This debut work of sociological science fiction follows a deadly battle for succession, where brother is pitted against brother in a singular chance to win power and influence for their family.
The cavern city of Pelismara has stood for a thousand years. The Great Families of the nobility cling to the myths of their golden age while the city's technology wanes.
When a fever strikes, and the Eminence dies, seventeen-year-old Tagaret is pushed to represent his Family in the competition for Heir to the Throne. To win would give him the power to rescue his mother from his abusive father, and marry the girl he loves.
But the struggle for power distorts everything in this highly stratified society, and the fever is still loose among the inbred, susceptible nobles. Tagaret's sociopathic younger brother, Nekantor, is obsessed with their family's success. Nekantor is willing to exploit Tagaret, his mother, and her new servant Aloran to defeat their opponents.
Can he be stopped? Should he be stopped? And will they recognize themselves after the struggle has changed them?
Juliette Wade's fiction has appeared in Analog, Clarkesworld, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Her studies in linguistics, anthropology and Japanese language and culture inspire her work. She lives the Bay Area of Northern California with her husband and two sons. She runs the Dive into Worldbuilding show on YouTube.
I know I've said this a lot this year already, but Mazes of Power is a difficult book to rate. In fact, it's one of the most difficult for me to rate.
Pelismara is one of the eight underground cities of Varin. The world above is very hot and populated by wysps which can burn crops and forests. Pelismara, like all of Varin, has a caste system. At the top is the Grobal--the Noble Race--a family that intermarries and produces the rulers of Pelismara. Young Tagaret and his brother Nekantor are apart of this family which is slowly crumbling. Their cruel and abusive father Garr has returned with their unstable and broken mother Tamelera amidst the breakout of a fever spread between the castes. Aloran, a member of the Imbati servant caste, becomes Tamelera's new aid--his superiors hope he can engage and unravel the political plots of the Grobals.
Then, the ruler of Pelismara dies from the fever and a new ruler takes his place. Thus the search for a new heir begins. Plots are hatched, alliances are made and broken, people are killed, and secrets are unveiled. For Tagaret, it's his bisexuality that he must hide. He loves his friend Reyn, but he also loves the beautiful Della who he may lose in the game of Grobal politics. For Nekantor, it's his love for his friend Benél and his obsessive compulsiveness, for the eugenicist Grobals anathematizes any one who can't continue their bloodline or have "impure" blood. And for Aloran it's his learning of the plot that Garr and his Imbati Sorn are enacting in order to get Tagaret or Nekantor as heir. But also, it's him trying to protect his Lady Tamelera from Garr's wrath and abuse and hoping that women can have a say in Pelismara.
The Mazes of Power is a mixture of Frank Herbert's Dune, sans the mystical elements, and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, sans the comparisons between totalitarianism and anarchism. It is overall a social commentary that is meant to be a mirror to our own world. When speculative fiction decides to do social commentary books it is usually enacted into three ways: a) an incessant bashing over of the readers' heads to remind us of how bad certain things are, b) a weak story were said commentary is sometimes forgotten and/or not written in well, or c) a well-balanced story the emphasizes the importance of the issues at hand but does it in a mature and intellectual way that trusts the readers' own judgement. The Mazes of Power lies somewhere between b) and c).
Juliette Wade has things that work well and things that don't work well. Her greatest strength is that every decision made by the characters, and every word they speak, does matter. They can affect things immediately or things somewhere down the road. Wade has clearly thought the plot progression out and connected the dots. Now, whether or not those decisions and turning points were well crafted from a writing standpoint is a mixed bag, but we'll get to that. The plot progression is aiding by the pacing. It only slows down for a time after the beginning but picks back up again later. We have three perspectives here. Nekantor and Aloran's were the most interesting and are what kept the story going. As I said, Nekantor suffers from obsessive compulsiveness and that make his thought processes and emotion reactions different form everyone else's. It is very interesting to see; however, I cannot say if this is an accurate representation of obsessive compulsiveness as I do not have that condition. Additionally, it felt at times that Wade was using Nekantor's condition to villainize him, but I'll back to that too. Nekantor is truly a devious boy and at times I felt sorry for him because how is condition rendered him in certain instances. Though that being said, although his social position changes throughout the book and he becomes more and more calculating and careful, his character doesn't change much.
