For anyone new to Rehabilitated Hack Writer Recommends, I target my book reviews towards novelists (you can find my prior reviews here). I also need to point out that this is a review of the first book of a series, not the series itself.
Before we dive headfirst into the fantasy pool of epic goodness that is Tara Mara’s The Unfinished Song: Initiate, we need to take a step back and formally define what epic fantasy is in the novel landscape of 2012. The classic definition of epic or high fantasy is it’s a sub-genre of fantasy set in invented worlds.
I hate that definition.
To me, epic fantasy needs to be, well, epic. Epic. This is fun, but not epic, fantasy:
A mysterious, sexy pale-skinned sword dancer hires an infamous mercenary to find her kidnapped brother. The mercenary learns there is more to women than bedding them, while the sister learns that if she lets her quest define her life, she becomes defeated before the rescue of her brother ever begins.
Bonus points if you can guess that book, by the way.
Now this, this is epic:
The good peoples, it seemed, never defeated the evil that threatened to consume them all, only delayed the final battle. The dark and vile lord who threaten freedom everywhere wrapped his essence into a ring, and now a band of unlikely heroes must cast the ring into the fiery pit of its creation or see it reunited with its maker. Setting out on their quest with the best intentions, the task soon falls to the smallest and unlikeliest hero while the armies of evil marshal to crush everything in its path. If the hero doesn’t destroy the ring and thus the dark lord in time, there won’t be anything left to save.
Epic fantasy is ambitious. Epic fantasy is grandiose. Epic fantasy is bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s heroic, it’s classic, it’s is all-encompassing and all-consuming fantasy. There are stakes. The stakes are high. You could say that the stakes are (wait for it!) epic.
And Mara’s Unfinished Song: Initiate is an introduction into 21st century epic fantasy. Here’s the teaser:
Dindi can’t do anything right, maybe because she spends more time dancing with pixies than doing her chores. Her clan hopes to marry her off and settle her down, but she dreams of becoming a Tavaedi, one of the powerful warrior-dancers whose secret magics are revealed only to those who pass a mysterious Test during the Initiation ceremony. The problem? No-one in Dindi’s clan has ever passed the Test. Her grandmother died trying. But Dindi has a plan.
Kavio is the most powerful warrior-dancer in Faearth, but when he is exiled from the tribehold for a crime he didn’t commit, he decides to shed his old life. If roving cannibals and hexers don’t kill him first, this is his chance to escape the shadow of his father’s wars and his mother’s curse. But when he rescues a young Initiate girl, he finds himself drawn into as deadly a plot as any he left behind. He must decide whether to walk away or fight for her… assuming she would even accept the help of an exile.
Now I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking, wow, that sounds cool, but um, that doesn’t sound too epic to me.
Oh, my friends, pour a cup of hot tea and wait for it. Don’t let the girly frou-frou cover and character-driven teaser fool you. Behind the rich, detailed world-building lies the heartbeat of an epic fantasy tale that rises above the bounds of mythology and into a coming-of-age novel that will leave the reader yearning for more. Maya clearly dips her plot and characters in several different mythologies, yet the book has a distinctive voice that tugs at your heartstrings.
Let’s deconstruct the goodness going on here.
Maya’s world building kicks ass. It’s unique, it’s ambitious, and it has an undercurrent of femininity that, without the advent of the interweb tubes, the story Maya is trying to tell never would have seen the light of day. It’s so different it is, and I say this with no exaggeration, a high fantasy literary bomb of mass destruction. It is not so much a filled with troupes and familiar themes as it becomes a classic example of the very idea of world-building.
How does she accomplish this? Maya’s neolithic setting latches on the magical undercurrents of the world she envisioned and never lets them go.
For example, stone-aged peoples in the real world were concerned primarily with survival. Gender roles and relations follow a path necessary for the continuation of the individual and the group. There is a reason when an attractive woman smiles at a man she unconscionably puts her hair behind an ear, why rejection impacts men and women differently and why we are creatures of instinct despite our technological advancements.
Yet, toss magic into the fray. Magic, like technology, lends itself to the removal of the disparity of force. Maya takes this one step where few tread: it’s not necessarily what you can wield, but more what you know. Dindi’s quest isn’t so much a classic grab-onto-the-power but an unlocking of a mystery.
That moves us back to the impact of the type of magic Maya puts forth. Women, in her tribal society, have distinct roles but they are far from simple property. Women need to bear children so the society she has shaped takes that into account, but it’s not as if the magic is something that sits around in a feudal or even Victorian society as if it’s a character by itself rather than infused into the setting. It has a distinct feminine vibe without the politically correct bullshit.
This is evident from the ground up. It’s in the way characters talk. You might think ancient peoples would also have a primitive language and culture. But neolithic-era people with magic? Maya nails this. It’s in the way they dress, how they pick their mates, how they relate to other tribes, how they view politics, honor and duty. In a world where magic comes forth from a dance, where pixies, talking bears, and fae abound–Maya uses this magic as the glue to everything: setting, plot and characterization. It is the basis of her world-building and because of the creative and talented way she does it, Initiate comes off as highly original, unique and engrossing.
