As I slowly climb into my mid-30s I’ve begun to take stock of my life. For over ten years I’ve been reviewing fantasy books, and this year marks my tenth year reviewing with Fantasy Book Review. The first book I ever reviewed for Lee (FBR’s editor in chief) was Brisingr by Christopher Paolini (please, don’t go back and read that review). I’ve tried valiantly over that time to keep up to date with the newest and best new books that have come across my doorstep or my email inbox.
However, over that time I have not often been able to re-read any of those books that I fell in love with the first time through. I’ve occasionally re-read a book, here and there, but I’ve never had the opportunity to re-read entire series’ and have rarely had the chance to just read for my own pleasure, without also having to critique the book as I go.
So, sometime earlier this year I decided that I would try and refocus my reading habits a bit – spending as much time re-reading as I spend reading new books.
There were two contenders for what I would re-read first, and in the end Australian author Joel Shepherd won out with his four-book series ‘A Trial of Blood and Steel’. The first book in the series, Sasha, was originally published all the way back in 2007, and I was immediately hooked (though not as in love as I would soon come to be). The series has sat on my shelves since he finished his quartet in 2010, and I have often included Joel Shepherd as one of my favourite authors. So much so, in fact, that I recently began reading his sci-fi series, ‘The Spiral Wars’, which started off with the first book in 2015, Renegade.
In other words, I’ve been reading Joel Shepherds work, on and off, for almost a decade (I reviewed Sasha in 2009, and the final three books in 2012). I’ve now read him in my early-20s and in my early-30s; I’ve read him writing fantasy and science fiction.
And this most recent re-read of his ‘A Trial of Blood and Steel’ only confirmed my belief that Joel Shepherd is one of the most underrated talents currently writing.
Note: Spoilers will follow for the entire series. If you don’t want spoilers, read the original reviews before reading the books.
The Importance of Family
One of the first things you’ll notice about the eponymous character of Sasha is her loyalty to those around her over that of her blood relatives. At first this might seem odd, but the story quickly begins to reveal a family dysfunction the likes of which Jerry Springer could only have hoped to encounter. Those that Sasha considers family are obviously those of the town of Baerlyn, and the larger community of Goeren-Yai. Conversely, internal politicking and differing world views mar the relationships her blood family – as well as the death of their oldest brother, Krystoff – and familial bonds are broken asunder.
This, however, is not the whole of it. Shepherd does not create a family situation as a helpful character trait which occasionally affects Sasha’s decision-making. It’s not the answer to a character biography sheet: “Family status – it’s complicated.” Rather, the relationships between her family – both between her and her father and siblings, as well as the relationships between her siblings and father towards one another – are integral to the entire quartet of books, and do not rely on any constant expression of said relationship. There is no simple answer that neatly divides family members into different camps.
Of course, the most obvious contention is between Sasha and her older brother Koenyg. This continues, in one form or another, throughout the entire series. Wylfred is absent the entire series, and only occasionally referenced – the excuse being that he is training for the priesthood. This leaves four other siblings – Damon, Alythia, Sofy, and the youngest brother, Myklas.
What follows over four books is some of the most realistic and captivating family drama that you will encounter in fiction. There are no absolutes and no obviously bad or good people. Each family member is given their own time and space to grow and to express themselves, and as a reader it is up to us to make our own judgements regarding who is right or wrong in any given situation. In one book Damon might be the principal sibling to interact with Sasha, or it might be Alythia or Sofy. Admittedly, Koenyg and Myklas do play particular roles and, as such, do not get as much “screen time”, but this only solidifies Shepherd’s authorial control over the situation.
Because, no matter what your long-held opinions about the siblings by the time you reach the final pages of the books – no matter how much you like Sasha or dislike Koenyg – nothing prepares you for Koenyg’s final words of the book. It is a literary masterstroke, reshaping the reader’s entire perception of an entire character in the context of his final words. Very few characters in fantasy literature can affect the reader’s assumptions of them retroactively, but Shepherd manages to weave the royal family of Lenayin in such a way as to remove any chance of simple answers.
As the author explains in my interview with him, “Koenyg remains entirely consistent to his worldview,” in that final scene. And while Koenyg’s worldview is clearly shown throughout the book, the character’s motivations are not as clear-cut, and are only really clarified in his final moments.
A Fighting Retreat
Another aspect of A Trial of Blood and Steel worth noting is the overall style with which the entire series is told. By this I do not mean the literary genre or how the author strung his sentences together. Rather, I’m referring to the overall scope of the series, which I describe as a large-scale fighting retreat. Each book puts the defenders more and more on the back foot, and by the fourth book of the series, Haven, everything is on the line.
