From Wow to Yawn In Record Time

by Arthur B

Carol Berg's Rai-Kirah series comes apart after one book. But at least that one book is pretty good.
Carol Berg's debut fantasy trilogy, The Rai-Kirah, is an ambitious series which combines a grimdark fantasy world which seems to actually give appropriate weight and seriousness to the abuses depicted in the text (and spreads the pain around neatly rather than, say, going after women disproportionately) with an evocative depiction of magic which involves searing occult battles unfolding within dimensions hidden within the human soul. Packaged in absolutely grotesquely bad CGI cover art, the various books in the series came up in a library bag sale some months back, so I snaffled the lot and took them home to line the Reading Canary's cage with. The series was nominated for a few minor awards and the first book actually won the Geffen Award for best translated novel (apparently it reads really well in Hebrew), so maybe there's fun to be had. But then again, the first book has themes of slavery and abuse and oppression and all sorts of other subjects which raise the possibility that it might just be a horrible, triggery mess that indulges in all the grimdark gritty fantasy subgenre's worst habits.

Brief, spoiler free summary: the first book more or less gets it right, I couldn't bring myself to care whether the second two did or not.


The first book in the series introduces us to Seyonne, our humble narrator - extremely humble, as a matter of fact, since he is a slave of the cruel and warlike Derzhi Empire. Ever since he was captured in the Derzhi invasion of his homeland, Ezzaria, Seyonne has been forced to forget about his time as a free man; after the Rites of Balthar sealed away his magical abilities, and after he had endured countless horrendous punishments and seen his fellow slaves endure even worse, he has more than learned to tone down his expectations. Where once he might have consoled himself with plans of escape or dreams of freedom, now he lives exclusively in the present, his main aim in life being to minimise the beatings he incurs. In practice, this means he strives to carry out his overlords' orders quickly and efficiently and not draw attention to himself.

At the start of the book Seyonne is purchased by Crown Prince Aleksander, who is mere weeks away from being formally recognised by his father as the anointed heir to the Empire. It rapidly becomes clear that Aleksander is a rude, cruel, vindictive, petty, decadent, manipulative, childish and thoroughly shitty individual who shouldn't be in charge of anything. In the opening chapters he mutilates a noble in retaliation for the chap in question marking Seyonne's face - not because he particularly cares about Seyonne, but because he doesn't like other people damaging his property - and then engineers for the individual in question's family to be purged whilst simultaneously manipulating the other nobles of the powerful houses into accidentally expressing their endorsement of this in order to protect his position.

Seyonne is in an ideal place to observe Aleksander's curious mixture of political and martial skill and reckless, headstrong, irrationality, because his main job is acting as Aleksander's personal scribe, Derzhi nobles priding themselves on the fact that they can delegate literacy to the little people. However, as Seyonne reads and writes Aleksander's mail and goes about his other duties around Aleksander's palace, he also notices something else: the Khelid, a strange nation from somewhere far to the north who abruptly and unexpectedly capitulated to the advancing Empire a while back, are worming their way into positions of influence throughout the Empire. And even more disturbingly, the Khelid emissary to Aleksander's court is possessed by a demon. Seyonne can be sure of the fact, because before he was enslaved he was a Warden, part of the elite Ezzarian cadre of mages who battled demons for the souls of mortals, using possessed victim's own dreamscapes as the battlefield. Derzhi magicians are mainly charlatans and have no real understanding of the peril presented by the demons, or rai-kirah, and so Seyonne is the only person in Aleksander's palace who is even capable of recognising one when he sees one. But how can he reconcile his oath to counter the efforts of demons wherever he encounters them with his hatred of his Derzhi overlords? And for that matter, how can he get his masters to listen to him in the first place?

