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Title: The Broken Crown (The Sun Sword, Book 1)
Author: (Michelle West (aka Michelle Sagara); [ profile] msagara; @msagara)
Genre: Fantasy
Page Count: 764
Publisher: DAW

Basic Plotline: The Dominion of Annagar and the Empire of Essalieyan have existed for many years in an uneasy state of truce. That is until the demonic forces of the Shining Court, servants of the Lord of Night, begin to interfere with human politics for their own purposes. They help General Alesso di' Marente and his long time friend Sendari overthrow the weakened ruler of Annagar, the Tyr, agitating for a war with the Essalieyan Empire. However, their plans meet with resistance not only from the Essalieyans, who have as a hostage the last remaining male heir to the Tyr's bloodline, but a mysterious young woman, Kiriel, who seems more than a match for the demons of the Shining Court. And even within Annagar itself, resistance is stirring, lead by the women who have found themselves betrayed and used by those who would take the crown and ally with the Shining Court.

The Positives : I'm keeping in mind that with this review that this book is fourteen years old, so it's an earlier work from an author who's later books I have enjoyed immensely. Obviously, as Sagara/West has continued to write, she's gotten better and better.

This author does really well with characters. Indeed, they're her strongest suit. Not only with this book, but in later books (like the Chronicles of Elantra series), the characters are very vividly human. Indeed, the only reason I even picked up this book was that I got hooked on the first few pages of the story that focused on Askeyia. The Annagarian characters, particularly, came through very strongly and vividly. I had a lot of sympathy for Diora, Teresa, and Fredero as well as many others who surrounded them, particularly the sister-wives in Diora's harem and in Teresa's. I can't say enough about how much I loved reading about them and if the entire book had been focused on them, I might have liked it that much more. Diora, particularly, justified the focus put on her and kept me reading. She was the kind of strong female character I like. One who's strength is derived from love, loyalty, grief, determination, and striving.

In the very best of ways, this book read in many parts like a really good historical costume drama. I thought of The Tudors and The Borgias a lot when I was reading this, because I think if you filmed it as a TV show or series of movies, you'd end up with something very much like that. There are lots of players with their own intersecting storylines, with complex politics playing out against each other. You have mysterious forces, intrigue, alliances, the fate of kingdoms held in the hands of characters we come to know personally. In that way, it was quite a satisfying read. And I think had Sagara trimmed down her main cast list and perhaps contained some of the sprawl in which she devoted as much attention and focus into getting into the heads, it would have been even sweeter a novel for it.

The plot overall is interesting, if very complicated. In fact, it is so complex that neither the back of the book nor my own description actually covers it at all. It is, in the best sense, an epic tale. I like politics and scheming and alliances, more than I like action scenes even, so this book satisfied me in this sense. The author did a very good job of at least making the politics understandable and used the practice of swapping hostages to great effect. Lots of books forget about this (and it was common between empires and kingdoms), and I found it was a good way to make the trope of the young man that everyone ignores and dismisses rising to sudden greatness actually work. It makes sense that the Leonne Tyr would give away a son that he didn't care about, elevating him to son status just to be a hostage. And it would make sense that this son would find himself alive only because everyone considered more valuable than him was slaughtered.

As a contribution to the epic fantasy genre, this is a fairly good work. If you're definitely a fan of the genre over all, it is worth your time to read.

The Negatives: Long book is long, y'all.

Some of my irritation with this book probably stems with my love/hate with epic sword and sorcery fantasy.

There are things I love about the genre and things I don't.

I don't like the first section of this book sets up the origin stories for Evayne a'Nolan and Askeyia and Ashaf, but we never see nor hear from the last two ever again - and (surprise, surprise) Askeyia is on screen just long enough to be captured, tormented, raped in order to produce a child, and then is never seen or heard from again. Another thing I really hate about this genre - the propensity to have heroes that are born of their mother's great misfortunes (either their mother is raped or the mother dies getting them to safety) and to then erase those women who sacrifice so much to see their children live on. The only time I've seen this done palatably and with any acceptability is in Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death.

Worse yet, it was Askeyia's narrative and her genuine kindness even when she has reason not to be kind that actually made me pick up and read this book. I was hoping she might return or be seen again, but was disappointed. Had Sagara not done such a great job at focusing on other female characters and continuing to let Diora, Teresa, and others be strong and central, I would have put this book down and never picked it up again.

