LEGACY OF THE BRIGHTWASH by Krystle Matar (SPFBO 7 Finalist Review)
And so we come to our final review of SPFBO7 and indeed in SPFBO. And the question is, has Legacy of the Brightwash done well enough to supplant the Hive’s own finalist, Shadows of Ivory, as our top book of SPFBO7?
Follow the law and you’ll stay safe. But what if the law is wrong?
Tashué’s faith in the law is beginning to crack.
Three years ago, he stood by when the Authority condemned Jason to the brutality of the Rift for non-compliance. When Tashué’s son refused to register as tainted, the laws had to be upheld. He’d never doubted his job as a Regulation Officer before, but three years of watching your son wither away can break down even the strongest convictions.
Then a dead girl washed up on the bank of the Brightwash, tattooed and mutilated. Where had she come from? Who would tattoo a child? Was it the same person who killed her?
Why was he the only one who cared?
Will Tashué be able to stand against everything he thought he believed in to get the answers he’s looking for?
The cover is very distinctive, which is helpful when trying to stand out on the shelves or in an array of thumbnails. The cover is also entwined in a detail of the story – rather than being a generic epic panorama or enigmatic protagonist – which aligns well with the prose itself which is full of finely observed details that add texture to the world building, the characters and the action. The cover shows a sketch – evidence recorded in a character’s notebook – of a body found in the opening chapter whose fate runs like a thread through the whole story. The prose generally is very good with lots of lines that caught my eye. There is a certain plush lushness to the whole book – a bit of a chonker at over 10,000 kindle locations (aka 662 pages).
Both prose and plot envelope the reader in a warm and slightly fuzzy feeling as though one had enjoyed just about the right amount of a good single malt whisky.
I love the cover on this – it really stands out to me and makes me curious to see what kind of story goes with it. Based on the cover copy, I was really keen to read this one. As Theo said, this one is a chonker, and I really felt every single page but not in the good way, as I ended up DNFing at 60%, despite the enjoyable writing style and characters.
This book is a doorstopper; a real heavy-weight with a floppy feel. It is of great size and the cover’s color tones are mixed hues of green to grey and tan, pleasing to the eye. It is one of those covers you want to spend time taking in, and it had that effect on me before I read it and knew what it was all about, as well as after when I had gained insight of who was depicted in charcoal on the front. Drawn on a notepad is a young person’s shaved head with a tattooed number on the neck and water in the background. The font has an elegant Western-style appeal to me and the spine and backside show shades of fleurons shimmering through.
There are two maps at the beginning of the book, one of The Dominion, and one as a close-up of the City of Yaelsmuir. The title upon opening the novel is simple and highly effective and each chapter continues the same underlined theme throughout.
Matar’s prose is smooth and reads effortlessly. It is one of the greatest strengths of this novel. The pacing stayed true throughout and the plot unfolds most enveloping in the same manner as Matar’s writing style. Easily enjoyable to the last word!
That cover is something! It’s intriguing and unique enough for a fantasy novel that it really draws you in. The font treatment is also just outstanding and already begins to communicate the feel of the world before we ever really open the book. It’s so well done. Then, once you open the book, you find some very well edited prose that has moments of dipping into the sublime. My initial impressions on this one were very positive.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
So many distinctive characters each with particular backstories and idiosyncrasies. In some ways it’s almost as if there are too many characters to fit into what is already a weighty tome. At times I found myself wondering what had happened to people who featured strongly in the opening sections and then faded from view until re-appearing at the denouement. However, they are all multi-faceted and compelling individuals. Tashue Blackwood and Stella Whiterock lead the story, but have an array of fascinating supporting characters.
I found myself warming particularly to the aging crime Lord Powell Iwan who Matar imbues with that terrifying menace of a “reasonable” man, and to Ishmael Saeti whose sharp and dangerous edges still show through a cloak of often drunken bonhomie. He reminded me a bit of Jack Harkness from Dr Who and Torchwood. Then there is Lieutenant Kazrani Mahlouwan, deputy to the protagonist Tashue Blackwood, with the kind of loyalty that comes from shared history and having saved each other’s lives. Finally the child Ceridwen is convincingly drawn in her playful innocence and dutiful obedience to her mother.
