From my experience with Gail Dayton’s Compass Rose trilogy, I know that Dayton’s hallmarks as a writer are vivid world building, seamless use of the senses in her writing, and some smooth character development. In this new series, she plays with the concept of power and control, and of mastery and slavery in relationships.
Amanusa is a magically talented woman who lives on her own in the woods in the late 1800s, precariously “protected” by a local band of rebels in exchange for her healing talents. A man named Jax stumbles out of the woods, bound to her, unable to leave her side. If he walks away, he is turned around by forces greater than himself and compelled to return to her. Slowly, the backstory is revealed: Amanusa is a powerful blood sorceress, the first in more than two hundred years. Jax is her blood servant, bonded to her by magic, and by the fact that he’s the only one who knows how the whole blood magic thing gets done.
Blood magic has been forbidden for centuries, looked at as an evil, corrupting form of magic. Coincidentally, it is practiced exclusively by women. Jax shows her the true depths of power located in her magic, using both his blood and her own, and gives her the tools to enact revenge on the individuals who harmed her terribly and took her family away from her.
Because she unleashed an enormous flood of power, her use of blood magic has been noted by the authorities – very reminiscent of the Inquisition – she and Jax must run across Europe, hiding from those who want to capture, interrogate and kill them both.
Meanwhile, dead zones absent of all life and filled with terrible metal-scrap creatures who curl and attack of their own volition have appeared in several locations in Europe, and the other branches of the magical arts have come together to try to stop the dead zones, or at least figure out what they are.
This is very much the first book of a series, and while the questions following Amanusa and Jax are partially answered, the larger questions dealing with the dead zones, the creatures within them, and the politics of power and magic are not answered.
As the focus of the story and the introduction to the larger plot threads, Amanusa and Jax are layered, realistic, and very, very damaged. Both have been abused by those in power over them, though in very different ways, and each has to learn to trust the other.
What I find fascinating about the story is how Dayton plays with the master/slave role. Jax is the blood slave, bound to the sorceress, no matter who she is. Yet he has the knowledge and must teach Amanusa how to use her powers, even though she is reluctant to use them because of the taint against blood sorcery. Their relationship starts out with an enormous power imbalance, and it tilts back and forth to such huge degrees I’m never sure if they’ll attain equilibrium, or even be able to act on their mutual attraction because of that power differential. Their relationship is like a see-saw, and I wasn’t sure if they’d ever level off to a position of any equality, because the differences between their positions and the roles they play within their magical bond are so opposite one another at times.
His assistance helps her achieve revenge; her cunning helps save his life. Both of them together, trusting one another, can yield an enormous amount of power and strength, even though each seems to think of him- or herself as somewhat weak.
Then there are the Inquisitors, who wish to destroy any use of blood magic, and the authorities of each of the different types of magic, who wish to legislate the usage thereof, and don’t wish to be marginalized by any of the competing types. The questions of power in terms of authority and power in terms of magic, and how one can influence the other, are repeatedly explored and turned over and upside down in the course of the story. The plot explores more than the narrative, and reveals a great deal for the reader to think about.
But even with those massive questions, Amanusa and Jax are characters with innate nobility and strength, and when I understood the scope of the damage done to them, I rooted for them that much harder, because their histories are filled with hurt. Their relationship isn’t flaming balls of hornytoad and clothes flying off in every direction; their attraction and slow burn for one another builds slowly and is evocative in its subtlety.
This is, as I was discussing earlier, a pilot book for a series. Amanusa and Jax’s story is resolved, though it doesn’t seem that they reach their final destination and there may be more for them to do in future books. The larger questions of the dead zones and the roles of the magical authorities in their various incarnations are unresolved, but happiness is most definitely achieved in a satisfactory manner for the protagonists. It stands alone but is also very much connected to the subsequent books.
Because of my crapalicious memory, I am likely to wait for books 2 and 3 and however many else there are, so I could read them one after the other. Series, as I have long said, are very very hard for me to keep up with. Dayton’s world not an easy world to read about, but it is a fascinating and alluring world to enter, so jumping back in doesn’t seem daunting to me, despite my long reaction of “Hur?” to most steampunk books. Dayton’s skills as a writer are powerful, and this book would appeal to both fans of romance, and fans of fantasy, steampunk, and adventure fiction.
Giveaway time! Thanks to Tor Publishing, I have five copies to give away – so leave a comment and you’re entered to win. I’ll pick five random winners in 24 hours.