You will have probably noticed that this premise has the potential to be extremely grimdark; those of you who like to wear the slash goggles will be wondering whether you'll be catered for. On balance, Berg errs more towards realistic but not overplayed or trite grimness; if you want to interpret the text as implying off-screen abandoned bonking between Aleksander and Seyonne, Berg gives you enough material to extrapolate with but not quite enough to say "oh, come on, this is totally canon". The ambiguity concerning the extent of Aleksander and Seyonne's intimacy works well in terms of making the slash aspect of the novel optional for those who do not like slash, and I understand that for many who do enjoy slash part of the appeal is in noticing the ambiguity and finding slashy ways to interpret it, for the same reason that people find innuendo in general amusing and fun. On the other hand, you could argue that it's problematic if the only positively presented gay relationship in the book is one which turns out not to be a gay relationship at all if you look at it with your slash goggles off, especially since the only overtly presented homosexual incident in the book involves a young boy slave being raped (off-screen) by a Derzhi dinner guest and committing suicide over the shame of it.

The grimdark horrors of the book do not stop there. Aleksander, in the early parts of the novel, is a monster, and the Derzhi culture in general is cruel enough to slaves that much of Seyonne's early experiences in the book are positively nightmarish. Things become a bit less heavy once Aleksander falls afoul of a demonic curse and finds himself dependent on Seyonne's knowledge to get by, and much less heavy once Aleksander and Seyonne flee the palace incognito in order to seek the remnants of the Ezzarian people in order to get Aleksander exorcised. The inversion of the balance of power between Aleksander and Seyonne in the middle portion of the book, and the eventual levelling by the end of the novel, is where the relationship becomes really interesting and satisfying regardless of its slash potential.

After carefully planting a few incidents in the first third or so of the book to establish that Aleksander is far from irredeemable, Berg uses Aleksander and Seyonne's adventures and ordeals to depict a growing mutual respect and friendship which ultimately triumphs over not just the external threats facing the two characters, but also over the unacceptable things that Aleksander has done in the past. When Seyonne first looks in Aleksander's eyes and realises that he possesses the feadnach, a spiritual potential for being a great and beneficial influence on the world, he recoils and refuses to believe it; Aleksander has treated Seyonne completely horrendously, done terrible things in his presence, and takes most of the book to learn to speak to him with something approaching respect. But eventually he does reconcile that Aleksander with the Aleksander he witnesses intervening - without anyone calling for his help, and when he really didn't have to - to protect a peasant woman from being randomly assaulted by one of his noble hangers-on, and it's that reconciliation that's the heart of the book.

One of the nice touches Berg brings in is the fact that the Derzhi culture is not depicted as being completely dystopian, and the Ezzarians aren't shown to necessarily have all the answers. The Ezzarian insistence on a high standard of ritual purity means that as a debased, degraded slave, corrupted by the base and evil world, Seyonne has become a non-person to his own people, many of whom refuse to acknowledge he exists, even though having one more Warden when their numbers are so drastically diminished would be immensely useful to them. (A particularly nice touch is the way that Seyonne's own acceptance of these purity laws prevents him at first from effectively engaging with those Ezzarians who are willing to speak with him and help him and welcome him back.) On the Derzhi side, Seyonne and Aleksander's quest eventually becomes an adventure to save the Empire itself - not just because the demonically-controlled Khelid who threaten to overthrow it would be worse masters than the Derzhi, but because the collapse of the Empire would most likely result in a horrendous humanitarian disaster. A more honourable side of the Derzhi is on display early on in the novel in the form of Dmitri, Aleksander's uncle and advisor, and Aleksander himself points out that without the Imperial infrastructure there are entire communities that would be wiped out by one bad winter were it not for the Empire's intervention to make sure food gets distributed to where it's needed. The characters are all imperfect people from imperfect cultures in an imperfect world; the only people who are consistently shown to be evil are the Khelid, and that might be because we never really get a good look at the Khelid culture and the only ones are shown up are the willing puppets of demonic forces; the fate of those Khelid who refused to go along with their rulers' pact with the rai-kirah is a matter for the reader to speculate about.

As far as debut novels go, Transformation is pretty good; Berg manages to balance fashionable grittiness with traditional fantasy adventure without the grittiness being trivialised or the adventure being hamstrung, and the genuinely complex relationship between Aleksander and Seyonne is particularly impressively set up. (Plus, like I said, if you want to apply slash goggles to the thing it's completely viable.) It's also nicely self-contained; even though it is the first part of a trilogy and there's clearly still stuff going on with the rai-kirah's grand overarching schemes, it gives you enough closure that if the rest of the trilogy turns out to be shit it'd still be worth reading this one on its own.