The characters are a real strength of this book. They’re interesting and well-rounded, and all have compelling backstories and dreams.
There weren’t any that I didn’t like, but particular standouts for me were Ishmael with his sneaky, clever sass, and Jason, as he struggles against his captivity.
One downside to having so many characters though, is that it did feel a little bloated and I often felt like things were dragging as it took so long to make progress in each individual’s story.
The main emphasis was made around two main characters, though all of it was told through multiple POV’s with other characters mixed in. At the forefront, we have Tashue Blackwood, the Regulation Officer for the Regulation Authority of the city of Yealsmuir, aka a tin man. He is the solid kind of character who keeps his calm and doesn’t always let people in. He hasn’t made the best choices in his life, which led to his son’s imprisonment and the woman who gave birth to his son, being found dead.
Stella is tainted. She has a gift, and as all tainted with the Talent, she has little room and freedom in which she can maneuver. Working all day, she makes ends meet with her daughter and Tashue becomes her new assigned tin man to check in on her and the compliance of all of her papers.
Both of these characters have well thought out backstories, and while Stella’s doesn’t come forward initially, they are alluded to with hints here and there, while Tashue’s slowly unfolds. I feel that among their differences, it became well clear, that there was an honesty to “their” story and the unseen electricity was felt. They were by far my favorite characters….as well as Stella’s daughter Ceridwen! I might add here that the mother-daughter relationship was simply wonderfully portrayed.
We also meet Illea, who uses her body to gain an upper hand in the intriguing game the big shots of the city play. I enjoyed Kazrani and her longstanding friendship with Tashue and I felt for Tashue’s son in the rift who is trying to make his father understand about some darker stuff going on in the authority. And there were a few more side characters that are charismatic in their own way that added to this vibrant blend to balance things out.
So, a very mixed cast, from flawed to upstanding and everything in between, I thought they were very well done, while not making them seem shallow. (Well, Illea is the caliber of a woman I would call shallow, but she was made to come across that way.) So well done, all around.
For me, Matar managed to hook me pretty early on with the way she crafts characters that are so flawed and hurt and–sadly, tragically–hurt others because of it. My favorite character is probably Jason, and one of my biggest complaints with the novel is that he ends up being merely a side character who has very little screen time even if his plight does serve as a sort of catalyst for an element of Tashue’s story. The dialog is excellent and very well done, in my opinion. I think the reader would be hard pressed not to feel some sort of sympathy for the various characters we encounter in this story, particularly for the Tainted.
If I have a complaint about the characters it would probably be that many of them do eventually feel like they overlap a bit. I eventually had the feeling that every character in the book is an angry, whiskey-loving, quick-to-swear, no-nonsense, alpha type. I’m making a major generalization there, but it serves to illustrate that, while specific backgrounds differ, at some point the characters all seem to respond in the same way to everything–violence, drinking, and self-recrimination. Not necessarily in that order. Sometimes all three at once. It isn’t that such responses don’t seem authentic or believable. It’s just that at some point it starts to sort of blur what are otherwise some unique character voices.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
The central strand of the plot, the mutilated murder victim of the opening chapter, does form a thread that drives the plot and links the book’s beginning and end. But Matar uses the space that a big book gives to indulge in an at times baffling array of side plots, romantic entanglements and political intrigue. It makes for a very immersive experience where you cannot consciously hold everything in your head as you read through. Instead you have to hope your subconscious absorbs enough that each character, on their re-appearance, can swiftly trigger a recollection of who they are and what they want.
It does make for a slightly slow start as the different plot threads gradually braid themselves together into a single cord. However, as the book picks up speed in its second half, there is that delicious tension of being worried for the characters you are reading about.
