[TW: rapeyness, pedophilia, queerphobia, possibly racism]
(The following review will also contain SPOILERS, LOTS OF SPOILERS!)
I bought this book months ago at a used bookstore and I’ve just gotten around to finishing it now, because, as usual, I keep getting distracted by other books, and video games, and Facebook, and Tumblr, and writing, and Tumblr….
Damn you pagan tag!
Anyways, here are my thoughts on this doorstopper of a book. This review is kind of long and has spoilers and gross stuff, so I’m going to put all of that after a jump.
Ruins of Ambrai is set on a planet known as Lenfell. A long, long time ago, mageborns (people born with magic, obviously) fled there to escape persecution. However, a war between rival mage factions poisoned the land and unleashed terrifying creatures known as Wraithenbeasts. As if spectral monstrosities weren’t bad enough, the wild magic unleashed during the fighting caused stillbirths, miscarriages, and horrible genetic defects among much of the population. This led to the creation of the Tiers, a class system based on the instance of genetic defects in a certain segment of the population. The bloodlines that were “clean” became known as Bloods, who then became the ruling class, after the Bloods came First Tiers, Second Tiers, and so forth.
The novel picks up a thousand years after this event, when the population no longer has to worry about birth defects but the Tier system is still in place. The book begins with the destruction of the titular city of Ambrai and the subsequent attempt to eliminate all mages and follows the lives of three Ambrai sisters: Glenin, raised by her father in defiance of Lenfell’s gynarchal traditions; Sarra, who, after the destruction of Ambrai, joins the underground resistance known as the Rising, and Cailet, a powerful mageborn who doesn’t yet know that she is the Mage Guardians’ last hope for survival.
The best comparison that I can make (and the one I suspect most people will make) is between this book and the Black Jewels Trilogy, both depict gynarchal (note: I dislike the term matriarchy, since it implies that only mothers rule the society) societies that suffer from an unfortunate case of corrupt politicians, both have events in their past that poison the land (in the Black Jewels Trilogy, it’s because the corrupt Blood killed all the Queens who weren’t corrupt, in Ruins of Ambrai, it’s because mages got a little carried away with fighting each other),, both have confuzzling magical systems, and both have women at the center of their narratives who are more like living MacGuffins than actual characters. However, whereas the Black Jewels Trilogy placed a lot of emphasis on the characters and their relationships, Ruins of Ambrai spends more time on politics and characters playing cat-and-mouse games, sidelining the romance somewhat until the dust settles.
All things considered, this book is right up my alley. The Black Jewels Trilogy is a guilty pleasure of mine (emphasis on guilty) and I expected this book to be kind of the same sort of thing with more of an epic fantasy feel.
And, in some ways, the book delivers. For starters, Ruins of Ambrai actually gets the whole gynarchy thing down right. Women own all the property (or rather, each line’s First Daughter inherits) and manages dowries for all eligible bachelors of her line, men cannot inherit at all, and they are also taken “to husband”, the “normal” way of having sex is with the woman on top, whereas missionary is considered an “unconventional” position, and the only men who have any real political power are in the pocket of one or more female relatives, are useful to those in power, or who have assassinated nearly all of their relatives. It really does permeate every aspect of society.
Religion on Lenfell focuses on the saints, which are basically like Catholic saints only more fantastical. Every character’s name in this book is a variation of a saint’s name (usually the name of the saint who rules the week in which you were born) and each saint has their own feast day. There are beings who could probably be called deities, but the saints pretty much fill the same roles as gods in any other pantheon. I kind of liked it, it took something familiar to me and made it much more fantastical and much less oppressive.
The characters were….kind of meh, a;; things considered. Glenin is ambitious, Sarra is an idealist, Cailet is determined but might not be that ready to shoulder the burden entrusted to her, Collan is a bit of a smug asshole, and their personalities remain roughly consistent throughout the novel. Out of all of them, the reader stays with Sarra the most as she fights with the RIsing to protect her sister and change Lenfell for the better (including enacting more egalitarian inheritance laws and same sex marriage). Overall though, I found the characters to be a bit flat, not unlikeable, but flat.
Unfortunately, this book very nearly ended up in Sturgeon’s 90%.
I hate when this happens. I really really REALLY hate when this happens, I hate when a book has all of the things I love: politicking, religiosity that’s more than just characters exclaiming “Oh my gods!”, social structures turned on their heads, diversity ( even though it’s not without it’s issues, more on this later); and then it just royally fucks it up so bad that I want to put it in the same pile of books as Fifty Shades of Grey and Gatekeeper.
It should be a crime, I tell you.
