I hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age plI hate epic fantasy. I hate the Chosen One trope, I hate the perspective switching that's now de rigeur. I have a strong aversion for coming-of-age plots, and love-practically-at-first-sight, and absolutely anything having to do with Fate. This book has all of those things. So why did I read it?
I love high fantasy. You must understand that I define epic fantasy as only those fantasies where the plot involves the saving of the world, while high fantasy is simply any fantasy taking place in a secondary world. Obviously, the two sub genres overlap quite a bit. So while I try to avoid it, I do sometimes end up reading an epic fantasy novel, if the secondary world seems interesting enough.
This one was.
So much high fantasy takes place in a generic medieval Europe, particularly France and the British Isles; a small but visible minority takes place in vaguely Arabian or Chinese settings. I don't think I have ever encountered another fantasy novel that draws on Hawaii for its backdrop, as this one does. It's set in Hawaii only as much as Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series is set in France or Robin McKinley's Beauty is set in England -- which is to say, Johnson took the names and some elements of the geography and not much more -- but just that much difference was enough to pique my interest and put this on Mt. TBR.
Unfortunately, there is a danger attendant upon breaking that sort of new ground. A fantasy novel set in generic medieval Europe can draw on a wealth of world-building tropes that an average fantasy reader will expect and accept with no further explanation; a fantasy novel set in an unfamiliar setting has to be built from scratch, and the average fantasy reader (at least if the average fantasy reader is at all like me) is likely to interrogate the world-building a bit more closely.
So, for example, I loved exploring the world of Johnson's outer islands -- that world made sense given my knowledge of Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia. But when the story moved to the inner islands, which are temperate rather than tropical, the world started to feel. . . confused. I believe Johnson was trying to evoke Japan, but little European influences seemed to sneak their way in -- a character playing a lute, another character using nightshade and bitterwort in a potion. Of course, this IS high fantasy, and the whole world is made up, so using European-derived items isn't inherently WRONG. . . but when the world feels so different, I found it distracting to see something suddenly the same.
Still, while I became less enamored with the world as the novel went on, I was pleased with the level of technical prowess Johnson showed in this, her debut novel. The pacing was a bit uneven, but I never found the somewhat convoluted plot hard to follow. And while I always felt distanced from the individual characters and their mental/emotional states, I was very much invested in the survival of the world as a whole, and the climax of the novel was therefore intense and effective. The cliffhanger ending (another reason I hate epic fantasy) worked, at least in that it made me want to run out and grab the next book immediately. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that this series is that most frustrating of types: doomed forever to be unfinished because it was dropped by the publisher....more