Monday, February 6, 2023

Review: Kalyna the Soothsayer by Elijah Kinch Spector

A frank portrayal of the cruelty of class inequality and the poisonous allure of belief in destiny

The world of Elijah Kinch Spector's debut novel Kalyna the Soothsayer isn't a nice one. The royals are more concerned with their banquets and opera galas than in protecting the commonfolk. What nominal justice there is cannot thwart the rule of whoever can hire the most mercenaries. The unstable regime of the Tetrarchia, a federation of four perpetually quarreling kingdoms not quite held together with spit and prayers, hasn't managed to overcome xenophobic prejudice. For Kalyna, the daughter of a penniless family of nomadic fortune-tellers, life is an unceasing barrage of persecution, neglect, abuse, and hunger. Generations of her ancestors have subsisted by using their divinatory powers to help ordinary people improve their sad fortunes a little, and that's the only trade Kalyna knows how to do.

Except Kalyna was born without magic. Unable to see the future, she gets her job done by gossip, hearsay, acute observation, and plain guile. She's a fraud, and her family's precarious livelihood depends on her keeping the pretense that she's an accurate clairvoyant. By paying close attention to the important details, connecting the dots, and making likely guesses, she awes her clientele with her ability to predict what is totally predictable, just unnoticed. So far, these sketchy methods have sufficed to put just enough food on the table for herself, her disabled father, and her violently hostile grandmother. But when a prince from the kingdom of Rotfelsen snatches her from her family and demands predictions of the nation's future, she has to quickly become even more resourceful and conniving to stay in business—and stay alive.

Despite her finely honed talent for careful observation and deduction, Kalyna can't imagine the voracious whirlwind of intrigue, betrayal, hipocrisy, fanaticism, divided loyalties, and decadence she's been thrown into. She's barely prepared for the immensely rich and crafty schemers she's going to have to outwit, but they're no more prepared for the fierceness with which she's willing to oppose rabid nationalism and stand for the masses of low-born. The safety of the four kingdoms is now in the hands of a professional liar set against an entire aristocracy made of liars.

Kalyna the Soothsayer is clear-eyed about the effect that relentless oppression can have on otherwise decent people. This protagonist is still fundamentally well-intentioned, but the brutal harshness of life in the Tetrarchia has forced her to learn to play dirty. Although her conscience is torn by all the tactics of manipulation she's had to rely on to make a living, she can still effortlessly weave more and more lies each time. She doesn't hesitate to use her allies as tools, withhold crucial facts, ruin reputations, threaten, blackmail, and burn bridges to sustain the farce that she has prophetic visions. While she loves her father tenderly and feels sympathy for the plight of the poorest, she's had to navigate the world with a self-imposed indifference to the consequences of her deception.

What these intersecting conditions produce is a brilliantly constructed character, endlessly multilayered and relatably conflicted, with a scarred interior that nonetheless perseveres by sheer survival instinct. Kalyna's inner monologue is a delicious parade of sharp political commentary, pragmatic callousness, reluctant hope, internalized self-loathing, wounded desire, the driest sense of gallows humor, and a drive to independence made of the hardest bedrock. It's an engrossing experience to feel the author lure the reader into rooting for a shameless charlatan, and the key to this trick is in the push and pull of battling impulses in Kalyna's mind. In her impossible situation, she doesn't cease to wish there were a right thing to do, and much of the enjoyment of this novel comes from watching her rationalize which of all the wrong choices is the least catastrophic.

By placing a powerless person at a position of influence among ruthless masterminds, the author also offers a harsh critique of the inner workings of centralized power. The plot threads related to resurgent hyperpatriotism, national mythbuilding, and raw ambition couldn't be more resonant to today's readers. Despite its everyday complications, diverse government comes out victorious, but the story makes a forceful point about the delicate work needed to preserve a civic community built from the strength of the many.

In a setting shaped by magical lineages, ancient mysteries, forgotten world-shaking beasts, and secrets that sleep under the earth, the use of a completely ordinary human as the central focus of the narrative serves to highlight the value of mundane life. Pomp and glory and patriotic pride are mercilessly denounced as the ridiculous folly they are, a fraud more outrageous than Kalyna's daily machinations. Even more than the gift of seeing the coming events, it's fatally dangerous to trust those with absolute power with the gift of believing that fortune smiles upon them.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Kinch Spector, Elijah. Kalyna the Soothsayer [Erewhon, 2022].