Revelati- ah, fuck it, I don't care any more.

Of course, Berg sets herself up for a problem in the sequels with the mostly self-contained nature of the first book. Driven as it was by the see-sawing power dynamic between Seyonne and Aleksander, and concluding as it did with Aleksander both giving Seyonne his freedom as a human being and giving the Ezzarians the closest thing to independence he can give them without overstepping his authority as crown prince, the story seemed to be more or less complete in that one book.

This leaves Berg in a bind. Contriving some way to revive the codependent relationship between Seyonne and Aleksander would have felt forced and artificial, whilst moving on from it had its own difficulties; even if a similarly compelling fulcrum could be found, the resulting story would feel either like a retread of Transformation if it were too similar or an entirely unrelated story if it were sufficiently different. And without a compelling interaction to anchor the story with, what's to set the series apart from any other mainstream fantasy demon-hunting saga?

I began Revelation, the second book of the saga, both keen to see how Berg would solve this problem and worried that the solution would be shit. I'm afraid I cannot report on either the solution or its shittiness, however, since I quit reading early on.

Specifically, after two chapters.

The general premise of the second two books of the series is that Seyonne, having won the almost-freedom of his people and gotten back into the exorcist gig, ends up discovering astonishing hidden truths about the rai-kirah which completely changes his understanding of who they are and what they want, and the subsequent action unfolds from this moment of disillusionment. Revelation therefore kicks off by setting the groundwork for this; we discover that despite everything he has done for them, Seyonne's fellow Ezzarians still distrust him and consider him spiritually unclean.

On the plus side, he has been able to marry the Queen, his long-time sweetheart Ysanne. And he has at least been allowed to return to his old role, aided by the fact that the authorities' official line is that the extraordinary nature of his victory at the end of Transformation proved that he had remained miraculously uncorrupted during experiences which would otherwise have been taboo. On the other hand, it's also clear that he isn't completely trusted; when X is no longer able to accompany him on exorcisms due to her being pregnant with their first child, Seyonne is denied the right to choose his next colleague and is instead provided with Fiona, a traditionalist who is clearly watching him for any signs of corruption and impropriety. And it certainly doesn't help that many of the superstitions and rituals of the Ezzarian culture seem less crucial to Seyonne these days - he's been a Warden long enough and travelled far and wide enough to get an insight into which parts are empty tradition and which are actually effectual, and has no patience for the purely ornamental rites any more.

But the incident that really seems to kick off his crisis of faith in Ezzarian culture - prefiguring, at the end of the second chapter, a scandal which seems to threaten to discredit him as a Warden - is when he gets home one day from a long and arduous exorcism excursion to find that Ysanne is all of a sudden no longer pregnant, and that she and everyone else is point-blank denying that she was ever with child. It takes a while for Seyonne to realise, but sooner or later he figures out what the deal is: apparently, in Ezzarian culture, sometimes a baby will be born a demon, at which point they are put to death and no more is said of them.

Now, I don't know whether in the context of the rest of the novel this is actually meant to be a crudely veiled anti-abortion message. Sure, some of the points Seyonne gets angry about - the fact that he, as the father, didn't get to have a say in what happened, or the outrage that society refuses to refuse the infant as a human being with a right to live - are classic pro-life talking points. And, yes, using the postnatal slaying of infants as an allegory of abortion is precisely the sort of motif SF and fantasy authors with a pro-life message like to use - even Philip K. Dick sank to that level. But I must make it clear again that I have not, in fact, read the book from beginning to end, so it could be that in the context of the rest of the novel it turns out to be a rather more nuanced concept than it came across as in those opening chapters.

But the thing is, I realised I didn't want to find out. I wasn't excited enough by the book to keep ploughing through Seyonne strolling around moping and being hostile and having people be hostile to him in return, and my memories of Transformation were still shiny enough that I wasn't enormously keen to see them tarnished if it turned out that the next books were an unpleasant Culture of Life screed. I just didn't care enough any more, and maybe it is harsh to expect Berg to make me care within the space of two chapters, but then again in the first book I was hooked after two pages. Sometimes, as a reader, it's best to quite while you're ahead and the previous book in the series is still mostly untarnished in your eyes; my instincts tell me that this is one of those times.

