Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sword and the Lion

I think I've had The Sword and the Lion by Roberta Cray on my Goodreads to-be-read list since I joined the site.  Eep.  After checking my surrounding libraries, I decided to purchase the book.  It pretty much gets rave reviews, so why not?

Overall, I really loved this book, but it took me a while to warm up to it, which is strange, since it's basically a fantasy version of ancient Greece.  D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths was a childhood staple--so much so that my parents tired of me checking it out of the library incessantly and just bought me a copy.  Yay!  I'm a sucker for Greek mythology, and I do like reading about Greek history as well.  I remember enjoying a mystery set in ancient Greece: Murder at the Panionic Games by Michael B. Edwards.  I don't remember much about it other than the detective was a priest and athletes were dying and I think it was enjoyable.  Question mark?  Anyway, whilst attempting to figure out the name of the book, I found a whole bunch more Greek murder mysteries I may just have to check out ... of the library!  *snare drum*

And so we come back to The Sword and the Lion (it wasn't a very circuitous route; sorry).  The world created by Cray has obvious parallels with ancient Greece, Persia, Egypt, and so on.  In the city-state of Ghezrat, the yearly festival of Denota, the city's patron goddess, takes place.  In the Cleft, Tephys the high priestess receives messages from the goddess via the steam rising from the Earth.  She is surrounded by novice priestesses, and she has also summoned the Prince of the city.  He really, really doesn't want to be there, in this stinky hot cave with these strange people talking to a goddess he may or may not truly believe in.  Except this ceremony is different.  Instead of the usual, "Have some smashing harvests this year!  Lovely, lovely, must toodle off, now!  Ta!" Tephys receives an ominous message: Haffat, leader of the rampaging Diye Haff, is going to attack Ghezrat.  Haffat is a bit Alexander the Great (in his unimpeded conquest) and a bit Genghis Khan (in his delegation of duties to sons) and definitely under the thumb of his High Priest Knoe.

See, Knoe has brought worship of the fierce lion god Axtekeles to the Diye Haff.  On the plus side, it seems that the lion god really likes the Diye Haff, granting them victory after victory.  On the minus side, Axtekeles requires blood sacrifices.  Nice.  He especially likes them from young, strong soliders--not the prisoners of war.  Nothing improves morale like waking up to find your shieldmate has been bled out on an altar by a (most definitely) insane man who also happens to have alopecia!
Think Arnold Vosloo but with even less hair!

Okay, okay, bear with me here.  Right.  So it boils down to: GIANT ARMY + RAVENOUS AND SEEMINGLY UNSTOPPABLE LION GOD versus ... the Ghezrathi army and Denota's creations: the Dyaddi.

What are the Dyaddi?  Basically, the earth goddess binds a father and daughter together to fight for the city.  Which, if you think about it, is pretty darn cool.  Denota links their minds so that they can share experience and knowledge.  Each Dyad is made up of a Prime (the father) and a Secchi (the daughter).  Part of being a Pair means that the Secchi is promised in marriage to a randomly chosen husband: this way, she will be able to marry and have a family and not worry about men rejecting her for having been a fighter.  This might sound kind of ridiculous today, but consider: in this time period in our history, having a family was a source of pride.  Denota was providing security for the Secchi by giving them husbands (we can go through the whole love thing another time).  Denota also blesses the Dyaddi with uncanny fighting ability--they can kill dozens of men in the time it takes for the regular army to wade into the fray.

The story follows Breyd, a small, independent girl who is a novitiate at Denota's temple when the ceremony occurs.  She has a vision of herself, her father, Menlaeus, dying, and the city of Ghezrat in ruins.  She does everything to avoid becoming Secchi and thus endangering her father, but what will be will be, and Denota chooses her and Menlaeus as First Prime and Secchi.  Thankfully, this means Breyd does not have to marry Creos, the lout that her brother Tarpaen hangs out with and who only likes to beat up women.  Charming fellow.  Instead, she ends up betrothed to ... Prince Apodain, whose mother blackmails the prince into removing Apodain from active military service.  This is, as you can imagine, a disgrace.  Apodain is a brilliant fighter, and the Prince's young, inexperienced, and rather idiotic son sallies forth in his place.

But Breyd has bigger fish to fry than worrying about being engaged to royalty.  She must train so that she and her father become as one fighter.  She must defend the city not only from Knoe the Lion-Priest, but also his allies the Engardi, who have some seriously freaky powers, including a sort of cloaking device.
Like this, but not in space.  Also, no Klingons.

If I summarized the whole book, this would be an excessively long and boring review.  I can make it not-long, but the not-boring part is kind of a crapshoot.

So, let's break it down to the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

Il buono:  I loved, loved, loved the concept of the Dyaddi.  Cray gives readers a relationships that is seldom seen in fantasy literature--a strong father-daughter relationship.  Usually the father is a) cowed by his wife, b) actively plotting to marry the daughter off to some dolt, c) distant, or d) dead.  The bond between Menlaeus and Breyd is strong and inspiring.

The concept of the traditional mother goddess/earth goddess as a fighter.  People like to talk about "Mother Earth" and all that like the world is some happy ball of moss flying through space.  Seen a volcanic eruption lately?  How about a tsunami?  Avalanche?  Hailstorm?  The powers of the earth are strong and deadly, but we tend to forget about them until it's too late.  The same with Denota (Demeter in the Greek pantheon): the Diye Haff feel that a harvest goddess cannot protect her people.

I also really enjoyed the vivid descriptions of battle, horn calls, and strategy.

Il brutto:  I didn't so much like the pacing of the book.  I'm glad this came as one volume--in today's publishing market, I'm pretty sure they would have broken it up into three parts.  However, I felt like the fighting ended too quickly and the story moved on to something else.  I would happily read a 700 page book about ancient hand-to-hand combat.  The ending felt exceedingly rushed.

Where exactly did Breyd's vision figure into all of this?  Has anyone else figured that out?  Please tell me if you have.

Il cattivo:  The names.  I was so, so confused with the multitude of names that were very similar.  For example, in Breyd's family, her grandmother is Nidya (Niddy), her mother is Nevvia (Nev) and her sister is Nivveren (Niv).  I just called them all Nivea in my head.  Why would you do that to your readers!  I never knew who we were talking about!

Along with the scads of similar names thrown at the reader, there are equally large amounts of character death.  We meet one character on one page, she and Breyd become friends, and then that other person kind of randomly dies a chapter later and Breyd's like, "Oh, well."  Other, more major character deaths seemed pointless.

Overall, however, this is a solid, highly enjoyable fantasy.  It's not the most memorable thing I've ever read, but I enjoyed it very much indeed.

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