Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Microreview [Book]: We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson

A solid combination of impending war, decapitations and fantasy-democracy with an intriguing core cast

We Ride the Storm is one of several recent Orbit publications with a self-published past: a couple of years ago, it was runner-up in the annual Self Published Fantasy Blog Off, and now its out from Orbit books in swanky dead tree form with at least one sequel on the way very soon. Chonky epic fantasy is not a super-common stomping ground for me, but this one came with enough intriguing recommendations from people whose opinions I trust to make it one that I wanted to experience for myself.

At the core of We Ride the Storm is the fragile political balance between two rival powers on the same continent. There's the Kisian Empire, in the south of the continent, ruled by an empire whose current Ts'ai dynasty has only held power for a generation and is consolidating power against the former ruling bloodline, and neighbouring Chiltae, in the north, which seems to have a similar flavour of patriarchy but with more religious overtones. Thanks to various political machinations in both places, the two countries are now on the verge of going to war, and the tenuous last-ditch attempts to broker peace are being set up to fail by those in power with an interest in seeing the conflict happen. Mixed in to this primary conflict are the Levanti, a culture of nomads whose home lies across the ocean from Chiltae. Due (apparently) to the interference of missionaries in their culture, an increasing number of warbands made up of younger Levanti have found themselves exiled by their own people, crossing to Chiltae and getting pressed into military service. In short, it's all a big fun time, and the only way to get to the bottom of it all is apparently through copious decapitations. And, oh boy, does this book deliver on that front.

We see the conflict unfold through three interlinking story. Closest to the political centre of it all is Princess Miko, twin sister of the heir to the Kisian Empire who has managed to educate and keep herself near the centre of power despite being a woman and therefore held in lower esteem in her patriarchal society. What makes Miko's situation even more difficult is that she and her brother Tanaka are not actually the biological children of the Emperor, but of the disgraced last member of the former ruling line. This bloodline comes with its perks - notably, some spectacular archery accuracy skills - but it also puts Miko and Tanaka in a challenging and fundamentally insecure position within the court, which each deals with in different ways and with rather different outcomes. Competent, clear-eyed and smart about her situation without losing a fundamental level of compassion, Miko was a very easy character for me to appreciate, and I also enjoyed how Madson portrayed her alliances in the court, showing individuals acting out of decency and loyalty even as the betrayals on other fronts started to mount up.

While Miko acts as the main conduit for the happenings in Kisia, we see Chiltaen politics more indirectly through the other two characters. There's Rah E'Toren, a recently exiled Levanti trying to hold his band of warriors together and seek out his brother Gideon, all while upholding his own sense of honour. As one of the Levanti's core beliefs is that dead bodies need to be decapitated in order to set their souls free, and to do otherwise means carrying the weight of that sin on one's soul and jeapordising one's position in the cycle of reincarnation, Rah's ways of upholding his honour can get quite messy and "barbaric" in the eyes of the Chiltaen, but Madson portrays Rah with sensitivity and sympathy throughout, averting any particularly unpleasant tropes with a character who could become problematic in other hands. That said, Rah and the Levanti are unlikely to work for anyone fundamentally frustrated with the "fantasy horse people" trope: while there are elements which are clear subversions of this being a warlike "barbaric" culture (including a fully realised democratic process for challenging leadership), the fundamental relationship between the Chiltaen and the Levanti still plays into those tropes to some extent, and the fact that we only see the young, warlike Levanti means that there's a lot that feels missing from their depiction, even if it is a deliberate absence.

Finally, there's Cassandra Marius, an assassin and sex worker who appears to have another consciousness living in her head, one which starts to show her some of its more worrying abilities as her involvement in the politics of the two nations increases. Although she's an intriguing character, Cassanrda's sections feel notably less driven and central than Miko or Rah, and I found myself significantly less engaged by her story than that of the other two, particularly as we don't get much explanation for her unique powers, or those of the characters she interacts most with - including Dom Leo Villus, son of Chiltae's leader, who forms one of the running strands through all three of the stories. Nevertheless, Cassandra's ends up in a pretty intriguing spot by the end, and there's certainly potential in her character even if I didn't think she was particularly well-served by the focus of this particular novel.

I will come clean at this point and admit: I hoped We Ride the Storm would demand less of my attention than it ended up doing. This is not the book's problem at all, but the shortcomings of a reader attempting to read during a global pandemic and a time of immense social upheaval. With difficult political decisions being made on all sides and a terrible political situation being driven by a very calculating and ruthless set of political elites, a lot of heads do roll - usually in a literal sense - across all of We Ride the Storm's journeys, and coupled with the fact that very few of the characters overlap between points of view, this means there's a significant rotating cast to keep track of, especially in Rah's story and to a lesser but prominent extent in Miko's. Coupled with a juicy, ever-shifting political background, this is a book that requires attention, but it certainly delivers an entertaining ride in return.

This certainly isn't a standalone book; despite the best efforts of the characters and some interesting changes in fortune for Rah and Miko in particular, the world at the end of We Ride the Storm looks even messier than the state it was in to begin with, and there's a lot of fuel for the rest of the (presumably) trilogy to cover. Despite a shakier reading experience than the book itself deserved, I enjoyed my time with this world and characters, in all their decapitative glory, and am intrigued to find out where it all goes next. I'll be clearing my schedule when I get hold of We Lie With Death, and giving the gang all the attention they richly deserve.

The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 A fully realised democratic leadership challenge, held in adversity

Penalties: -1 Cassandra Marius feels like she's just hanging around for later books

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Madson, Devin. We Ride the Storm [Orbit, 2020]