I have some mixed feelings about Keith Ward’s The Anointed, a standalone entry to the Red Proxy series, and a SPFBO4 semi-finalist. There are some aspects of the story that I enjoyed, but had difficulty coming to terms with some of its major plot points and character decisions. The world-building and rules of magic are interesting, but overall the story falls short of allowing me to fully recommend it.
The rules of the society captured my interest: when a person is born, they find out how long their lifespan (Span) is at birth. Not every person gets to live a long life; while some Spans last for 60 or 70 years, it could easily be as short as fifteen or twenty. But there is a way for some rich individuals to extend their lives: murder! One can sacrifice a ‘Proxy’s’ life to lengthen the lifespan of the recipient by however many leftover years in the Proxy’s Span. Therefore, the very rich can pay for Proxies to expand their life Spans several hundred years. A family might sell one of their children as Proxies to pay off a debt, or violent prisoners may serve as proxies to repay their debts to society. There are drawbacks: the longer you extend your life, the more insane you are likely to become. But this system has created a huge class divide, as well as popularized the sacrificing of babies. Who better to steal life from than a baby who has their entire Span ahead of them? **
(** I started to view this system of murdering babies to extend one’s life as an allegory for a woman’s right to choose, but since that’s getting into some dicey territory, I’m not going to venture into what I think the author might or might not be trying to say.)
Another interesting aspect of the story is that there is nothing in this world that floats on water. Kingdoms and continents are separated by oceans, but the only way to cross them is by training and riding dragons across the sea. This severely limits the amount of people who can travel overseas, since boats do not exist. Therefore, it is next to impossible for one kingdom to raid and conquer a land across a sea, as invasion-by-dragon is not economically feasible. But what if a once-segregated kingdom, hidden in the wilderness for 1,000 years, had the only resources in the world that would allow for the building of ships? These resources would be the most valuable and sought-after in the known world. Unfortunately for the race of indigenous, peaceful people who live within this small kingdom, they are woefully unprepared to face the horrors of mankind when they are no longer able to hide their ‘magical floating wood’ from the rest of the world.
(Warning: the next paragraph will discuss a revealing plot point that deals with sexual assault.)
Ward keeps the story flowing at a brisk pace, jumping between multiple POV’s and adding a few layers of mystery along the way. But there are some glaring character issues that greatly reduced my enjoyment of the story. One of our ‘hero’ protagonists is a fifteen-year-old boy named Xinlas. He is a rich, entitled brat who thinks he’s a Chosen One and more special than anyone else, since he’s the only person who has ever survived being a Proxy sacrifice when he was a baby. Xinlas begins the story as insufferable and gets worse as the book progresses. Towards the end of the story, he sexually assaults the character Greengrass, hurting her and causing her to bleed, frustrated because he can’t figure out why she doesn’t want him. The scene is nauseating, but I was willing to accept it as it coincided with how terrible a person Xinlas is. But I took issue with how the author chose to write the ramifications of Xinlas’ actions. He is given a short redemption arc at the very end of the book, where something bad happens to him and he Becomes a Man within moments. He has a big epiphany and realizes how much of a garbage human he’s been all along. But when he goes to visit Greengrass he doesn’t address the assault – instead he just apologizes for how awful a day she’s having, due to completely unrelated events (??!!). What’s worse is that the victim stares at Xinlas “in wonder” because she sees a Big Change in him. The assault is never brought up again, and we don’t get her perspective on it. The author chooses to view the situation only through the lens of Xinlas, and how he’s suddenly “a man” and how it was a big moment for his character’s growth.
This did not sit well with me at all. Creating a character like Xinlas and leading him through a journey of redemption and maturity is acceptable, but ignoring and belittling his act of aggression without giving a voice to his victim is disheartening and shallow. This decision was frustrating and disappointing as it didn’t treat Greengrass like a real person. She was a prop used to progress Xinlas to where the book wanted him to be.
There were a couple of other aspects to the story that didn’t sit right with me. One group of people doesn’t know what “lying” is, partly due to them being cut off from the rest of society. That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, because lying is a part of being human. Young children frequently lie to avoid getting into trouble when they do something bad. Creating a separatist, socialist society where money or violence doesn’t exist is palpable, but having them exist for 1,000 years without a single person lying even once? That removes an essential part of humanity and alienated me from accepting the rules of this world.
There’s a few other minor gripes I had with the book, but nothing as egregious as the way that the assault and its ramifications were handled. The boy went too far and didn’t do nearly enough to earn his redemption arc, and the mishandling of how Greengrass reacts left a sour feeling in my gut. Still, Ward has created an intriguing world that has somehow normalized the murdering of babies for personal gain, as well as a cast of mostly-interesting characters and some unexpected plot turns. I don’t think I’ll be continuing with this series, but your results may vary.
Review by Adam Weller
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