Aloran's perspective from one of the lower castes was a needed perspective. He showed us how Varin society looks to someone whose literal life duty is to be someone's servant and aide. Through his perspective we see how the behind the scenes stuff of Varin society works and how the Imbati have always played a role in it. Aloran was the best character to me. He always thought things through even when he was cornered and even after he faltered. He isn't a faultless character or a Gary Stu, he makes mistakes, but he genuinely tries to learn from them. It is also through Aloran that we see how Tamelera is treated as a woman within the patriarchal society of Varin. It's very tragic and Aloran does his best to aid her and alleviate her pain. I do have another issue with this part of the book, which I will--you guessed it!--get to later. The Imbati have a secret language that they convey through facial expressions. I thought this an excellent worldbuilding element and I think Wade utilized it well with Aloran and the other Imbati. Aloran grows from being a cautious and quiet young man to being braver and more confident.
Finally, we have Tagaret, who is sadly the weakest perspective even though he is arguably the main character. Interesting things happened around and to Tagaret that helped progress the story, but Tagaret himself is not that interesting. There is set-up for him to be interesting: he is a member of the Grobal who must hide his bisexuality and wants happiness for his mother and for him to equally love Reyn and Della. Unfortunately, most of what Tagaret does is react shocked to the events that unfold around him and for him to constantly be depressed. There's nothing wrong with a character being depressed--and let me clarify here that I don't mean he has depression, his just gets dejected when certain things happen--but for them to do it so much makes my concern him run stale. Tagaret does come out of this slump somewhat near the end of the book, but for the most part he suffers from the same issues I took with Koli in The Trials of Koli. He has very little development compared to the other two perspectives.
Okay, now to all those things I said I would get to...
Like I said, this book is a social commentary. However, Wade doesn't always handle well the issues she focuses on. It's kind of like the feminism stuff in Sarah J. Maas' books. It isn't always awful, but it's not great either. And please do not take this as a callout towards Wade.
First, Nekantor's obsessive compulsiveness. As I said, the Grobals try to do away with anyone they view as impure of blood or unable to continue the bloodline. Nekantor is this twice over as he is gay as well. At some points, it felt like Wade was saying that Nekantor's condition is what made him calculating, making him able to progress forward with his goals. At other points, it seem like he was becoming more and more mentally unstable thus making him more villainous. It felt odd. What was even more odd was that Tagaret and Aloran wished to expose Nekantor's obsessive compulsiveness in order to get him out of the Selection process for the next heir and take him down. Tamelera says they shouldn't do it because he would suffer greatly for it. I find it odd that both Tagaret, a bisexual who would be taken down as well for being just that, and Aloran, a member a lower caste, would want to expose something that is viewed in Varin as being not perfect and a flaw in order to take Nekantor down when the two of them would be viewed as not perfect and flawed. I think you can have a villain who has a certain condition--and believe me Nekantor is vicious--but I don't you should use that same condition to villainize the villain.
The second issue is with Aloran and Tamelera and the treatment women within Varin. Now, Tamelera is clearly broken because of the abuse Garr has inflicted upon her. I know many, many people are tired of the trope of a woman broken to the point of mental instability and that through a man she eventually heals. To be fair, I don't think it was totally Aloran's actions that healed her. I think he inspired in some cases, but she made some progress on her own. One of the weaker parts of this book is that we don't have any of the women's perspectives. I have seem some reviewers say they dislike how cold and cruel Tamelera initially is to Aloran. Obviously, one's abuse is no excuse for abusing someone else; though sometimes the former is in a state where they can't control it. What makes this situation difficult is that Tamelera is of a higher caste than Aloran, so this can be seen as an already iniplace power imbalance against Aloran. Stories where the privileged upper classes/castes eventually warm to the lower ones and aid them (though Tamelera herself doesn't do much aiding) can be done right, but I don't think it was done right here.
As for the treatment of women in Varin, I can't say much. Varin is a patriarchal society and Wade shows how bad it can be, though the women aren't totally without agency and Wade doesn't totally fetishize their pain. One character, Selemei, is actually working to get women involved in Varin politics. Sadly, like Tamelera and Della, we don't get her perspective. Wade falls into the same issue Le Guin did in The Word for World Is Forest--in attempting to highlight issues faced by women, she forgets the women's perspectives. Della is the treated the worse in this regard. We know her father is trying to marry her off to another family branch within the Grobals and that many family heads want her to be partnered for their sons. Tagaret is in love with her and wants her to be free. In order for her to be "freer", Tagaret agrees to Nekantor's plan to say someone broke into her home and had sex with her thus disgracing her as a "harlot." Nekantor and some of the other men now find Della as a "ruined woman," however we never see the rest of Pelismara's reaction to this false disgracing nor do we ever hear Della's reaction to it. It's passed over fairly quickly, just like Della's initial distrust of Tagaret when she learns he's bisexual and equates him with another male character who's abusive.