For starters, let’s talk about infodumping, shall we? For those of you who aren’t familiar with this term, infodumping is when an author takes a break from the plot to dumps a load of information in the reader’s lap. Many authors feel that infodumping should generally be avoided, as many readers find it very annoying when they’re trying to focus on the plot. Information about the world should, ideally, be either shown, or fed to the reader in digestible chunks. I wouldn’t really know anything about not infodumping, because it’s probably my favourite thing to do next to writing awkward sex scenes.
Melanie Rawn also seems to enjoy it, because she does it a lot and at the most inconvenient times. At the very beginning of the book, the plot is abruptly paused so she can infodump us regarding the current political situation. This normally wouldn’t be so bad, except she then, without any warning, cuts to a scene that happened in the past, a scene that the reader already knows about in detail. The only reason I can think of as to why she does this is to drive the point home that the antagonist is a Very Bad Person, but we kind of already knew that because she’s kind of trying to destroy all mages.
The really annoying thing about these infodumps is that none of those infodumps really explain how magic works. It seems to work via a combination of words and gesture, but there;’s no rule explanation as to how it works, just that it does. Normally I would be somewhat okay with this, but it becomes really annoying during fight scenes, when half the time I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. Wards, at first, seemed pretty straightforward but became more convoluted (apparently, they don’t dissipate upon the death of the person who set them up. but they can be removed and then put into place again, and sometimes they last and sometimes they fade away), a lack of a good explanation for the magic in the story is very annoying.
As for the plot itself, it zigzags all over the place. One moment the characters are heading in one direction, the next they suddenly decide to do something else, and, as a reader, a few times I actually had to flip back through the book to figure out what the heck they were doing. The book is also content to take its sweet time as far as pacing goes, and my Facebook friends can attest to how frustrated it was because it just seemed like the plot wasn’t going anywhere.
Now we get to the really problematic bits. Let’s start off with something good: we have POCs and LGBT representation, hooray!
But, wait, not so fast!
(Here be MAJOR SPOILERS!]
Okay, so, we have two somewhat important characters who are black: Gorynel Desse and Falundir. Gorynel Desse is one of the most powerful mage in his generation. Not only does everyone fear him, he’s basically the brains behind the Rising. Gorynel Desse is fucking awesome!
Falundir is also pretty awesome. He was the greatest bard of his generation until he was maimed by the Big Bad for daring to sing a protest song. For this offense, his tongue was cut out and the tendons in his fingers cut. Even though he can’t speak, his presence in the novel is even more palpable than some of the characters who have speaking parts, and, like Desse, he is greatly respected for the work he’s done.
There are a few more who are implied to be POCs: Valirion Maurgen is described as having brown skin, and one of the scholar mages has “almond-shaped” eyes, but despite the text saying that there are a great many POCs on Lenfell, the main characters all seem to be white (with the two exceptions above).
In terms of LGBT+ representation, we have a same sex couple, Valirion and Alin, they are casually referenced as a couple (although, it is noted that they cannot marry, as it would mess with current laws on inheritance), one minor character who is possibly gay, and a woman who might be bisexual or biromatic (she mentions she has sex with men, but she falls in love with women). There’s also an interesting bit with Cailet that suggests that she might be demisexual (or, at the very least, celibate by choixe).
However, all of these instances come with caveats: Gorynel Desse ends up dying and passing his knowledge on to Cailet, Falundir is maimed and silenced (and he ends up teaching his craft to a white guy). Valirion Maurgen flirts shamelessly with women in front of his lover, who is visibly upset by it, and then dies along with his partner while protecting Cailet. I swear, I’m going to start making a tally of LGBT+s who kick the bucket like this. The one bright spot in this whole story is that when the queer woman accidentally triggers Cailet, she apologizes and accepts Cailet’s refusal to get involved with her. (“I asked, you turned me down, that’s all their is to it, as far as I’m concerned.”)
[END MAJOR SPOILERS)
As if that weren’t bad enough, one of the villainous characters is a pedophile who tries to rape one of the point of view characters while drunk, and Cailet herself is subject to mind-rape (but not physical rape) while being tormented by images of her sister being raped (although this part is very brief and not graphic) and she is traumatized because of it (hence being triggered in the example above). She also loses half a breast in the process, a fact that she tries to hide. In the slightly off-putting department, Melanie Rawn seems to have a thing for cousin marriage, because cousins are getting together all over the place.
Besides the problematic elements, what really bugs me about this book is that it feels like one of those prequel novels you write years later when you’re right in the middle of a series. You know, the books that usually aren’t that exciting because you know how they’ll turn out and you hope that they don’t turn out that way but they do, and then you’re back to being bored with it? Yeah, this is how I felt by the end of the book, and oftentimes it seemed like the characters were running around with no sense of what they were doing.
Overall, I would say I ended up liking the book, but there definitely were points where I wanted to throw it across the room. I have the sequel, The Mageborn Traitor already, but I think I’m going to let it stew for a bit before reading it.