I’m not exaggerating here. World-building. How To. Tara Maya. Initiate. Read it.
My number one surprise with this book is that this book has guy stuffs in it. I could talk at length how fascinating Dindi is, how she comes across as both vulnerable yet puts aside her fears to do what must be done. How she seems like she is fourteen going on eighteen one moment, and fourteen going on twelve the next. Maya pens her as tenacious and doesn’t shy away from giving her a sexuality. Dindi’s great.
My little fantasy heart, however, belongs to Kavio.
Because Kavio kicks ass.
Kavio, actually, is a tragic figure. Maya gives him nobility and youthful idealism as his moral fiber, and tosses him into situations of conflict where it becomes apparent that Kavio greatest enemy is himself. Kavio is a good guy, but he’s also a weapon of mass destruction. He follows the rules when obviously he could, quite simply, make up the rules himself with his magic. He’s like a Jedi Knight being given a ticket by a traffic cop. Press hard, Kavio, you’re making five copies. The cop has a gun and feels superior, but Kavio could turn him inside out, burn his cruiser, go to the station, and have it swallowed whole by a rent in the earth while blood pixies rip out everyone’s eyeballs through their noses making the police station scene in The Terminator look like a scene from a Jane Austin novel.
Instead, he signs.
Did I mention he’s a bad-ass?
As a writer, Kavio fascinates me mightily. I’m beginning to wonder if someone handed Maya an honorary penis because she hones in on the masculine feel of Kavio with laser-like focus. She nails what I call the Tragic Masculine Paradox: when confronted with an attractive young woman coming-of-age, the man of honor is torn with feelings of protectiveness as a father figure yet desires as a lover. You see this in fiction all the time. Rarely do you see it done with such empathy and understatement. Many writers go overboard with this, giving this a tragic (and pervy) element. Maya, however, simply presents it as-is. Kavio has bigger problems than his youthful naïveté.
Dindi’s feminine, innocent beauty, simply highlights Kavio’s main attraction: Dindi is magically powerful. Without going into the rest of the series, he’s slowly falling in love, and love, my friends, is messy. Dindi is more than a girl and then more than a young woman. She’s the catalyst to…
But I digress. Dindi isn’t the only character in a come-of-age journey in Initiate.
Which leads us to the clever, delicious plotting, and how we come full circle back to our discussion about epic fantasy.
A prevalent, and welcomed trend in speculative fiction is the come-of-age journey set in a fantastic (be it wonderful or dystopian) setting. I am a huge sucker for these types of stories, and in Initiate, Maya plots a literal come-of-age journey as Dindi goes out to become a woman, ready or not (and no, she wasn’t ready).
But epic fantasy has stakes. Big stakes. End-of-the-world (or worse!) type stakes, but unlike much of what is out there today, this book is surprisingly not a coming-of-age novel with an epic plot line to give the character’s punch and excuses to reveal their literary humanity. No, this is a book that provides the foundation for the true story: the battle with the malevolent forces out to crush humanity. It’s not exactly Clan of the Cave Bear meets The Lord of the Rings, but you get the idea.
Dindi is on a personal journey and she yearns to become a magical dancer in the society she was born in. However, if, as a reader, you’re paying attention, you can spot the epic plot that Maya is serving up like drops of water to the thirsty.
And this is where we depart the shackles of traditional publishing. Maya fearlessly has plotted out a twelve book series and each book is building on that plot in a relentless, epic fashion. Let me be very clear, I am not a big fan of many-book fantasy series. Many of them have problems with continuity, editing, and, quite frankly, sometimes as a reader, I feel I’ve been ripped off around book four because I’m being milked rather than being cleverly entertained.
eBooks, and today’s book market, however, has expanded the types of books we can find and buy, and Maya’s greatest accomplishment as a writer is taking full advantage of medium. The twelve book format, based on her world-building, is not only daring but also a little slice of epic fantasy goodness, and her skill at characterization draws the reader right into her world.
It’s epic fantasy by our very definition, and it’s yummy. Give me those twelve books. I’ll gladly ready every one of them. If you love a good fantasy series fix, Maya’s your drug dealer, Baby.
You can tell I’m a fan. Initiate is a wonderful, rich and diverse book and the series thus far is a fantasy reader’s fantasy series. I do have quibbles with it, but they are nits in the larger picture. I’m not a fan of the cover art. I disagree with some of the editorial decisions made and feel Maya’s talent could easily support books of larger word counts, smoothing some of the abruptness of the plot presentation.
Yet these are mere nits because from a storytelling standpoint, it just doesn’t work, it’s a slice of Awesome Toast with Bacon. I tell my non-writer, but reader friends, the Era of the Reader is upon us. Novels like Initiate proves that assertion. If you are a writer, take a step back from all the meta that goes on with writing, look at the bigger picture, and read Initiate. You’ll realize the sum of the book is bigger than its parts, and, at its heart, epic fantasy many readers want to buy, but haven’t really been able to do so.
I give Initiate four bacon strips out of five. And while this is a singular book recommendation, I’ll just drop a teaser that as good as it is, the other books in the series get better.