Where do I even begin with this book? Seriously. When I read and adored Larke's Watergivers trilogy, Havenstar was out of print, but nOh, wow.
Where do I even begin with this book? Seriously. When I read and adored Larke's Watergivers trilogy, Havenstar was out of print, but numerous people told me that it was the best of all Larke's work. I found it hard to believe that anything could be better than the Watergivers books, but when it showed up as an ebook I snatched it up instantly.
And you know what? Every one of those people was right. I'm still amazed that it's possible, but this is even better.
Havenstar starts out with what seems like a typical premise; a young woman, Keris, is unsatisfied with her life, and makes her escape. We've all read variations of that before, right? Except that Keris' problems are not easily solved by her leaving home. Far from it. Because the source of her problems, the Rule, is enforced everywhere - forbidding women from dozens of careers, stifling creativity and banning change or original thought. Wherever she goes, she will have the Rule to deal with.
Again, this sounds vaguely familiar. The Rule is even interpreted and enforced by the Chantry, recognisable as a stand-in for the Judeo-Christian church. It all sounds like something I've read a hundred times.
But for once, the religious order is not blandly corrupt, imposing ridiculous rules for no apparent reason. Here, the Rule is of the utmost importance - because keeping Order helps prevent Chaos from eating away at the world, in a very un-metaphorical manner. In fact, Keris' world is divided into eight small pieces, separated by vast tracks of wilderness ruled over by Lord Carasma - the traditional Adversary god as you've never seen him before. And Carasma, bit by bit, is winning his war with the Maker - the safe havens, no matter how strictly they are Ordered, are growing smaller and smaller.
It might not be such a problem if the wild spaces in between were not so - well, wild. Order does not exist there. Mountains can disappear without warning. Rivers alter their course. Gravity abruptly stops working, holes open up in the ground, monsters abound, and things other than water can rain down on the land. Worst of all, it's criss-crossed with ley-lines - rivers of evil power that can kill, taint or twist the people who are forced to cross them.
In a world where the landscape changes daily, and no settlement is self-sufficient, maps are of the highest importance. And that is what Keris wants to do - make maps. The daughter of a famous map maker, forbidden to follow in his footsteps by the Rule, Keris escapes her horrible brother to try and find some freedom. Unfortunately, said brother follows her, and she has to join a pilgrimage to a far-away settlement to get away from him.
Her fellow pilgrims, and their guides, turn out to be somewhat more than expected.
Larke has created another amazing world here, one with believable attitudes, politics, religion and mythology. Her characters, as usual, leap off the page and breathe; I especially loved the frustration felt by many of the characters towards the stifling Rule. But the story is much more than that. Larke could have taken the easy route, condemning the Chantry and making Havenstar a battle between a strict organised religion and a more creative pagan one, but in fact it's nothing so simple. Both sides have their flaws, and both their good sides. The Chantry may be overbearing and hypocritical, but Larke makes it very clear that they genuinely believe what they preach. It's also clear that the Chantry are not wholly wrong, or even mostly wrong; one conversation between Keris and Meldor, towards the end of the book when Keris finally reaches the eponymous Havenstar, sticks out especially - there is a discussion of mining and such that won't make sense out of context, but beautifully encapsulates the way in which the Chantry are right as well as wrong. That said, it is very difficult to side with them over Keris and her friends.
But it is definitely the characters who stand out the most. Keris is a wonderful heroine, an interesting mix of intelligent, naive and stubborn; she knows what she wants but struggles to accept that she is allowed to have it, and despite her dislike of the Rule finds it hard to let go of the Chantry's teachings. The rest of the cast is beautifully human as well; no one is perfect, people lose their temper and make mistakes, and named characters get hurt and die. Meldor in particular is a wonderful change from the usual idealistic resistance leaders - but I can't say more than that without spoiling the plot.
And even more than that are the themes Larke weaves so deftly into her book. Good and evil often crop up in fantasy, but I've never seen them dealt with quite this way before; despite the existence of an Adversary-type god and his evil minions, the actual meaning of evil is questioned over and over. Chaos and order are re-examined again and again throughout the story, as are issues of religion, loyalty to government, immortality, sexuality... Larke even, unusually for this type of epic High Fantasy, includes a handful of LGBT characters, which gets her mega points from me. (Don't be put off by the fact that the first one we meet is a bad guy. That, too, is something Larke examines and plays with, and there are a pair of awesome lesbians who are very much on the Light side).
All in all, this has gone straight onto my favourites shelf, and is going to get recced to everyone I know....more