BLOOD OF HEIRS by Alicia Wanstall-Burke (Book Review)
Hungry for high fantasy along the lines of Devin Madson, Richard Ford and Elaine Isaak? Then look no further than Alicia Wanstall-Burke’s BLOOD OF HEIRS, an SPFBO nominee told from two PoV characters.
First there’s LIDAN, first daughter to the sonless daari (chieftain) in a clan where birth order determines status. All she wants is to break in her horse, Theus, and fight alongside the rangers of her clan.
“One day she would be allowed to go with them. One day…”
Only problem is her mother, SELLAN, has other plans.
“‘Lidan, you were born of a dana and a daari.’ Her voice was calm, even kind, but the pressure of her fine hands and her unflinching scowl left Lidan in no doubt. Sellan never made threats—she made promises. ‘You are not some shit-flecked horse herder. You are not a scrub digger. You are not a rider or a fighter. No daughter of mine will ever be a ranger, be they a first or minor daughter.”
A real ice queen, eh? Like a true Disney villain (in a good way) she’s also got a crone sidekick to match (dubbed the Crone) whose sorcerous prowess unnerves much of the clan. Sellan would’ve been one of my favorite characters if not for the fact that her treatment of Lidan runs counter to her motivations of putting her daughter on the Red Coretree Throne.
In “a clan of hotheads who attacked their problems with spears rather than reason,” I’d assume that horseriding would play a significant role in determining one’s authority and power. From a sociological level, chieftains of such communities are usually “strongmen/women” with the most of a primary resource and capable of defending it. Why, then, would Sellan prevent her daughter from doing something that would benefit them both in the long run?
Credit to Wanstall-Burke, she points this out in a Lidan chapter:
“The woman wanted her daughter to be the heir, but without risk-taking or danger, without training or ranging. Lidan knew such a thing was impossible.”
Still, for someone as calculating as Sellan, someone who’s kept herself above water amidst her ambitious co-wives, her failure to accept Lidan’s horseriding struck me as an empty obstacle that doesn’t reflect her character. Then again, I could be overlooking how her culture (different from the clan itself) and background (alluded by the Crone to be quite nightmarish) influence her decision to restrain her daughter.
Anyway, moving on to the other PoV character, who gets roughly an equal number of chapters.
Quick to swear and even quicker when thinking on his feet, RANOTH the Black Prince, (no, not Edward of Woodstock) is the firstborn son of an autocratic duke far away from the lands of Lidan’s clan. But being a noble scion isn’t all waltzes and harps. A lot of the time it means battle, and the Orthians have been waging war against the Woaden “long before they were even a dirty thought in their fathers’ minds.”
Even though Ranoth and Lidan are worlds away from each other, the inverses and parallels between their characters create a bond of sorts. In terms of inverses, Lidan wants desperately to be a hero whereas Ranoth thinks those shoes are a few sizes too big and is forced to wear them anyway. Neither character can help who he or she is – Lidan being a girl instead of a clear male heir, and Ranoth being a… well, I don’t want to spoil anything.
Setting details are excellent in some areas and lacking in others. I particularly love the descriptions of the Tolak Range:
“Behind the village, the Caine loomed high, carved by wind and rain to the shape of a wild dog’s tooth, glowing orange in the light of the setting sun. Hummel lay at its base, a settlement where grassland met rock in a collection of a hundred or so grey and brown buildings, stone and timber, most with lilac smoke rising from their thatched roofs.”
The pulley-lift system of elevators in Ranoth’s family palace also intrigued me. I like how Wanstall-Burke used it to help characterize Ranoth’s dad, who challenges himself by walking up the stairs as an alternative. It reminded me a bit of Tywin Lannister’s habit of preparing his own food.
I would’ve liked more description of the urban area that surrounds the palace itself, however. Same with the countryside after Ranoth leaves the palace.
I also enjoyed the undertone of horror conveyed by the monsters that threaten both PoV characters. Called ngaru by Lidan’s clan, they’re “Black creatures in the forms of men, with weapons of iron…”
“The creature’s top lip curled back to reveal a row of broken, decaying teeth with only the ancestors-knew-what wedged between them, rotting there since its last meal.”
The creepiness of the ngaru plus the isolation of Lidan’s clan gave me chills reminiscent of The Village, one of my favorite atmospheric horrors.
My main complaint is the pacing. Lidan’s chapters seem to slog along the plot points. Whenever something big does happen, the consequences never really inflict longterm effects. Meanwhile Ranoth’s chapters seem to jog along by contrast (fair, given the subject matter/tension), and sometimes I wish the author would slow down in spots to supply detail (as with the city mentioned earlier).
Lastly I think this novel could’ve used a few more rounds of edits. I highlighted the crap out of the first few pages because I liked so many of the excerpts, but the quality of the prose kinda dwindles and plateaus after a while. It’s still fine, but not as good as the promise made in the first few pages. For example there’s some spelling errors:
“…her mother’s distain for Farah and her father’s disregard of Sellan’s wishes…”
“Sellan never made threats—she made promises.”
“Her mother never made threads, only promises.”
But overall I think this series is off to a promising start.