Other than this social stuff, I take issue with some of the worldbuilding. While we know crops are grown above and transported down, how are there flowers underground? What do the buildings and caverns look like? Also, Wade utilizes the gods very poorly. We know the myths and patronages of some of them, but at most they're just used in blessings and expletives. What do these gods do? Are there any temples or shrines to them? Any clergy? I find it odd that a book about politics and power makes no intersection into organized religion as that often collides in society. I guess Wade just didn't want to got down that path.
Overall, Mazes of Power is a book that tried to do something, but tripped up a lot. Despite that, I don't find myself hating it that much or feel that much offended despite pointing all these things out. I am neither motivated nor demotivated to read Transgressions of Power, but it looks like it will have Della's perspective, so maybe some day?
This is one of the best books you'll read in 2020. Why? This is my review:
One of the virtues of worldbuilding is to make your reader discover the universe you created in bits and pieces. Too much exposition at once seldom works (except for Kim Stanley Robinson, but let’s not go there). Mazes of Power, by Juliette Wade, is a very good example of well-crafted worldbuilding – starting with the epigraph. It’s very revealing, and gave me goosebumps: Varin is a place where humans have always lived on an alien world. It is also your home.
This is a powerful statement, because it throws us headlong into a world in which not only the characters have always lived, but the readers too. This is an incredibly astute strategy to make us care more about the world. I caught myself along the reading musing where this planet would be. In what star system would it be located? Or – maybe it would be right here, and instead of Earth we would have Varin all the time.
This thought reminded me for a moment of Harry Turtledove’s A World of Difference, a cosmological alternate history, where Mars simply do not exist and we have a planet called Minerva in its place. But, even if this novel is interesting and action-packed, it didn’t do much to my sense of wonder. But (pardon the pun) there is a world of difference between that novel and Mazes of Power.
The story is the first volume in The Broken Trust series, and upon reaching the end of the book we can quite understand what is this trust and what happened for it to be broken. Even if I was going to give you spoilers (which I won’t), the process is much more important than the outcome, at least in this first novel.
Mazes of Power tells us the story of brothers Tagaret and Nekantor, teenage sons of the powerful Speaker of the Cabinet Garr, a scheming member of the First Family of Varin and a man who has the ears of the Heir to the throne. The boys, who doesn’t have anything in common with each other, must try to learn to trust each other and the people around them to survive and, eventually be selected to the throne themselves. At the same time, Aloran, a young men but who is soon to be indentured to Tagaret’s mother, Lady Tamelera – a relationship strained since the beginning, but that at some point might probably become more than that.
I read very carefully several passages because at the first moment I thought there was two different species on Varin. But this is not true: there are only humans there (as far as we know) inhabiting the underground in a huge cavern system. But there is a sort of caste system too, of which the two main ones are the Grobal (the ruling caste) and the Imbati (functionaries and servants) and that was the reason I thought of aliens – because the ruling caste tend to see their servants as if they were somehow less than human. So, for people like Tagaret to ascend socially, they must be slaves to a whole host of rules and rituals.
Virtually everyone in Varin is a slave to this system, which is obviously flawed. For instance, even if homosexuality is not exactly forbidden, it’s frowned upon and dismissed as mere play. And, if you have any claim to a modicum amount of power, for instance, you should not play – something that only adds stress to the tortured character of Nekantor.
Maybe the harshest part for me is the description of a character with a neuroatypical condition. Being a father of an atypical girl, I admit I was very moved with Juliette’s description of Nekantor’s behaviour, which seems to be Asperger’s. I confess I felt a bit shaken by the fact that he (at least in this first volume) is a kind of villain in the narrative, and that reminded me on another SF classic. In Dune, Frank Herbert makes of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (who is very fat, probably atypical and definitely gay) the villain, in opposition to all the other characters, which are all straight, thin and (on the surface at least) typical. Fortunately, Juliette is much more deft than Herbert, because she balances this with many other characters who are far from being straight. In fact, most of the men in Mazes of Power show at least a pronounced sensibility that is very refreshing and most welcome in our particular SFF universe.