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Comments (go to latest)
Kellicat at 22:04 on 2011-11-18
When I read these books a few years ago, I never got the impression that the exposure of Seyonne's son was meant to be a pro-life screed. It seemed to me that it was consistent with how their culture worked: letting a demon child live and suffer from demonic possession would be a much worse fate than letting the child die. The personal feelings of the parents are considered irrelevant. Seyonne's angry, but the incident that pushes him over the edge and forces him to leave Ezzaria is not his son's death, but a discovery that he makes about the nature of the demons. The last two books come off more as a plea not to be narrow-minded than as a pro-life screed.

*It turns that the demons aren't Always Chaotic Evil and in fact were sundered from the Ezzarians long ago. This means that when Ezzarians destroy demons, they destroy a part of their people's souls. Children who are born demon-possessed are actually the ideal, not an aberration. Seyonne's son isn't dead either.

However, the are some aspects of the last two books that do bother me. The second book spends an awful lot of time showing Seyonne being tortured by demons and depicting his suffering and that can get tedious after a while. The way Ysanne's character is treated in the last two books really annoys me from a feminist perspective(hits too many "bad" women stereotypes for my liking). The ending for both Seyonne and Aleksander's story arcs in the last two books is too neat for my liking. All in all, I'd say you're much better off not reading the last two Rai-kirah books and just move on to her next series.

If you wanted to read more books by Carol Berg, I'd suggest reading Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone next. Her D'Arnath is pretty good in some respects, but it's also the most traditional of her epic fantasies and contains some annoying tropes ( rampant use of A'postrophe names, completely evil villains with stereoptypical motives, plot revelations hinging people thought dead who actually turn out to be Not Dead after all which the reader can figure out long before the characters do, etc.), and it's four books long. The Cartamandua duology tells a good story in two books, the protagonist is no Gary Stu (i.e. he actually undergoes some significant character growth), and there's some awesome women villains who have understandable motives for their actions, and the women in general tend to be depicted well.

As for the cover art, it's pretty awful here in Canada/US too. The cover art for her books tends to be chancy, but the Rai-kirah trilogy definitely has the worst cover art out of all her books.
Arthur B at 22:15 on 2011-11-18
Seyonne's angry, but the incident that pushes him over the edge and forces him to leave Ezzaria is not his son's death, but a discovery that he makes about the nature of the demons. The last two books come off more as a plea not to be narrow-minded than as a pro-life screed.

This reassures me that I want to read more Carol Berg, but it wasn't the fact that it seemed like a pro-life screed that put me off so much as the realisation that my enjoyment of the previous book was sufficiently high, and my enthusiasm for what was being presented to me was sufficiently low, that it wasn't worth tarnishing my good memories of the series by wading through a book which ends chapter 1 with a cheap shot and looked like it'd end up being cheap shot after cheap shot.

Also, it kind of doesn't make sense in-universe. What, their entire culture is built around exorcism but they're faced with one possessed baby and they're like "WOAH THIS KID'S BETTER OFF DEAD"? Doesn't make sense in the slightest. It can't be justified on the basis of exorcism being too dangerous for babies because exorcism is sometimes fatal for the adult recipient too.
Kellicat at 23:51 on 2011-11-18
This reassures me that I want to read more Carol Berg, but it wasn't the fact that it seemed like a pro-life screed that put me off so much as the realisation that my enjoyment of the previous book was sufficiently high, and my enthusiasm for what was being presented to me was sufficiently low, that it wasn't worth tarnishing my good memories of the series by wading through a book which ends chapter 1 with a cheap shot and looked like it'd end up being cheap shot after cheap shot

Ah, that makes more sense. Definitely don't read the next two books then. I don't think you'll enjoy them. As for your second paragraph, I hadn't thought of that, but that does make sense. I'd definitely say the world-building in her first trilogy has the biggest holes and that it tends to get better and has fewer holes in her later series. She tried to do so much in the Rai-kirah trilogy that it left some major gaping plot and worldbuilding holes which is another good reason to skip to her later series.
adrienne at 04:09 on 2011-11-29
Her Song of the Beast was really good, too. A single book, with a pretty interesting world.
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