Sigh. I hate writing negative reviews. I have a feeling this is going to bite me in the ass someday. But I do feel strongly about his book and I have to write honestly.
So, you say you want to read a whole novel about Arya of House Stark? This is your book. Sasha is Arya with all of Arya’s good qualities, like her loyalty and love for her family, removed. So take Arya, mixed with Joan of Arc and shake. For some readers, that sounds delightful. To me, it made for a book I hated reading.
Usual cavets up front: I don’t know Joel Shepherd or very much about him, I don't know his politics or his creed. I read the first of his Cassandra Kresnov novels, and he’s a Pyr author so I was disposed to like the book before I started reading it. I am not a published author but I do write fantasy novel with an aim towards getting there. I also am not a fan of the ‘girls with swords’ fantasy genre but I can be swayed if the book make me like a character and helps me suspend disbelief.
The is one of the Post-Martin fantasy novels and where it succeeds, it does so by adapting well to the new fantasy tropes that George R. R. Martin popularized. The world is gritty, people have complex motivations for what they do, magic is mostly-absent. However, instead of just politics, we also get political correctness, which is less welcome.
First the good:
Joel Shepherd has crafted an interesting, low-magic world. The political maneuvering in the kingdom is the novel’s strongest point, it may well hook you. He has a wonderful gift for detail and description, a few fight scenes aside. The Goeren-yai are an interesting Celtic/Scottish/Irish pastiche. There is some good dialog and a few sops at evenhandedness towards some of the social and philosophical issues that lurk in this novel.
First and foremost is plot and character. The main character, Sasha, starts the book as arrogant, spiteful and ungrateful. At the end of the book, she’s exactly the same. Worse, since this is a tight 3rd person novel and we see most things for her POV, what we as the reader get is a constant air of contempt, dissatisfaction and irritability. These are the emotion that the author wants us to feel, apparently, since we never get any other emotions from Sasha. This was a wearying book to read. I had to take breaks and read some Lord Peter Whimsey mysteries just to clear my palate. The other characters are even less developed. The serrin are all perfect, feminist, progressive enlightened beings (no doubt they separate their garbage for recycling as well). The Goren-yi are all noble savages. The northern Verenthane are all treacherous and evil.
Sasha is 20 year old that feels more like a 16 year old brat. Only this brat is also the greatest swordswoman in the whole kingdom. The source of her power isn’t magic, which I’ll buy in a fantasy novel if it’s well done, and it’s not strength and unusual size, as with Brienne of Tarth in AGOT, it’s a Kendo-sorta sword style that comes from the elven stand-ins, the Serrin. Anyone trained in this martial art, as Sasha is, can defeat any opponent. Which is nonsense if you’ve ever watched a kendo practicioner fight against a good sword-and-shield man. I tried hard to buy this, if all Sasha ever did was fight one-on-one duels of sword vs sword, I would see it. But when she moves to the battlefield, Joel Shepherd lost me. This is a world where Sasha never has to worry about archers, spears, ropes, trampling warhorses or any of the other threats a warrior would encounter on a battlefield.
Joel Shepherd is not George R. R. Martin, not yet. A lot of the things Martin pulled on in a Game of Thrones, escape the grasp of Mr. Shepherd. Both AGOT and Sasha have clear good guys and bad guys. For AGOT, it’s house Lannister in Sasha it is both the Verenthane religion and the Northern provinces and nobles who follow that creed. And that’s the first, but not biggest flaw in Sasha. Religion and the Verenthane religion (a Christian straw man here) is one of the main sources of conflict in the novel. Fine and good but all the virtue is on the side of the Goeren-yai animists or on the side of the atheistic Nasi-Keth which is the philosophy governing the Mary-Sue race of the Serrin. We never see a devout and likeable devout Verenthane follower. Intolerance and bigotry is, of course, the worst thing ever. Unless your prejudiced against the Verenthane or against religion in general, which is ok, apparently. The cognitive dissonance of Sasha, railing against intolerance and bigotry while at the same time hating and being intolerant of the Northern clans and their religion, made me frustrated.
I could go on and on and I’m tempted to. There’s so much, from the convenient fantasy birth control (without, of course, a realistic examination of what happens when one culture stops having children and their neighbors keep having 4-8 surviving to adulthood) to the way religion in general is treated. Let me leave you with one quote that I feel sums up the book. This is Sasha on Page 1 and on page 421. If you like it, you may like Sasha. I didn’t.
(bottom of page 114 )“She gazed up at the lethal, gleaming edge, almost bloodless with the speed of her strike, and marveled at her own magnificence.”