What Juliette Wade has done here is another powerful statement, a political one. You know that everything is political (and if you don’t know that, you really should), and even the funniest space opera of yore that some of you enjoyed reading as children and teens (as I did) also issued statements, usually by absence – absence of people of color, of QUILTBAG characters, of female characters with any agency. When a new author enters the scene showing us a whole world with people of color (very few people in Varin are white according to the Caucasian color scheme, if any), she does justice to lots of awesome writers, like Ursula K. LeGuin and N.K.Jemisin, who gave us more representation, and therefore more real life to the fantasy of fiction. And I thank Juliette Wade very much for that.
Thanks also to Alexis C. Nixon, Juliette’s publicist, for making the eARC available to me via NetGalley.
The novel centers around teenaged brothers Tagaret and Nekantor, sons of the powerful Speaker of the Cabinet Garr, a politician’s politician whose focus is mostly on the Heir to the throne. Tagaret and Nekantor are not natural allies. They are too different, but to survive the whirlwind of power plays around them, they need to try to trust one another.
There is also Aloran, soon to be indentured to Tagaret’s mother, Lady Tamelera . . . which creates its own stresses. For one thing, Aloran is of a different caste, in a highly stratified society where all live underground.
There are fractures in the system, of course (or there wouldn’t be a story) but those at the top are committed to holding it together as the time draws nearer to choose the new Heir. Add in the super-charged emotions of teenagers (which I thought very well done), and you’ve got a recipe for Drama with a capital Doom.
The worldbuilding is intricate, with lots of visuals in symbol and custom, adding its own to the rising tensions. What I found most interesting was the villain, whose POV was reflected in fractured language—that one could read as a metaphor for the system. I appreciated how Wade was trying to show us a villain who isn’t a villain who wants to be a villain because villainy is fun, or who reads as if they came straight from Supervillain Central Casting.
This person does not see self as villain, but as someone trying to survive, and who parses the world in a way that pretty much guarantees a certain amount of isolation. Especially when certain emotions (like empathy) just are not in the template. Complex characters add a lot to any drama, for me, and this one is complex.
The tension keeps rising to a white-knuckle pitch, coming to a . . . call it a plateau, leaving much to be decided in the next volume. Which I have now secured!
Oh my goodness! I don't even know where to start with this book. It was so good!! I never wanted to put it down and was so sad when I finished because I now have to wait for the second one. Ugh!
This is a story of two brothers --one born with power, the other who craves it. Under the strict thumb of their father, they are guided into the highest political game in the world where their reputation is more important than their lives. Throughout the tale, we also follow a newly appointed bodyguard to the family who helps us, as readers, understand how and why the characters in this story act the way they do.
This story was insane in the best way possible. The plot is fast-paced, the characters are clever, and the setting is surreal enough to live in the realms of sci-fi yet real enough that you could easily see how this world is run. I found myself holding my breath at several times when my favorite characters were in danger and also cackling a little bit when a character ups another one. It was truly un-put-downable.
Unique and brilliant, I recommend this to anyone who likes political and family dramas (which tend to be one in the same).
Very satisfying science fiction. Not sure why it’s referred to as a fantasy. Good characters, great world building and good story. The book reaches a satisfying ending (and a pondering of how soon can I reread it) while leaving the reader with lots of questions. For example, what’s with the aliens? How did they get there? Why are they living in underground cities?
The only problem is that we have to wait until Wade writes the next book dammit.
This is a wonderful novel: sexy and exciting and full of drama. The characters are deep and follow their own stories in a fascinating plot.
I am the author's husband and have been living through the development of this story for years. It was a strange to read this book and see how the characters and plot finished up after so many revisions. I am so proud.
Thoroughly enjoyed this debut sociological science fiction! This is not your run-of-the-mill SF--Wade weaves a powerful tale of the struggle for power between two brothers, underpinned by a solid understanding of sociology and anthropology that lends authenticity to the rich world-building and the actions and emotions of the characters. Fast-paced, but enjoyably rich in detail, I couldn't put it down!
I found this to be an interesting read, with a few issues that cropped up as I went along. I imagine that most of these considerations have already occurred to the author, as it's otherwise such a thoughtful book with fairly comprehensive worldbuilding. I'd round up to 3.5 stars, except for a few things.
