Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: The Winds of Khalakovo

The Winds of Khalakovo is set in the duchy of Khalakovo, a grouping of islands that are part of a greater archipelago set off from the mainland in a turbulent sea.  Since seafaring is a dangerous exploit at best, the folk of the duchies utilize windships to travel and trade.  Khalakovo lies in the crossroads of the windship trade routes and has been a prosperous duchy in the past but has faded from the limelight a bit due to the blight, which has reduced crop harvests and infected both nobles and commoners alike with a terrible wasting disease.  In order to bolster the duchy's standing, Duke Iaros Khalakovo has arranged a marriage between his son, Nikandr, and Atiana, the daughter of the Duke of Vostroma.

With the wedding drawing nigh, Khalakovo is to host all the nine dukes of Anuskaya but a conflict has arisen between the nobles and the Maharraht, a fanatical group of indigenous Aramahn folk.  When the Maharraht unleash a deadly elemental spirit on the Grand Duke and his retinue Nikandr must track down the militants and the child prodigy they are using to unleash the spirits.  For Nikandr, it's a race against time because the nobles are calling for blood and looking for enemies among both the peaceful Aramahn and the Khalakovo family.  Nikandr must find some answers before an all out war erupts.

The Winds of Khalakovo is one of the fantasy debuts from last year that was well received and scored a lot of positive reviews.  Add to that what appears to be a fairly unique setting for an epic fantasy, and I am lured in.  The positive reviews are mostly well deserved as this was a solid debut, though not without a few flaws.  The story took a fairly good chunk of the book to get rolling, and lacked any sort of tension for about the first 100 pages or thereabouts.  Rather than develop plot right out the gates, author Bradley P. Beaulieu instead chose to do some world building and introduce his characters.  This approach did help me get a feel for the setting, and the people that populate the world, but it wasn't the most exciting start to the novel, and as a result, I had a hard time getting engaged by the narrative.  I think the story would have been stronger had the plot development, character development and world building been woven together more tightly.

The setting here is a unique one.  The place names and character names give The Winds of Khalakovo a distinct Russian feel, and the windswept archipelago geography is pretty cool too.  I gotta give Beaulieu credit, he definitely found his story a unique setting without pushing epic fantasy readers too far outside of their usual European-like setting comfort zone.  That said, there were a lot of the same elements that we see played out repeatedly in the genre at play here as well.  Beaulieu does play with and challenge a few of these norms though, especially in terms of his female characters, and I for one was greatly pleased. Personally, I'd love to see more authors do the same thing as Beaulieu has done, but push the normative boundaries even further.

With the natural elements such as harsh winds, harsh weather, and harsh topography playing such a big role in the world building, it was nice to see the natural elements play a big role in the magic system that Beaulieu has created too.  Among the indigenous Aramahn people there are those with the ability to bind elemental spirits and use these spirits to harness the power of earth, air, water, fire and the "raw stuff of life", (or, dare I say, "heart" Go Planet!) Captain Planet references aside, I was fan of the magic system.  It didn't require any lengthy explanations or seem too complex, yet at the same time, worked well for the world it occurred in.

Once the plot does get rolling, Beaulieu delivers a pretty solid and entertaining ending.  I wouldn't say that this is a fast paced, action packed novel, but probably more of a slow-burn style novel.  That's not to say this one is devoid of action though as Beaulieu gives the reader a number of aerial battles between the windships.  However, these action scenes came across as a bit choppy and hard to follow.  This is due a bit to the fact that the windships are a unique concept, thus the battles a bit tough to envision, but also a result of Beaulieu's still developing skills.  In a book that was a bit slow paced for my tastes, the fact that the action scenes left something to be desired took away from my overall enjoyment.

Like I said, this is a solid fantasy debut, but brought down a bit by some flaws, particularly the pacing, which made it difficult for me to really get into this novel. This was pretty much a middle of the road read for me, nothing too terrible to really take away my enjoyment, but nothing extra special to set it apart from the crowd either. I'm definitely in a wait and see holding pattern on the sequel for now.

Grade: B-


redhead said...

I've been seeing a handful of glowing reviews of this book, and I've been interested in reading it.

thanks for the honest review, of mentioning the good things about the book along with the flaws. I'll still probably pick this one up, but now i won't be surprised if the beginning is a little on the slow side.

Ryan said...

Thanks Redhead, I appreciate the comment. I think Beaulieu is one to watch. He's got a lot of the right stuff, but there's definite room for improvement too.

RjLeduc said...


I think your review is good, but a bit misleading. I get the impression you
like a lot of action and battles in your novels and it is true to say although there was some action in the first 100 pages, things didn't really get going until after the first 100 pages.

But I don't think the statements below are true:

"The story took a fairly good chunk of the book to get rolling, and lacked _any sort of tension_ for about the first 100 pages or thereabouts."


"_Rather than develop plot right out the gates_, author Bradley P. Beaulieu instead chose to do some world building and introduce his characters."

From the beginning, this novel caught my attention and kept me up at night reading. I thought there was a lot of tension right from the beginning, just not the action and battle sort.

From the start there was personal conflict with Nikiandr and how he would deal with the wedding (I'm trying hard to avoid spoilers). There was the issue of the Maharraht: who were they, what did they
want, when would they strike and where. There was the rifts and wasting desease: what was it, who had it, what could be done? From the beginning there were several mysteries to solve. There was
romantic conflict (for those into that aspect) between Nikandr and Atiana. There was very quickly a lot of political conflict from the effect of the blight, and strife between families.

I think there was a lot going on in the first 100 pages besides developing the characters and world building.

Personally, I enjoyed how he started off with the above and built up the tension until things really got moving.

RjLeduc said...

Btw, if you liked Winds but wanted a faster pace, I think you will really like book two, The Straits of Galahesh. Beaulieu really hit his stride in this book and the blemishes I saw in the first book were gone. I think his development of characters (including secondary) and the pace of the book was an order of magnitude better. I found there was a lot going on in the book, including a lot of action and battles that were really well done.

Personally, I felt that Straits was one of the best epic fantasy books that I have read in a while. There were a lot of surprises, and he really kept me guessing. There was a lot more grayness, and no character was safe.

Ryan said...

RjLeduc- Thanks for the thoughtful response!

If I gave the impression that I like a lot of action and battles in my novels, then I definitely gave the wrong impression. I can be entertained by an incredibly fast paced novel, a slow-burner, and everything in between as long as there's something to keep me engaged. For my money, there wasn't a ton of engaging stuff happening in this one. Yes, there was a wedding, a blight, and the strikes by the Maharaht...but aside from the blight, there wasn't really anything about those elements to really interest me. So Nikandr and Atiana fell in love 'cause he danced really hard at a dance? The Maharaht were attacking the nobles for what reason? I just didn't find myself connecting to these elements.

I'm not saying this was a bad novel, not even close. I think Beaulieu has some fine writing chops, but for my tastes a lot of the elements he brought into play weren't developed as well as they could be.

I guess what it comes down to is different strokes for different folks!

I do plan to check out the sequel at some point in time, as I think Beaulieu is a writer to watch. I'm happy to hear positive things about it.

Thanks again for your great comments.