Nor did I care for the stiff dialogue that seems to be part and parcel this genre and this book as well. There is an amazing amount of "As You Know, Bob" type dialogue in which characters explain things to each other that they should know and not in a way that makes it sound natural. There are ways to have one character explain such things to another so that it sounds reasonably believable. But this book didn't quite get there. Also, there's a coming of a kingdom/world changing war and mages and saving the kingdom and I think I was officially Burned Out For Life where these things are concerned sometime in 1996.

My editorial brain wanted to go through this book with a pencil and cross out about half of the text as being unnecessary, repetitive or overwritten. This is something that Sagara as a writer has gotten better about with time and in a different genre, it is more of a mild annoyance than a stumbling block. However, in this book the dialogue is constantly halted for a character to contemplate something obvious or to over describe people. I could probably have trimmed this book down to half its length just by cutting out some of those small sections.

I think the epicness turned into sprawl during the last third of the book, particularly with the characters in Essalieyan. I understand there were two prequel books set in Essalieyan, even though this cover says it is Book 1 of this series, so it may be that this sprawl looks different to a reader who has already read those books. Not having read them, I got bored and often a little confused with the characters in the north, especially the Ospreys (who feel like a dry run for the Hawks and Kaylin in The Chronicles of Elantra) and Kiriel. Kiriel was probably my least favorite character in this book, save maybe some of the really detestable people in the North. My editorial brain wanted to scribble out more of these sections and have the narrative in the north either focus more on her, and thus on what makes her awkward and unable to fit in and constantly on edge around everyone around her, or to relegate her to a more minor part.

Sagara's strength with characters becomes a flaw here because there are many points where she tries very hard to make sure we get a glimpse into every single person, and even with 764 pages, that stops being feasible without halting the plot and wearing the reader down. I started mixing people up this way, especially in the North, and to an extent in the south with some of the lesser nobles. There were a lot of times when I would have preferred if some characters were left to be minor or incidental characters, or if points of view in scenes were switched so that it focused on more established characters that I was more invested in as a reader. The Ospreys, in particular, didn't really leave an impression on me and it felt like the author was trying to built a sense of the team as a family of sorts, but it didn't work because we never see them do much besides spar and talk about their loyalties to each other rather than showing it overmuch.

CoC Score: 7/10. I choose to believe that many characters (especially in Annagar) are what could fall under the description of "character of color". This is something of a difficult distinction to make in a fantasy world, because race isn't organized or described in a way that necessarily neatly correlates to the real world. Also, because CoC (or PoC) tend to be terms that are more useful and powerful in situations where whiteness is dominant and it isn't clear in this book that whiteness is even really a concept. So my rule of thumb here is how much of this book derives direct material culture, names, etc from non- White-European-Western and how many characters would not be read or portrayed in a movie by a white person, and of course the quality of their portrayal in this book. I came up with a score of seven, because the author uses many things that are directly from this world and are not at all European. Saris, for instance, are commonly worn by the women of Annagar. Silk is a common material in this world. The women play samisens commonly. And these are very much objects, clothing, and materials rooted in real world, non-white, non-European cultures. The samisen is distinctly Japanese, if I did my research right and saris are worn all over southeast Asia (India, Malaysia, Burma/Myanmar, Sri Lanka, etc). In fact, a lot of the names and descriptions of things have me convinced that if one were to cast and film this movie, they would need to cast people from THAT part of the world if they wanted to do it right. So even if "character of color" isn't quite useful, this book does pull away from being strictly European based and that gets a 7.

Gender Score: 9/10. West does a good job of making sure that even in Annagar, where women hold little status and even less authority, that they do have their own kinds of power and strength and that they're not merely decoration or trapping for the power of men. Indeed, much of what happens in Annagar hinges on the actions of women. Likewise, even though many of the male characters are deeply misogynistic, the narrative frames it so that it is clear to the readers that the characters themselves are not valueless, powerless, or uninteresting. Its the kind of narrative I want to point to when I tell people that you can have and portray various -isms (racism, sexism, etc) in characters without making your story a racist story or a sexist story. West mitigates a lot of the misogyny of the culture by focusing in on Diora, Teresa, the various other women in their lives and showing how they operate within their world, how they get things done, showing that they have both agency and the will to use that agency even if there is cost. It also helps that the narrative moves on to Essalieyan which has a far more equal society where women hold positions of power and authority as easily and frequently as men do.