I did overall enjoy my read and will likely read the next one. It's not to nitpick, but these things really were niggling at me throughout.
The web of political intrigue was entertaining and the characters, while somewhat unsympathetic, were compelling enough. However there’s curiously little in the way of both setting and characters descriptions in the worldbuilding — why does everyone live in caverns underground? What caused this? Why do the working classes actually care about and want to help the inbred, sickly, weak nobility class? Too many questions.
Labeled as a thoughtful work of sociological science fiction, Juliette Wade's debut novel scared me a little. Indeed, this is usually the sort of book that appeals to critics but puts the bulk of SFF fans to sleep. Advance blurbs mentioned that Mazes of Power featured phenomenal worldbuilding, so I finally decided to give it a shot.
And what a mistake it turned out to be. Mazes of Power is one of the most boring novels I have ever read. I wanted to quit early on, that goes without saying. But I had already announced that I was reading the book on Goodreads, so I elected to persevere, hoping that it would get better. Alas, it didn't. . .
Here's the blurb:
This debut work of sociological science fiction follows a deadly battle for succession, where brother is pitted against brother in a singular chance to win power and influence for their family.
The cavern city of Pelismara has stood for a thousand years. The Great Families of the nobility cling to the myths of their golden age while the city’s technology wanes.
When a fever strikes, and the Eminence dies, seventeen-year-old Tagaret is pushed to represent his Family in the competition for Heir to the Throne. To win would give him the power to rescue his mother from his abusive father, and marry the girl he loves.
But the struggle for power distorts everything in this highly stratified society, and the fever is still loose among the inbred, susceptible nobles. Tagaret’s sociopathic younger brother, Nekantor, is obsessed with their family’s success. Nekantor is willing to exploit Tagaret, his mother, and her new servant Aloran to defeat their opponents.
Can he be stopped? Should he be stopped? And will they recognize themselves after the struggle has changed them?
When I think about complex and phenomenal worldbuilding, names of science fiction authors such as Peter F. Hamilton, N. K. Jemisin, James S. A. Corey, Kameron Hurley, and Alastair Reynolds come to mind. Understandably, given the advance praise, I was expecting something more than a society living underground with a technological level that often appears to be straight out of the 80s. In addition, nothing is truly elaborated on. Why are they living in cavern cities? Why is their society so highly stratified? Why is their technological level so low? Why is there such a weird battle for succession? Yada yada yada. This is not cool worldbuilding. This is not convoluted political intrigue. It's just an author offering basically no information to answer any of the questions raised by the concepts and ideas she came up with.
Another odd thing was the homosexual tendencies of a number of male characters. Nothing wrong with that, of course. I wondered if this was a world in which same-sex relationships were an accepted norm, only to find out that it's a big taboo. This left me quite confused at times, especially given the fact that the main protagonist is hopelessly in love with a girl. Once again, no light was shed by the author regarding this aspect of the tale. The emancipation of women in a decidedly patriarchal society appears to be one of the themes Juliette Wade wanted to explore in this series. And yet, for some reason, all the POV characters are male and we never get a female perspective.
There is no way to sugarcoat this, I'm afraid. The characterization is absolutely awful. The main protagonist, Tagaret, is thoroughly emo and extremely boring. To see events unfold through his eyes was pure torture at times. His younger brother, Nekantor, is the antagonist of the story. Ambitious and dealing with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, he's the opposite of his sibling. Not as well-drawn as Tagaret, it often feels as though he's a caricature of sorts. Along with his father, some kind of hybrid between a calculating politician, an alcoholic dad from the 60s, and a Neanderthal, both characters actually growl in pretty much all of their scenes. I kid you not. Aloran was probably the most interesting protagonist of the bunch. But like Tagaret, he was way too emo to be believable. I would have liked to discover more about the Imbati culture and why they accept their role as servants without rebelling. Tamelera, the boys' mother, had the makings of a compelling character, yet the author did not see fit to give her a point of view. In addition, I would have liked to learn more about Della and her family, what with the fact that she is Tagaret's love interest. But again, we are left with more questions and few answers.