I really liked the opening chapter, and was quite disappointed that for something that seemed to be the central plot of the whole book, it was often shunted to the background while we went meandering down one subplot or another instead. This was made worse by having so many POV characters, as not only did it sometimes take a while to cycle back to Tashue, but it often took a while to cycle back to that particular plot point. This, mixed with the overall slow pace of the book, was what lead to me DNFing. It is far from a bad book, there was a lot I enjoyed about it, but it was taking so long to progress that it really struggled to hold my attention.
The romance between Tashue and Stella also didn’t work for me. Their attraction didn’t feel believable, and there was so much emphasis on how wrong it was for them to be together that it became a little tedious to keep rehashing.
I enjoy a slow build-up of a story as much as I do a fast or dramatic one. It all comes to timing and mood sometimes. Legacy of The Brightwash happens to take its time with a little mystery to begin with and some romantic entanglements that build up till we get to the center of the tootsie roll with the actual magic and main ideas. I enjoyed the format of the changing POVs, it worked well in building the individual relationships between and motivations behind the characters while getting to know them. The novel reads at a steady pace and is thoroughly fleshed out. There are flashbacks of the POVs and though I found Stella’s to be better placed than Tashue’s, I enjoyed them.
Since the build-up was so very gradual, it was more so the investment into the characters that had me want to turn the pages for more.
This is a big book. And it is in no hurry. In fact, the plot and pacing were probably my biggest difficulty with the novel. There is a lot to love here in terms of the prose and characters, but for me the structure and pacing of the novel just did not work. I should be quick to add that they do work for plenty of other folks. These sorts of things are always so personal. There is an inciting incident that happens pretty early on in the story that I was extremely interested in. However, that takes a back seat for what felt like three quarters of the novel. In the meantime, there is a romance that I did not find particularly convincing. I just didn’t understand why Tashue and Stella had the hots for one another so bad and why it needed to occupy such a large amount of the word count of the novel (in hindsight, the answer is probably that Matar was writing a romance, not an epic fantasy per se, and that’s fine! I tend to prefer that romances interface with the plot more, but again, we’re talking about taste issues here, not poor writing). By the middle of the book, I wasn’t quite sure what was happening and how it related to the plot threads that had initially hooked me. In the end, the pacing felt uneven with fits and starts and I was so much more interested in that initial plot thread than in much of what came later.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Yes, this is an absolute strength of the book, with texture embedded in the world in an almost fractal kind of detail. From the grand sweep of war, politics and economics down to the mundane details of buttons and cherry pie, Matar has painted her world with brushstrokes of infinite variety and intricate precision. Aspects of a book inevitably resonate differently with different readers. For me the detail of whisky, of peatiness and single malts and blended whisky and even an analogue for Lagavulin was a delight to read. I also loved the political dimensions of cultural suppression, exploitation and a dehumanising or othering mantra by which the powerful persuade the weak that the powerless are the enemy.
The magic system is intriguing. The idea of inbuilt “Talent” that may “quicken” as a person reaches adolescence, and of a society that fears uncontrolled or independent talent and forces those who express it to “register” and effectively become slaves of the state, using their power to do civic service like keeping the street lights lit (a brightman), easing the passage into the afterlife of the dying (Whisperers), or repairing wounds and clearing out infection (healers). But the Dominion is a nation that has become economically dependent on these slaves, and must dehumanise the “tainted” in order to justify how they are exploited and worse. In this world the compliant tainted who register must be supervised by the non-benign Authority, of which Tashue is an agent acting like a parole officer. The non-compliant are imprisoned in the RIFT where their talent is suppressed. I also liked the economics of the world, the capitalist urge to create new markets for a railroad to tempt people to travel and buy tickets, the political clout of the armaments firms always having the ear of power.
As I read I found myself reminded more and more of N.K.Jemsin’s The Fifth Season and her orogenes, wielders of the power of earthquakes and consequently feared, enslaved and bred, all to serve the needs of a tyrannical society.