But the fighting retreat starts much earlier and looks much more like victory than it will inevitably be revealed to be. The events of Sasha would appear, for all intents and purposes, to be a significant and great victory for the forces of good – in this case, “good” being defined as the cause of the Goeren-Yai, the Udalyn, Sasha, and her allies, while the “bad” is pretty much everyone else, in this particular instance. But by the time the book ends – and especially as you re-read the series – Joel Shepherd leaves the impression that not all is as it seems to be, and we’re left uncertain exactly what Kessligh has been up to and what he has accomplished.
As Petrodor starts out, it would appear that he has accomplished little – and it only goes downhill from there. At every stage of Petrodor it seems, for a moment at a time, that the “good guys” get the upper hand only to have it ripped out from underneath them – often with devastating consequences and bloody body counts. While things do not go well for the good guys for the majority of Tracato or Haven, I still feel as if Petrodor was the book that left me feeling most like they were fighting a losing battle. Every step in the right direction is almost immediately undermined and before long the entire hillside is aflame with fighting, giving the scenes a very Spanish-style Les Misérables vibe to it.
I was particularly moved (and, subsequently as a reviewer, impressed) by the relationship between Sasha and Rhillian, the enigmatic serrin – Joel Shepherds version of elves, but so far removed from the idea of fantasy elves that there are more dissimilarities than there are similarities. The immediate friendship that sparks between the human and serrin does not have the ring of authorial contrivance to it, rather, it seems to echo a meeting of minds, a connecting of two souls eternally intended for friendship. Their inherent differences – where they come from and their individual world views – only deepen the bond and make its severance all the worse.
That Shepherd doesn’t allow this relationship to stagnate – to rely on a single paradigm – is again proof of the author’s willingness never to allow things to remain the same lest they grow stale. And exploding out of every interaction between the two characters from then on is a palpable tension that leaves the reader feeling as heartsick as Sasha and Rhillian are portrayed to be. Their reunion in the opening sections of Haven is made all the more emotional because it was not hurried, not drawn forward to cosy readers, or given short-shrift in the moment.
But this emotional peak is immediately put into perspective – like a hiker surmounting a peak, only to reveal the greater heights beyond. What is assuredly a massive turning point is revealed to be less momentous and game-changing than the books’ participants may have hoped for. The initial victory is again turned into a harried and hurried return to the long fighting retreat which will eventually account for about two whole books in length.
The whole series plays out as one long, seemingly-unending fighting retreat. Nothing is ever as it seems, and even the final confrontation is left with strings dangling.
An End That’s Not An End
Fantasy authors (and fans alike) are renowned for never wanting their series to end. At times this can be so pervasive and obvious that it starts to detract from the story and past accomplishments.
Joel Shepherd obviously left some doors open when he finished writing Haven, the final book in the series, and you could theoretically mark him down for that. I don’t know why you would want to – anyone who made it to book four is most likely already a fan and wants more. Even the way that Shepherd closes out the last pages of the book have the air of someone planning to dig deeper someday. Point-of-view narrative is swapped for hindsight narrative and there are definitely some open-ended questions left unanswered.
But having read Joel Shepherd elsewhere, specifically in his The Spiral Wars, I can’t mark this against him. As I said, I simply want to read more of Sasha and her friends and countrymen, and I want to know more about the world. The serrin navy is apparently formidable, but they never get a chance to show it. The entire series takes place on a single continent – surely there’s more, right? And what happens to Lenayin in the aftermath, because the North are surely unhappy with how things turned out.
In a way, I’d be perfectly content if Shepherd doesn’t return to Lenay. I get to read his work in The Spiral Wars which, in my opinion, is giving A Trial of Blood and Steel a run for its money in terms of class and skill. They are completely different while at the same time being obviously written by the same author. You can tell! There is that same melancholy perception of the world or universe around characters that comes from overthinking one’s worldview, or the worldview of those around you. It’s a fantastic theme that is strong, but not heavy-handed, in A Trial of Blood and Steel, and subtle, but not invisible in The Spiral Wars.
In the end, though, what I really want is more writing by Joel Shepherd. I’ll take it wherever I can get it, because I honestly think that he’s one of the best writers going around at the moment. He absolutely doesn’t get the credit he deserves, and I really hope that more readers discover him soon. Whether you’re a fantasy fan, a sci-fi fan, or just a fan of beautifully crafted words strung together in an amazingly tended world, Joel Shepherd is one of the most inventive and captivating writers of the 21st Century.