Juliette Wade is evidently one of those writers who are loath to use profanities in their stories. Nothing wrong with that. But if you decide to replace common obscenities with made-up ones, you should at least endeavor to make them good. In Mazes of Power, Wade replaced the f-word with gnash. Gnash it. Gnash this. Gnash him. Gnash that. And so on and so forth. I mean, this is worse than Brandon Sanderson! Why the author didn't go for safe and acceptable oaths instead of making up such a lame one, I'll never know. But it made me grit my teeth every time someone swore in the novel.
The pace can be quite uneven. At times the rhythm is fluid, yet there are some portions in which the pacing was decidedly slow-moving. My main gripe is that very little actually happens throughout the book. There are a few interesting bits from time to time, but overall the plotlines and the characters totally failed to capture my imagination and pull me in. This is the first volume in The Broken Trust series, which means that there will be sequels. However, can't for the life of me see myself considering reading the next installment. Going through Mazes of Power was a chore from the very beginning and it took me about a month to finish. I'm not going through such an ordeal again.
It's obvious that Juliette Wade's sociological science fiction is not for me.
Mazes of Power takes place in the cavern city of Pelismara, on a world not our own, where a rigid caste system underlies society. When a recurring plague kills the current emperor, Tagaret, a member of the ruling caste, finds his life and plans upended. He must enter the competition to become the new heir to the throne, while navigating the complicated relationships amongst his immediate family and attempting to court the young woman he loves.
Because this is marketed as a sociological science fiction story, I came here expecting to find a focus on society and I definitely got at least some of what I came for. A lot of time has been lavished on the caste system, which includes castes for nobles, police/soldiers, artists, merchants, elite servants/bodyguards, workers, and general unmentionables. The religion also seems fairly fleshed out, even if it’s a bog-standard set of sky deities (which is just a strange choice for a cavern city where nobody goes outside but there’s probably history there that didn’t make it into the book).
But HOO BOY, is there a lot missing.
My main issue is simply this: what the hell do the Grobal caste (the nobility) actually do? This whole book’s plot is predicated around a big competition for young men to become the new heir but we have no idea what these nobles actually do or control. There’s no indication that they control commerce (they have the merchant caste for that) or distribution of resources. Maybe laws, but laws and judicial systems are more or less never mentioned. To be honest, I almost wouldn’t be surprised if there was a gotcha moment later where we learn the nobles do precisely nothing and all the other castes know about it.
So for all the the book is so concerned with political squabbling, the stakes of it all are never really clear. And that makes it hard to care.
On top of that, the caste system feels thin because 2/3s of the POVs are in the Grobal (noble) caste, and the remaining POV is in the Imbati caste, the elite bodyguards who serve the nobles. Everything is so, so focused on the higher end of society, but the book desperately needs lower caste POVs to sell the necessity of the social change which is obviously going to become Tagaret’s arc.
It’s a big problem, because Wade barely includes anything that hints at the things wrong with Pelismara society. Obviously, when we hear “science fiction” and “caste system,” most of us will put two and two together and get dystopia, but we need to see the problems with our own eyes. But the only problem the book really mentions is that the nobility is SUPER inbred…but nobody cares? Except insofar as it means the fever can wipe them out, but then they do nothing? The undercaste, the Akrabitti, get mentioned once or twice as generally “bad,” but we never see them until the end, where Tagaret has a sudden moment of pearl-clutching and decides that things are WRONG and must CHANGE. Even though he has barely seen any evidence, and has no idea how the other castes feel.
On top of that, the characters are also a wildly mixed bag. Tagaret is ostensibly the main character, but his plotline feels aimless for most of the novel. He’s unwilling to engage with politics (again, ostensibly the main plot). And , which just contributes to the aimlessness. His love-at-first-sight romance arc with Della feels forced, and the scummy way he treats his friend/lover Reyn does not endear him to me.
Juliette Wade is known among short storyists as a fine worldbuilder. This book expands on her deep worldbuilding skills, still using the short storyist's toolkit of extremely sparse, efficient prose. As a result, it's a "slow down and read carefully" book, not something you can skim through and enjoy because it's dressed up with other people's furniture. If you're willing to work a bit, though, you will find a complex world that we're only seeing the tips of.
Also typical of the short storyist, there's a lot of plot happening in a mere 400 pages, much of it off-screen. Again, slow down and pay attention, and the book pays off. I've read the book twice now (once in an earlier draft), and I was surprised how much more I noticed going on behind the scenes on the second read. It is a compelling and surprising story, focusing on the politics in an oligarchical society facing a deadly epidemic and a penchant for assassination.
