Patricia Bray may have brought a new twist to the old cliché of the humble, lowborn youth who discovers he is actually lost royalty. But it isn't enough to make up for a dull tale that commits an almost unheard-of sin. Who the hell wants to read a fantasy novel in which the hero, lacking the stomach for a fight, simply gives up, rats out all his compatriots, and capitulates to the villain?
Bray's craftsmanship is all right, and the story gets off to a promising start and holds your interest reasonably well for much of its length. But Bray's prose favors reams and reams of exposition, which retards the pace. And there's no one here to like. No one.
The — ahem — hero is Josan, a young monk of the Learned Brethren, who has been exiled to a remote island lighthouse because of an illness that briefly wrecked him both mentally and physically. Josan's belief in who he is and the modest course of his future is turned inside out by the arrival of Lady Ysobel Flordelis, from the nearby Seddon Federation. She has been shipwrecked there following a particularly vicious storm. Josan helps her and her tiny party get back to the mainland, where she completes her trek to Karystos, capital of the Ikarian Empire. Ysobel's cover story is that she's a trade liaison between Ikaria and Seddon. In truth she hopes to foment discontent and revive a rebellion against the tyrannical Empress Nerissa. Six years ago Nerissa ruthlessly put down an attempted coup by supporters of the throne's rightful heir, Prince Lucius. Lucius himself, a young hothead and wastrel, disappeared at the end of it all into the hands of the Learned Brethren, who reported him dead. Or is he....?
Do you see where this is going? Of course you do. Bray does develop some sympathy for Josan, as he is forced out of his peaceful island life and back into the mainland, and must come to terms with the fact that another person's mind seems to be residing within his own. As he makes his weary way to Karystos, Josan fights to understand what has happened to him, where he got his sudden magic powers from, and whether he will lose control of himself for good once he reaches the capital and events are set in motion.
But Bray's writing is largely drab and laconic. She's very clear on laying out all the details, but she doesn't engage you emotionally.
And everything takes a turn for the worse at the climax, which I must unfortunately reveal. There is certainly merit in Bray's choice to depict the rebels who flock to Lucius/Josan as self-absorbed opportunists rather than altruists really interested in the welfare of Ikaria. Some of them, in their enthusiasm, have gone right off the rails and committed appalling murders that aren't likely to win any sympathy for their cause. I also liked how Ysobel is never at any time the romantic fantasy heroine, but a cold-blooded Machiavellian intriguer, who never does even the smallest thing that doesn't have an elaborate, self-serving agenda motivating it. But while I liked the twists to these characters away from the stereotype of Valiant Lawful Good Freedom Fighters, I didn't necessarily like them very well as people.
Still, Nerissa is worse, and her tyranny and torture chambers are no good for anybody. So when Lucius/Josan (with Josan finally dominant) makes the decision to turn all the rebels in, because he wants to stop a movement that will doubtless result in loads of bloodshed, and bends the knee to Nerissa, you can't help but feel profound disappointment. What was the point of the whole story? That you shouldn't even try to rid the world of evil if there's the slightest chance anyone could get hurt, and the people you're working with may not have the most noble of motives? Under that rationale, we never should have bothered with D-Day. Besides, in a fantasy novel, no matter what the people around him/her are doing, you kind of expect the hero to stand on principles and strike a blow for what's right, come what may. Josan's actions seem like simple cowardice, the act of someone who just wants to save his own skin (the conspirators are horribly executed; he isn't, and has agreed to praise the Empress publically for the executions to boot) because he can't bear to pay the price of freedom. Faugh.
In the end I'm not sure what betrayal the title's referring to. Is it the Brethren's betrayal of Lucius, Josan's betrayal of his followers, or Bray's betrayal of her readers? I suppose it doesn't matter in the end, as there are, after all, many many better fantasy novels on the racks now from which to choose.