GLBT Score: 8/10. If I'm reading this book right, and I like to think I am, I think we actually get some queer people. While not explicitly stating it, I'm pretty sure that Teresa and Alora (Sendari's wife) were having a sexual and romantic relationship, which caused most of the tension between Teresa and Sendari for this book. Also, the narration mentions that one of the more handsome looking of the Ospreys gets attention from both men and women (doesn't say if he reciprocates either). I didn't give it the full ten because I would've liked for those relationships to be better dealt with and brought to the fore. Also, I didn't see any indications of any characters that identified as anything but cisgender. Still, at least there was something.

Ablism Score: 0/10. Aside from one description at the end of a character using a cane, I'm not sure any PWD or situations involving disability are really covered or discussed or portrayed here. I'm sort of sad, because I think this is precisely the kind of book where, if we're already focusing on characters that are dismissed by the world (women, servants, etc), that it could be possible and even very wonderful to concentrate on those who, due to disability, may be dismissed by their society. I can see how one might read Kiriel as being non-neurotypical and perhaps dealing with psychological trauma that has caused her to have social difficulties - but I'd have to read more about her character to really know how to factor that into the score, which would mean reading the next back.

Date: 2011-06-14 01:45 pm (UTC)
starlady: meralonne and kallandras in the wood (in a dark wood)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Very interesting review! It's been so long since I first read these books (1997, to be precise) that I've long since passed the stage of being able to be very critical about it, so I like reading other people's takes.

West definitely paces her individual books in terms of the entire arc of her given story (six books for The Sun Sword), which I found rich and satisfying at the time. I think she's gotten better about being slightly more succinct, but her most recent book was still 600+ pages in hardcover.

Iirc there is a fair amount of Kiriel in the next book. She definitely has a fair amount of trauma in her past, as you discerned.

Date: 2011-06-15 06:51 am (UTC)
starlady: meralonne and kallandras in the wood (in a dark wood)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Not sure what you mean by "better"--the next book gets very heavily into Kiriel's past because a bunch of demons keep trying to kill Valedan, and the Ospreys are designated as his personal guard, and obviously her background is an asset. Basically for her the arc of the story is very heavily involved with the ring she picked up in this book--the question of her humanity is very much a live one, and the ring's agenda is to keep her two halves in balance. So, for instance, in the next book she sweats for the first time in her life. I think she does also get more likable, and also more easy to empathize with, as we realize what she endured. She and Isladar have a particularly interesting relationship.

If you like Kiriel and the Southern characters, I'd urge you to keep reading; in a lot of ways the majority of the story is about them, and they get up to some really cool stuff by the end. Particularly starting in book 4, that one is really awesome--there is less Diora in book 2, mostly because it's mostly set in the North, but she's back in a big way from 3 on. And in book 3 we meet the Voyani for the first extended interval, awesome women ahoy!

Date: 2011-06-15 05:32 pm (UTC)
boundbooks: Zhang Ziyi (Default)
From: [personal profile] boundbooks
Chiming in!

I really, really like Kiriel. Not necessarily in terms of 'I would like to sit down and have a beer with you,' but definitely in terms of 'The fact that you have any notion at all of a moral compass or friendship is utterly fascinating, given your life. Rock on, rock star!'

Gotta agree that this series is totally about The Awesome Ladies. So many awesome ladies having Awesome Friendships, Mentorships, Family Bonds, Political Ties with Other Ladies.

I definitely agree with [personal profile] megwrites that the GIANT CAST OF CHARACTERS can be confusing, but I've read all of the Sun Sword series and in the end there was not a single character that I regret West introducing. Even if I was checking the cast list a lot, she really does make it feel like this is an epic, intergenerational clash, and yes, there are people whose choices twenty, thirty, forty or more years ago still matter today. :D

Date: 2011-06-16 07:07 am (UTC)
starlady: meralonne and kallandras in the wood (in a dark wood)
From: [personal profile] starlady
I admit I've missed the cast list in the House War books (and the dates in the first House War book, WTF). I feel like I was more confused by the plot initially, especially in The Broken Crown, since I hadn't read the Sacred Hunt at that point, but doubtless character confusion was rolled up in there. ;)

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