This is the first book in a series, and as such there is much that is left unresolved. However, the book itself has a satisfying story arch and can be read on its own. (I'm not a big believer in "wait until the series is done to start reading it" because I've seen so many wonderful series cancelled for lack of sales of the early books.)
I found the characters to be interesting and believable within their culture. They can be hard to identify with at times because they are very much of their culture, not ours. I consider that a strength rather than a weakness, but those who need to feel like they can identify with someone in the story personally may be a bit frustrated. I was taken by how deeply I understood characters who think and act so differently from myself, and therefore loved the character work.
In short, I'll acknowledge that this book isn't for everyone, but I'm going to be raving about it to my friends.
In this novel of political intrigue, the setting is the star. Pelismara is a cavern city with an elaborate caste system. Although likeable characters are presented from every caste that appears, the privileged aristocratic caste, the Grobal (I remembered them as "Gross Nobles"), had me rooting for revolution more and more as the novel proceeded.
The main plot hinges around a few things: A sudden plague that reduces the Grobal population, the selection of the next Heir (a ruler-in-waiting), and teenage Tagaret's crush on a girl of the same caste but a less important family. Three different narrators—the two sons of the the First Family and Aloran, an Imbati-caste servant who signs a contract with a family member early in the book—show different perspectives of this troubled society. Tagaret seems like a nice enough kid, though privilege definitely restricts his vision; his brother Nekantor is ambitious and unstable; Aloran is basically the perfect valet/bodyguard. Aloran was the most relatable for me, but they were all interesting.
A few things made me uncomfortable as I read through, such as the fact that one of the nastier villains was not neurotypical, but gradually I saw that that was an illustration of one of the problems: The aristocrats were more ashamed of someone's obsession with counting buttons than of his cruelty and willingness to sacrifice others. That really says something about them. Something similar happened with the Grobal (who call themselves "The Race") and their insistence on marrying only within Grobal families. They're pretty clearly inbred, and that is causing them problems that the reader can see even if the characters can't. I feel like the things that made me uncomfortable were supposed to make me uncomfortable, and I'm okay with that.
I read an ARC that I won in a Goodreads giveaway. Lucky!
This is an absorbing, compelling, and intellectually challenging book. I'm a sucker for anthropological scifi in the vein of Janet Kagen's Hellspark. Mazes of Power is part of that lineage.
The story takes us into a severely stratified world, in which people are born into a caste that determines their privilege and role. As readers, we spend most of our time with the Grobal, the ruling class. It was hard to understand how they could maintain their supremacy given their insularity, immunological weaknesses, inbreeding, self-absorption, and tendency to try to assassinate each other. We also see the world through the eyes of an Imbati, one of the servant class that is extraordinarily selfless and dedicated to serving the Grobal. It was hard to understand how someone could so completely give over their self, their safety, and their well-being to a ruling class member.
Wade chides us at the beginning of the book: "This is your home." Clearly, we're meant to think about how, like the Grobal and Imbati, we conform to unspoken social rules and restrictions. Are we as self-absorbed and blind to others' realities as the Grobal? Are we as willing to subordinate ourselves to power as the Imbati? Are we governed by as ridiculous social rules as the members of Varin society? These are challenging questions that I'm still pondering.
I was glad that, at the end of the book, Wade began to
From an experience perspective: Mazes of Power was a fast read and a page-turner. I got so absorbed that I think I inadvertently agreed to do several unintended household chores. Oops.
This 1st in what I assume will be a trilogy is complex world-building that lives claustrophobically and solely in the narrow corridors of the palace of the First Family, situated deep underground in a multistoried city/cavern. Reminds me of another book that I can't remember that differed only in being aboveground. Tiers of power. Overly complicated Houses and Realms and Whatnot. As in trilogies too often - this book feels like it's stretched like Draggable Dan to meet the number of pages required. And we end up where these things generally do: the hero and crew will need the next book to push back. We never get out of the one House, or Realm, or out of the householder corridor in all these pages, except for one skimmer foray that does not deliver the atmosphere of living in a dreadfully confined space well, if at all.
The amazing character development here is Nekantor, the trouble brother. Wade has either personal experience with someone on the spectrum, or has translated distant study into spot-on description of behaviours. Brava, that!
