Fighting for your ideals is a noble cause, an honorable path in which to dedicate your life. But what if those ideals are corrupted, and everything you know and love is ripped away from you--what would you become? M.D. Presley attempts to answer these questions in the remarkable The Woven Ring, book one of the planned four-volume “Sol’s Harvest” tetralogy. This book is an achievement that excels in so many levels, yet is still greater than the sum of its parts. Presley has created a vivid world that has been shattered by civil war, yet pulses with life through its fine cast of characters and a rich system of magical Breath abilities. It is elegantly written, with a poetic cadence that rewards multiple passage readings. And it is a brilliant start to a series that paints a heartbreaking, yet endearing portrait of a woman who has lost everything, but will never stop fighting.
Marta Childress was born a high society noble, daughter of the leader of this continent’s Cildra clan. This secretive clan is a spy network of men and women gifted in the art of espionage and information gathering, and they hold great political sway. The clan was part of the Eastern alliance, known as the Covenant, who declared its independence from the Western territories due to the Covenant’s views on using their rare Breath ability to manifest phantom golems that handle their labor. The Westerners believe that the use of Sol’s gift of Breath manipulation is heresy, and deploy Reavers to cut out the Breath of those who mishandle these Blessed abilities. Tensions soon escalate, and a civil war, the Grand War, arises to kills untold thousands over several years of fighting. Eventually, the Westerners win the war due to a technological invention that shatters the Covenant into submission.
We follow Marta across two separate timelines that alternate at the end of each chapter. The present-day Marta is a broken woman: emotionally and physically scarred, unable to look herself in the eye in a mirror, numbing herself to life with alcohol and physical labor. She hides her identity and is on the run from her past, yet we do not know why. She is soon given a mission, sent by her hated brother Carmichael, to find and escort a girl across the country to reunite with her father. This father happens to be the man who invented the technology that decimated the Covenant, including Marta’s hometown and fellow Cidra clan members. Marta is simultaneously given secret orders by her own father that contradict Carmichael’s instructions, and must decide whether to choose duty over vengeance, or family over revenge.
We also spend time with the Marta of the past, learning how she discovered her Shaper powers, her years in training, her involvement in espionage, and eventually her tragic years fighting in the Grand War. We witness the breaking of Marta over time, witness to her life slowly disintegrating as she discovers that she is only a pawn in the bigger game of war and politics. Nevertheless, she persisted. It is heartbreaking to take this journey with Marta, who fights so hard to help her people be free.
If this sounds like a lot of information, you are correct. I’ve barely explained the various Breath abilities: Marta is gifted with the ability that allows her to Shape, or manifest her Breath into armor, or a phantom blade, or a lockpick, or even powerful, jumping rabbit legs. Listeners are gifted with hearing echoes of thoughts from people nearby who don’t protect their Mind. Whisperers can incept ideas in others’ heads; Renders can pull Breath from the Blessed out of their bodies, and sever their life force using glass weaponry; Weavers can pool Breaths to create and control ethereal automatons to utilize for work or combat. There is a detailed history brimming with stories on how Breath is the life force that gathers within all living things, and their Breaths are balls of light that return to the earth after death, joining rivers of ley before inhabiting life anew. There are ancient emets, phantom beasts that are either benign, malevolent, or indifferent that are worshipped by towns for generations. There are glassmen, creatures of such evil power and malcontent that are near impossible to kill. There are tribes of Native American-like Ingios, there are tech-savvy Tinkers, there are Gypsy-like nomads called Dobra that run a communication network across the lines of ley. And nearly all of this is introduced or alluded to in the first few chapters of the story.
The learning curve felt steep towards the beginning of the book, as I found myself highlighting a great many passages and scribbling notes while so many new ideas were introduced. Each passage felt like they were of great importance, and they were: much of what we learn early in the story is applicable to the rest of the book. Once I progressed past the 20% mark, I had absorbed which areas were siding with whom, which people had what abilities, and so forth. In fact, I didn’t mind the massive information dump; indeed, it was one of Presley’s biggest strengths in his writing: Presley not only spends time explaining the “what” of these new topics, but ensures that the reader understands the “how” and the “why” as well. It would have been easy to gloss over some of the bigger concepts that were introduced, but instead, Presley applies some of these concepts into real-world scenarios, giving these concepts depth and consequence. I greatly appreciated how well-developed his ideas were, as these examples helped strengthen the concept that these new ideas carried weight and a sense of realism. As more and more concepts were introduced, the book dedicated extra time to hash out the implications of these themes in vivid detail, which elevated the world-building into rare territory.
There is so much more than even what’s mentioned above, and therein lies perhaps the book’s greatest asset: it is continuously rewarding with each new chapter and revelation. While Marta’s story is a sad one, it is also fulfilling, fascinating, and incredibly compelling. I cared for Marta’s journey, both past and present. I warily attached myself to her companions over time, but was careful not to trust them any further than Marta did. I caught my breath during the scenes of battle, felt sorrow during a loss, and felt hope as her mission edged closer towards something that resembled progress.
I don’t know where this story is going, but I will certainly be along for the ride. The Woven Ring is one of the most thought-provoking and one of my overall favorite reads of the year.
Review by Adam Weller
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