In this fantasy debut, a warrior on a mission to infiltrate a band of rebels begins to empathize with his targets.
In the world of Isfalinis, Vistus belongs to the t’Okaedrin, human warriors for the Kayrstaran Empire. T’Okaedrin serve the Syraestari, who are beings that live for thousands of years. But some humans, such as the Scions of the Fallen Tree, openly defy the Syraestari. The Scions make concerted efforts to liberate and recruit the Kalilaer, the Syraestari’s human laborers. The Scions consider these workers slaves. In response, Syraestari High Lord Tazil drafts Vistus to pose as a Kalilaer escapee and ultimately lead the t’Okaedrin to a Scion camp. Though the assignment is moderately successful, Tazil wants Vistus to go deeper: live among the Kalilaer to locate more camps and identify Scion leaders. Meanwhile, Ninanna, a Sword-Whisperer and essentially Empress Kayrstana’s bodyguard, is a Syraestari outcast since she sees humans as equals. Accordingly, the mysterious Shadow-Servant approaches Ninanna with a plan he derived from a prophecy: Further conflict in Isfalinis can be avoided by the Syraestari isolating themselves and leaving humans alone. Though the prophecy’s wording is vague, it seemingly warns against the Syraestari’s dominion and references an individual whom the Shadow-Servant believes is Vistus. As a Kalilaer and under the alias Belarrin, Vistus, along with other laborers, endures abuse, even from his t’Okaedrin “brothers.” He quickly befriends Kalilaer and Scions, later learning that, in connection with the prophecy, he may have an extraordinary ability of which he’s never been aware.
Oldenburg’s painstakingly detailed world sets a solid foundation for his series opener. For example, long ago, one of the Etyni (firstborn of Isfalinis creator His Highest Above) rebelled and precipitated the Great War. The Etyni’s deaths, in turn, created the Cataclysm, a series of natural disasters that still affect characters in the present-day narrative. Vistus is a perpetually conflicted protagonist: He’s loyal to the Syraestari, whom he believes are “wiser and stronger” than humans, but also tormented by some of the Scions he’s killed in servitude. The narrative even takes to calling him “Belarrin” when he’s on a mission, differentiating his compassionate alter ego from Vistus and the t’Okaedrin life he’s beginning to doubt. As such, he garners sympathy when he’s with the Kalilaer and Scions. A female Scion named Sravika, whom Belarrin grows close to, becomes an obvious love interest. The story boasts ample mystery, primarily through possibly shady characters, like the Shadow-Servant. Ninanna has trouble trusting the enigmatic character, while Belarrin is certain Shadow-Servants are killers. In the same vein, there are dubious goings-on among the Syraestari and t’Okaedrin as well; several high lords are clearly plotting something against the empress. Despite the book’s length (over 800 pages), the author’s rich descriptions are often concise: “The thunder and lightning roared to the tempo of Belarrin’s nightmares until a final crash wrenched him to wakefulness.” Although this novel is the first installment of an epic series, its thorough resolution makes it a stand-alone.
Laudable characters and striking exposition give this world a grand introduction.