is that the characters are both distant and difficult to like; we’re shown very little of their personalities, and what we do see makes two of the main characters thoroughly unpleasant: Atan concludes all of his conquests by killing children to ensure they never grow up with a desire for revenge: practical, perhaps, but hardly something to help you empathise with a character and Atan’s right hand man Mahtso is a psychopath who gets a kick out of torturing people and satisfying his pleasures with the women after Atan’s conquests (thankfully, we’re spared the details). Presumably we’re supposed to think fatherhood and marriage turns Atan into a nicer person – sadly it doesn’t to any noticeable degree. Another problem is the brevity of the action: Atan fights battle after battle, but they all take place off screen, so to speak – the first fight is covered in three lines! Finally, the writing style itself is pretty poor: lines such as ‘His eyes were a book that he let no one read,’ made me cringe several times.
With more effort, this book could easily have been twice as long and twice as good. As it stands though, I really don’t recommend it to anyone.
Bridgeway Books, $16.95. This review originally appeared in Prism.