Francesca Forrest's Reviews > Banner of the Damned

Banner of the Damned by Sherwood Smith
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Dec 04, 13

Read from April 07 to July 05, 2012

(n.b.: I read partial drafts of the novel, so I'm not an unbiased reviewer)

Banner of the Damned is a cunning novel that leads you to believe it’s doing one thing (and indeed, it is ) and then another (which it is too), and then, suddenly, you turn around, and you realize it’s also doing a third thing. At that point you’re reeling from Sherwood Smith’s storytelling skills.

So what is the third thing? Let me answer a question with a question: Have you ever wondered about the motivations of an evil mage, working for the benefit of an evil king? Many fantasy stories don’t let you ask the question. The king’s just evil, that’s all---or if a reason must be given, it’s something like, “He wants to rule the world, you see. He’s power mad.” And the mage is just his minion---probably wanting the scraps of power that fall off the king’s plate. Or else it’s the mage who’s in control, and the king is just a puppet. In either case, both are mere villains, complete with sinister laughs. Banner of the Damned is not that kind of story.

Structurally, the book falls into two parts. The first is set in the country of Colend, where elegance, refinement, and grace are prized, where unspoken messages are transmitted by the angle at which a fan is held and stepping on someone’s shadow is a rudeness. This part covers the coming of age of the narrator, Emras, a young woman who becomes the personal scribe of the stunningly beautiful and intelligent Princess Lasva. The pleasure in this part is in getting to know the people in Emras’s life in intimate detail—her cousin Tiflis, her friend Birdy, Princess Lasva’s sister, the old queen Hatahra, Lasva’s ambitious rival Carola, and the dashing but impoverished nobleman Kaidas. It's also in becoming immersed in Colendi culture: the court slang, the changing fashions, which neighboring countries are admired (Sartor), and which ones are despised (Chwahirsland)—so immersed, in fact, that you’ll find yourself thinking in its terms. And that's what this part of the novel is doing: immersing you in the world, familiarizing you with it, getting you to think and feel like Emras and those around her.

(view spoiler)

This is a long book that doesn’t feel long: you nestle right into it and live it along with the characters. Those who love thorough, three-dimensional worldbuilding, wonderful characters and relationships, romance and deadly danger, and big questions thoughtfully addressed mustn’t miss it.
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