Prince Nikandr of Khalakovo is betrothed to Princess Atiana of Vostromo. Atiana is beautiful, and the match will be beneficial for both houses, but Nikandr is less than happy because he lives with two damning secrets. For one, his true love is not Atiana but an Aramahn prostitute named Rehada. What’s even worse, Nikandr has contracted the early stages of a terrible disease that’s laying waste to both the people and the crops of Anuskaya.
Tensions in the duchies of Anuskaya are high. Food shortages caused by the blight are making life harder for the common people. The Maharraht, a violent sect of the otherwise peaceful Aramahn, is trying to overthrow the rule of the Landed nobility. Grand Duke Stasa is old and ill, which means that leadership of Anuskaya may soon be changing hands. The political struggles between the duchies come to a head when the Maharraht pull off their boldest move yet, while the nobility of Anuskaya is gathered in Khalakovo…
The main characters in Bradley Beaulieu’s debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo are all torn between the personal and the political, with the stories of Nikandr, Rehada and Atiana all intermingling on both levels. Nikandr’s marriage to Atiana would be a political one, but his feelings for Rehada interfere. Rehada herself is torn between both poles, because despite her very real feelings for Nikandr, her story is more complex than you’d initially expect. In The Winds of Khalakovo, emotion affects power affects emotion in a continuous loop.
As befits a novel that has a fictional place name in its title, The Winds of Khalakovo is also very much the story of a brand new and utterly fascinating fantasy universe. Anuskaya is a collection of island groups that make up nine duchies, linked together by the flying vessels known as windships that are controlled by a combination of sails and magic. Bradley Beaulieu uses several points of view to slowly reveal the geography and history of his world to the reader. There’s also a large amount of new vocabulary to get used to, which may be confusing for some readers because many terms and names sound similar. This is one of those novels where you occasionally just have to keep reading even if everything isn’t completely clear, trusting that it will be clarified later on. This may actually happen in later novels, because we only see a small part of the fantasy world and its history in The Winds of Khalakovo. Despite the occasionally confusing way it’s introduced here, Anuskaya is a fascinating place that obviously has much more to offer.
The windships’ magic depends on the semi-nomadic Aramahn, a separate ethnic group that lives in uneasy coexistence with the Landed. The Aramahn use jewels to commune with spirits living in the spirit world of Adhiya. A second type of magic is controlled by the matriarchs (or “Matri”) of the Duchies, who submerge themselves in ice cold underground pools to explore the magical aether, communicate telepathically, and assume the forms of other creatures. The contrast between the exhilarating freedom of flying in a windship and the claustrophobia of being drowned in freezing water couldn’t be more effective. It only heightens the impression that the Matri’s “drowning basins” are one of the most unpleasant forms of magic ever seen in fantasy.
As you’ll notice, everything in Anuskaya has a Slavic flavor, from the vodka its inhabitants drink to names of places and people. Aramahn names and habits have more of an Arabic or even Persian style to them. Possibly this fantasy universe is meant to be a parallel to the part of our world where Eurasia meets the Middle East. I doubt that Bradley Beaulieu would have chosen these specific ethnicities arbitrarily, but my knowledge of their histories is fairly basic so I couldn’t tell you if this story is meant to be a parallel to any particular period, in the same way Guy Gavriel Kay has written so many wonderful fantasy versions of real life history.
Whatever the case may be, The Winds of Khalakovo delivers enough material to fill more than one novel. The book is actually split in two parts, with the first one ending on a spectacular climax. Part two is so full of crazy escapes and wild battles, on windships and cliffs and in the dark, often described at length and in great detail, that it all gets to be a bit much towards the end. The tension is there, but it’s maintained at such a high pitch for so long that it becomes numbing after a while. I loved the first part of this novel, getting to know the fantasy world and the characters, but part two simply wore me down. The main issue with The Winds of Khalakovo, like with many debut novels, is that the author has crammed so much material in this first book that I was simply exhausted towards the end. Possibly it would would have worked better as two separate novels.
Aside from these pacing issues and the aforementioned confusion you may experience with the vocabulary and names, The Winds of Khalakovo is a debut that merits your attention. The way Bradley Beaulieu focuses on the emotions of his characters in the midst of political turmoil is reminiscent of Robin Hobb or even George R. R. Martin. The world-building, especially the spirit realm of Adhiya and the way supernatural and historical events affect the present, makes this novel read like it would fit neatly into one of Steven Erikson’s Malazan tomes. Those aren’t bad names to be compared to for a debut author.
Despite its flaws, The Winds of Khalakovo is a strong first novel that promises great things for Bradley Beaulieu’s future. While I’d call this series opener good rather than great, I am almost completely sure that its sequel, The Straits of Galahesh (due out in early April 2012) will be even better.
Further reading: The author has an amazing giveaway running until April 3, 2012. The prizes include ereaders (Kindle Fire, Nook Color, and so on) as well as physical and electronic versions of the books. You can also check out my review of Strata, an excellent novella by Bradley Beaulieu and Stephen Gaskell, and my interview with the authors.
Edit 3/22/2021: The author just wrote a great post about the issue of narrative tension, referring back to this review. Take a look.