The worldbuilding was an absolute delight in this book, I cannot fault it. Matar is excellent at conveying a rich and complex world and history without resorting to long info dumps, and I really enjoyed learning about everything. I would have preferred a little more explanation about the magic system, but I assume that will become clearer as the series progresses, especially if Jason steps into the spotlight.
One of the more sadly believable aspects is the way society shuns its magic users, but also relies on them for most aspects of life, leading to the Tainted living their lives either in indentured servitude or prison. I would prefer to live in a world where this is completely unbelievable!
Theo said it so well! I enjoyed how the details came together without becoming stagnant or running away. The gift of this novel lies in showing vs telling in such beautiful prose, it builds with the plot, smoothly and never tried too hard. While there is a main storyline that starts off as a mystery, the changing POV’s establish an investment by the reader to the characters and their plight. Overall, it is a more character-driven novel.
The magic system of tainted people or an oppressed kind of people with gifts isn’t per se new, though the mystery of the dead children thrown in enhances the plot where the character’s storylines ultimately round everything out with gained clarity of their involvement in a corrupt system and their willingness to take risks. The result is a beautiful, richly textured story from the beginning to the end.
This is where Legacy of the Brightwash really shines. The world building in this novel is incredible.
From the national politics to how those play out on a more local stage, from the cultures of different peoples to the differences of one part of a city versus another, from the magic to how that magic affects the day to day lives of people, it’s all fascinating and just so well written. It’s clear that Matar has done an incredible amount of world building in her own head, and she manages to communicate that to the reader without using info dumps or walls of text. If anything, I was left wanting to know more about the magic system and the political situation. Maybe the most fascinating, and also heart-rending, aspect of this world building is the way magic gets used, and by this I don’t just mean magic as a force being used, but the people–Tainted–being used, forced to register and then assigned jobs that use their magic and then all too often run them into the dirt. It’s so believable, it’s tragic.
Quotations that resonated with you
I had a lot of nice lines in this one, but as I mentioned I found the political resonances particularly appealing for example here
He had been angry for a long time after his mother died, angry at the city that didn’t protect her, at the man who called the kindest gentlest woman he’d ever known a filthy Kaadayri whore while pummelling her to death, at the country that denied her and him their culture by making Kaadayri so afraid to live in their own skin that they didn’t teach their children their own heritage.
But there also plenty of examples of eye-catching imagery
The dogs tussled over the stick, a seething knot of energy and fur.
And this very human observation
Stella didn’t know how to explain to Ceridwen how hard it was to be happy about unexpected things. When you prepared yourself for tragedy, it took the mind a while to switch tracks.
There is a lot to like about the prose, but this quote from Ishmael amused me.
Ishmael gave a dramatic sigh that heaved his shoulders. “My least favourite rule. The people of high society are above petty things like hunger and demonstrate their mastery of the base instincts by leaving food on their plates.”
Lot’s of beautiful prose and lines throughout. Here are a few I highlighted:
Better to be lonely and feel the sharp edges of it, she thought, than to be empty and filled with nothing.
Does it comfort you to know that we haven’t touched each other in nearly ten years? Why would it comfort me to know of your mutual misery?
Then maybe you aren’t meant to to be a city flower. You’re meant to have more room to grow and fresher air.
It was a strange thing to feel a sense of familiarity with these people, the richest people in all of Yealsmuir. Even if it was an ugly familiarity, borne of resentment and anger.
Calvin: There are plenty of candidates to share here, but I’ll give you one that I think captures the way Matar’s prose paints vivid pictures of not only the physical landscape, but the emotional one:
Tashue smoked as he stood on the bridge, hoping to banish the pressure in his chest, but it was no use. The grounds were stark and empty, the stone denying a foothold to any vegetation. When he glanced down river, he could see the pilings jutting up from the bank from here. That girl, so small and tortured, hadn’t left his thoughts. The photographs still sat in his pocket, tucked into his notepad. Such a little thing, a photograph. And yet it was heavier than any other burden he’d ever taken on before.
