Zettel, Sarah (2002). A Sorceror's Treason. New York: Tor.
Reviewed 04 June 2002
Sarah Zettel has changed publishers with A Sorceror's Treason, her first published fantasy novel. On balance, this was clearly the right decision. Although the cover remains typically genericsome day, but not soon, art directors are going to figure out that formal portraiture is not a good way to sell books to people who actually read themthe rest of the packaging of this book is a vast improvement over that of her previous publisher. Treason isn't undermined by the shoddy binding, absence of proofreading, and clear editing errors that have damaged her other recent books (see Dumpster Diving comments on The Quiet Invasion and Kingdom of Cages).
Ms. Zettel has done her usual fine job in basic worldbuilding and establishing the basic context. If she has a tendency to overdescribe, such as the minute details of how a nineteenth-century lighthouse's oil-fueled lamp system works, she does not constantly do so in a misguided effort to prove that she has done her research; in fact, her choices of details are quite a bit more relevant to the novel than in the average crossover-to-the-magical-world novel. Although I am somewhat disquieted by the publisher's designation of Treason as "A Novel of Isavalta"implying that this may be merely the first in yet another interminable fantasy seriesat least there is no overly-detailed map giving away plot points adorning the endpapers. Thankfully, neither is it another exercise in clipping and redeeming plot coupons.
Thus far, I've described mostly what Treason is not. Sadly, the last few books (and her former publisher's recent track record) make such preliminaries necessary. So what do we have here? Basically, this is a court intrigue novel. The well-thought-out magic system reinforces the web of lies, deceit, perfidy, and betrayal entangling all of the major characters. Yes, the pun was intentional on my partand hopefully on Ms. Zettel'sfor it is a tangled web that we weave when first we venture to deceive. This is one of the few court-intrigue novels in which the construction and exact manner of dress really does matter. In the end, the "winners" in this struggle are those who most manage to overcome self-deception. (Or, at least, in the end of this book.)
Ms. Zettel's prose is professional. This is a great improvement over the average IFS (in which the prose is all too often pedestrian at best, and usually worse the bigger a seller the series). At some points, one wishes for a little bit more distinction in narrative voice, particularly when the POV is in a nonhuman character. However, Ms. Zettel successfully avoids the trap of trying to imitate Dunsany or Cabell. Ornate and elegant prose can work very well indeed, but when merely imitated it is truly abominable.
The characters are, to a point, nicely drawn. The protagonist, however, is none too bright. Bridgit never really gains any sense of skepticism, except as to particular individuals. She assumes immediately that, once she has determined that Kalami is lying and "in the wrong," Sakra must be telling the truth and be "in the right." When she sees that the Empress has been only pretending to be a sorceress, but is otherwise helpless, Bridget assumes that Dowager Empress Medeoen is necessarily the "bad" person. The other protagonists aren't that much better. For a novel that revolves around court intrigue, the major players seem remarkably credulous and unwilling to believe that, despite their own betrayals, nobody would betray them. There is some truth to the general tendency toward believing that one commands more loyalty than one's opponents, but the Isavaltans go too far, especially in light of the apparently endemic betrayal and intrigue in their world.
Two other minor difficulties in this novel remain bothersome. Ms. Zettel's past use of alternate cultures for inspiration, such as the Shi'ah background in Fool's War (which remains her best book to date), led me to expect better of her than the "cruel Oriental" picture of Hung-Tse. Second, I found the blithe confidence by the various sorcerors that mythic figures would take no active interest in the situation in Isvalta somewhat disingenuous, particularly after each sorceror receives notice otherwise early in the novel.
Despite these weaknesses, Ms. Zettel does make a major choice that raises this novel well above the average quasi-Regency IFS: the characters make their own destinies. Bridget does inherit power, but it is power that was created by a previous choice by characters, and it is a power that she chooses to control with a refreshing absence of prophecy and predestination. Ironically, those characters who rely upon a manifest destiny are those who fail, which is quite consistent with the efforts put forth at intrigueand exactly the opposite of the average IFS.
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