Sean Russell's debut novel is a beautifully mounted and original story set in an imaginary ancient Orient, with enough intrigue, mystique, beauty and wit to compensate for its shortcomings, which include an excess of talk and a too-leisurely pace.
In the quasi-Chinese empire of Wa, Lord Shonto is the revered patriarch of one of the oldest and most respected noble houses. Yet his popularity and influence are feared by the Emperor Akantsu, who took over the throne following a period of plague, warfare and strife. Akantsu believes Shonto has designs on the throne itself, a bit of paranoia abetted by the fact Shonto has taken on the services of a new spiritual advisor, Shuyun, a gifted Botahist monk (Botahara being something of an analog for Buddha in Russell's world) and the titular character.
Akantsu's family has rejected the Botahist faith, despite the fact the monks were the ones who developed a cure for the plague that decimated Wa. In an effort to rid himself of Shonto, Akantsu divides Shonto's family by sending Shonto north to govern the province of Seh while his daughter, the poetess Nishima, is kept in the capital under an Imperial "patronage." Seh is being threatened by northern barbarian raids. For Shonto, the journey north is a trap engineered by Akantsu's Machiavellian general Jaku Katta, who happens to be the fellow the emperor really ought to be fearing. But Shonto is a smart man, who knows full well what the emperor is up to and has plans of his own for slipping through Akantsu's trap and saving his family from Akantsu's decadence and despotism, and the empire from a possible invasion.
There is much about this book to praise; for a debut novel it is extraordinarily confident. Russell succeeds particularly well in conveying the spiritual mystique that so many Westerners love to associate with the Orient, though I believe much of that mystique is wishful thinking (but this is a fantasy, so no biggie). Tantalizing subplots are hinted at, whetting your appetite for the sequel.
Yet part of what Russell does so well also works against the book on occasion. With the exception of the leads, many of the characters seem the same. This is no doubt due to the fact they are characters living in a culture that demands adherence to the strictest forms of etiquette. But still, what we are left with is a cast full of people who are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another. We poor pitiful Occidentals should be forgiven if sometimes our heads swim over Shonto, Shuyun, Saicha, Sotura, Hajiwara, Komawara, etc.
There is palace intrigue to spare; in fact, the entire plot is driven by intrigue, plots, and counterplots, and with the exception of one short battle scene, most of the drama is played out in dialogue. Much of which is delicious, mind you — but don't come to this book expecting much action or traditional suspense. I did find that some scenes dragged, but not so much that it hurt my appreciation for Russell's estimable skills as a writer and storyteller. The Initiate Brother's most praiseworthy trait is that it is not just another bloated, indulgent faux-epic. Russell has taken the time to flex his imagination and come up with a fresh setting for a fantasy that, instead of trading in genre clichés, sends you on a sumptuous, often exhilarating journey to a time and place that never was.