In the end I settled very comfortably into this book. The romance angle is a little instalove as others have said – an immediate depth of attraction that rests so heavily in the physical. However, I didn’t find myself reading this as a romance, and – well described as the sex scenes were, even down to the detail of tackling encumbering clothing – those were the scenes I came closest to skim reading. For me this was a novel about commercial exploitation and dehumanising othering – of wealth and power being abused, and of a man realising that his life of service has been devoted to enforcing unworthy laws. The romance within it is simply the trigger that sparks that realisation.
I am a bit frustrated that, despite its length and the many threads that were tied off, the book still doesn’t come to an entirely neater conclusion, ending with something of a cliff hanger and uncertainty about how some Point of View characters’ fates are going to be resolved.
There is a lot to like about this book, especially with the characters and writing style, but ultimately the size of the book and the number of plot points made it a real struggle for me, and that was extra disappointing considering how much I was looking forward to it. I do think Matar is an excellent writer, and I will be looking out for future books.
I think this novel could appeal to a broader audience then just fantasy readers since the magic wasn’t overbearing and there was plenty to love about the characters and their situations. There is almost a touch of historical fiction feel to it as I envisioned some of these scenes to take place by old brickstone homes reminiscent of old city row houses. The romance in here was well done, lingering in a way, but I am not a romance reader at all, usually. This novel isn’t a page turner in a sense of action packed suspense, but if you enjoy a savory read, that moves at a slower pace, then it will be one to pick up. I know I did, to the last line.
For me, Legacy of the Brightwash, is almost a tale of two stories. I was captivated by the world building, the magic, the plight of the Tainted, and the way Matar communicates emotion and pathos. On the other hand, the pacing felt uneven, the plot meandered, and in the end I was more interested in side characters, especially Jason, than I was in Tashue. This one just didn’t work for me, and yet there is still a lot to like. I think there are plenty of folks out there who would love this–and do. But, unfortunately, the story here didn’t capture me as much as I wish it had.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark||7.5|
*So, although Legacy of the Brightwash didn’t do quite enough to beat Shadows of Ivory as the Hive’s favourite finalist of SPFBO 7, Krystle Matar does have the consolation of a Hive judge’s favourite asterisk from Scarlett. (Our other Judges’ favourites being Burn Red Skies for Theo, and Shadows of Ivory for Belle and Calvin.)
So as the Hive bids farewell to SPFBO7 and to SPFBO as a whole, thanks again to everyone who played a part in a great and innovative competition, as judges, entrants or supporters.
This year has been a closer battle between finalists than any I can remember. The clustering of scores in a narrow range between 7 and 8 might imply we have seen a crop of “middle of the road” finalists. However, when you break it down to individual judge’s responses (as you see with the Hive scores for Legacy of the Brightwash) a different picture emerges. That coalescence of averages towards the middle is as much a product of a wide diversity of opinion – a polarisation even – as a convergence of consensus.
SPFBO7 has seen its share of “marmite” books – loved and loathed in equal measure and there is nothing wrong in that. It is in the nature of books to appeal to different tastes for reasons as varied as there are readers. I heard Peter Brett once explaining how he “discovered” Mark Lawrence’s debut Prince of Thorns. Pete’s PA told him she had read and viscerally hated it and wanted his opinion on it, but when he read it he absolutely loved it. For some, Jorg the unrepentant anti-hero was a deal-breaker, for others the sublime writing and imagery was a deal-maker.
Hopefully our reviews and those of the other blogs will help readers identify which SPFBO7 books might appeal to them and why, and – above all else – do what SPFBO was always intended to do, raise the profile of some deserving self-published books and lift them out of the white noise of thousands of publications vying for readers’ attention.
Which brings me to the final thank you to Mark Lawrence for taking a pub discussion in the aftermath of a Grim Gathering and using his platform and profile to turn that into a great opportunity for a community we all love being part of. While I and the other Hive judges past and present will take a seat in the spectator stands for now, we wish the very best to SPFBO, and the blogs and competitors of the future. We are sure the competition will continue to develop as it pursues its core aim of showcasing self-published fantasy talent.