Sunday, 3 February 2008

Nor Iron Bars a Cage - by Caprice Hokstad

I've been on an epic journey...and it cost me a good few sleepless nights. I'm usually not this keen on fantasy, but this time the author drew me in so strongly that I couldn't put the book down. It is a long book, and a deep read - one of those stories that takes you into another world and keeps you there until you turn the last page. And that lasted five days (or rather, nights) for me.

The curtains open at the point where the last episode ended. Having also read "The Duke's Handmaid" some time ago, I enjoyed the benefits of some familiarity with the world of Latoph and Byntar - customs of slavery and royalty, colourful peculiarities of language and grammar. In this second volume, we get to know the characters better - most of them were also in Book One, but now it goes deeper and we get a long look at their reactions under pressure of all kinds. Yes, there is cruelty, but the folks we're rooting for consistently deal with it in an honourable manner despite their suffering.

Duke Vahn's freewill slave Keedrina, known here by her slave-name "kee", undertakes a dangerous mission to recover the duke's young son, held captive in the dangerous neighbouring realm of Ganluc. This story, involving the cage in the title, takes up most of the first half of the book, but that is by no means all you will discover. During kee's absence, the duke himself accepts a hasty challenge and must deal with the unpleasant consequences, providing an insightful view of his behaviour in what is certainly a humiliating experience for him.

The storyline is at least as unusual as the title, and you can't tell from the back cover where it's going to end up. It's chock full of cliffhangers and climaxes, and also challenges for the characters we have come to love. They must endure a series of highly unusual and uncomfortable situations, which most accomplish with uncommon grace. In fact, kee is almost too good to be true, but it's clear she is motivated by her great love for the duke.

At first glance, things may seem very black and white. The good guys are exemplary in personality and behaviour, while the bad guys (and girls) are completely bound by their self-centred thinking. However, on reading further, the human weaknesses of heroes and heroines are also visible, and likewise a measure of true understanding on the part of their enemies. Of course, I mean "human" in the broader sense, since in Byntar the people are Elva and Itzi. Interactions between these complementary breeds make a fascinating level of dynamics within the tale.

The reason I don't usually go for fantasy is that most of it is set in a world largely resembling medieval Europe, and that can get predictable after a while. But here, that is not the case at all. Sure, there are similarities, and the level of technology is comparable with our own Middle Ages. Yet in every line we are made aware that these events are taking place on a different planet, and the action is upheld by two non-human species living under double suns and moons.

There's a delicious rhythm in the telling. You can tell that the writer has studied her craft and knows what she's doing. This lady can WRITE. Each word is deliberate yet gentle, painstakingly carved out, a fragile thing of beauty indeed. The language is emotive and evocative, colourful and contoured, warm and tangible. I doff my hat to Caprice, in wonder at her authorly diligence while keeping up a household and homeschooling all those kids, too. That's what I call a hardworking mom.

You'll enjoy the breadth of situations in these pages, and the thorough exploration of deep questions and wonderings. How would a royal person deal with slavery and cruelty? It made me remember how the King of Heaven came down to earth to live as a lowly man. There is no word of reference to God or Christianity, but you will find richly-woven themes of sacrifice and humility, love and friendship, good versus evil, and the final victory of justice and hope, like a fairytale for grown-ups. Go ahead and dive into the intensity of this experience - take the journey, and come back changed.

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