It took me a while to fall in love with The Winds of Khalakovo, the first part in the Lays of Anuskaya series by Bradley P. Beaulieu. As with many other epic fantasy novels, I expected to enter a big story filled with scientific magic and a world yet to be built. Beaulieu, however, thrusts us into a complete world, rich with history, politics, and elemental magic. Instead of info dumps taking the reader by the hand, we see the world through the eyes of our main characters and learn only what they don’t already know. Only by paying close attention to the small hints of information do we find out more.
Being used to having my epic world-building served to me on a silver platter, I had difficulty getting into the book at first and found that I needed to adjust my expectations. However, as the story moved on, the characters met, and the political schemes were set in motion, the story quickly picked up pace and, all of a sudden, I had trouble putting the book down.
Arranging the pieces
With subtle ease, Beaulieu arranges all the pieces along the playing board. The story starts when Prince Nikandr, son of the Duke of the islands of Khalakovo, is arranged to be married to Atiana, daughter of the Duke of the Vostroma islands. The ceremony is to take place during a meeting of the Nine Dukes, all rulers of their respective island Duchies. However, when the Grand Duke, leader of the Nine Dukes, is murdered by a wind spirit, the meeting turns into a political nightmare, with each of the Dukes ready to attack the other and a civil war brewing with Khalakovo in the middle of it.
It is a situation that reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire. However, beyond the politics and intrigue, The Winds of Khalakovo is nothing like George R.R. Martin’s work. Of course, there are similarities; there are neither good nor bad guys in this situation, as every character seems both good and evil. Beaulieu, though, has a very clear goal in mind: his story is clearly moving somewhere, and does so with a breathtaking pace. There are no slow scenes in which the author is bent on torturing his characters. Instead, the characters are tortured—and developed—through the events that created a book filled with so much suspense that it seemed to be trembling in my hands.
The heart of the story
At the heart of this story, however, is a mystery of elemental magic of old. A blight is creeping over the Grand Duchy, killing crops and emptying the seas, infecting random people—including Nikandr—with a deadly disease called the wasting. Somehow this seems related to a rift between the world and the realm of the spirits. In the center of all this is a young autistic boy who may well hold the key to defeating the blight, a boy who is sought after by not only Nikandr, but also the fanatical Maharraht, bent on the destruction of the Grand Duchy.
Characters to love and hate
Throughout these events, I had a love-hate relationship with the characters. The love between Nikandr and his sister Victania seems a bit sketchy to me; it feels like they are romantically involved, a fact made even less understandable by the very unrealistic and unlikable character of Victania. And the way Atiana seems to change from hating Nikandr to loving him over the course of a single day isn’t believable—I’m not buying the whole tough-girl-who-secretly-wants-love angle.
On the other hand, though, the other characters are well-fleshed-out and believable. Nikandr is one of the best characters in fantasy: a little naïve; young, but expected to grow up; and still playful while all his childhood friends seemed to have moved on. Faced with the decisions of real life in a brewing civil war, he is forced to grow up pretty fast, and the way Beaulieu develops this aspect of the story is extraordinary and seems rather realistic to me.
An intriguing world
The world of The Winds of Khalakovo forms a very intriguing aspect of the story as well. While the world is never force-fed to a reader, it quickly becomes evident that this world is well-wrought. All the elements are connected: two peoples and two magic systems, subtly connected to each other; a conflict between religion and reality; a civilization adjusted to life on scattered islands; and transportation between the islands on board of amazing airships, which again use one of the magic systems to function. Each of these elements is pictured in a believable way and is well-conceived. The airships, especially, offer some really colorful and enthralling scenes. Above that, the culture in The Winds of Khalakovo is based on Russian culture, adding an original and intriguing twist to the world.
Why should you read this book?
With The Winds of Khalakovo, Beaulieu offers us a well-written novel overflowing with action and suspense, great characters—and a couple horrible ones—and a brilliantly-wrought story of mystery, magic, and political intrigue, where everything seems possible and you never know what lies around the next corner.
All in all, The Winds of Khalakovo is an amazing first volume in what may become a series to challenge more established epic fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire and Malazan Book of the Fallen. However, at this stage, I dare not make such a lofty claim just yet. The Winds of Khalakovo was not without its minor flaws, but this near-perfect novel promises a bright future for Beaulieu’s The Lays of Anushka. If you are a fan of the epic fantasy genre, you should definitely give this book a chance.
Stephan received a review copy of this book courtesy of Night Shade Books.