With our country the way it is today, one would think that a fantasy novel focused on political intrigue wouldn’t be so much escapism, but more like reading today’s news. Yet Juliette Wade’s debut novel, Mazes of Power, not only dives deep into political intrigue, it focuses a sharp lens on the relevant issue of what one can do with power, for good or for ill.
(SPOILERS AHEAD) Despite all of the books I've read, I've never posted a review on any of them until now. The entire reason I picked up Mazes of Power was because of the ensemble of queer characters (what can I say, I'm a sucker for sci-fi/fantasy novels with gay romance), which was more disappointing than it was fulfilling. My biggest issue with this book is how dull and poorly fleshed out most of the characters are, especially the romantic interests, which is what I want to spend most of this review talking about. I think the root of this issue is the existence of too many characters. Besides Tagaret, Aloran, Nekantor, and Tamelera, none of the characters have any real discernible features.
Even though Tagaret is a narrator, he's a very boring character who takes the backseat throughout his own story. His group of friends are entirely lifeless and serve no real purpose other than to show that Tagaret does indeed have friends. His "romance" (if you can even call it that) with Reyn is pointless and infuriating. It pops up out of nowhere to serve the reader a few subpar romantic encounters but has no reasoning or development behind it. We never even get to hear Tagaret's thoughts on becoming involved with Reyn despite homosexuality being a huge taboo in the book. Tageret never processes the boundaries he and his friend have crossed, or the consequences of their actions, or what this decision means for their future. They just kiss and move on, which is made even worse by the love triangle involving Della, a romance even duller than Reyn's. Tagaret falls in love with Della upon first laying eyes on her and that's about as much development as we get. After this, he obsesses over her for the rest of the book despite his encounters with Reyn and despite barely interacting with Della at all. There is almost no internal conflict over whether Tagaret wants to be with Reyn or Della, which is the nail in the coffin in Tagaret's story arc.
Nekantor, Tageret's brother, is a complete and total mess but also happens to be the only narrator I really liked. As made evident by Wade's writing style, Nekantor deals with intense Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is also described as a sociopath, neither of which are dealt with properly. While I understand that this is a fictional universe, Wade handles these diagnosis horribly. She spends the entire book referring to Nekantor as "defective," which is not the message you want to send to your reader. Nekantor is also gay and, similar to Tagaret's relationship with Reyn, becomes involved with his friend Benél. While slightly more fleshed out than either of his brother's, their romance still evolves out of nowhere with neither of the characters acknowledging or processing the social ramifications of their relationship. Even when the two are outed, everything about it is ridiculously nonchalant despite the supposed severity of the situation. When none of the book's love interests are developed or serve a purpose beyond being the love interest, it makes it impossible to become immersed or invested in their relationship. Della, Reyn, and Benél could all die simultaneously in a large explosion and I would not care at all.
Aloran is an interesting character but is, in my opinion, an unnecessary narrator. Besides being a submissive and puppy-eyed slave for Tamerela, Aloran serves no purpose. He is basically a combat Mary Sue who spends all of his time preventing assassination attempts and tending to Tamelera, to the point where his narration should have been replaced with hers. Not only is she more developed than Aloran, but this would've added a woman's perspective to further immerse the reader into the society Wade has constructed.
There are aspects of this book that feel very well done and that I enjoyed, like learning about the social constructs and political arena that the characters are forced to navigate, but most of the book feels half completed. The world building is interesting but doesn't hold up under any scrutiny. Why is everyone living underground? What is the purpose of the Grobal Race? Why do the Imbati and other lower members of the caste system accept their living conditions when the Grobal Race could be easily overthrown? Any question that you have will most likely not be answered. As a result, I never felt immersed in the world created by Wade. There are a lot of wonderful ideas that I found fascinating but I also feel like they were never fully fleshed out, leaving behind a half-baked world full of lifeless, faceless characters.
This book may frustate you at first, but stay with it and you'll get quite a ride.
Good worldbuilding, and some good characters.
Garr is very close to being too nasty and one-dimensional, and surely Sorn's evil-vizier role had to have been well-known.
Nekantor is very close to being too weird, and I got really tired of being reminded that Benél has power. It wasn't clear how that helped Nekantor cope. I award a mark for the author deciding that that this severely-challenged could make it anyway.
Homosexuality is fine except when it isn't; but it seems to be reserved for men.
Tamelera is weak but we see why. Selemei and the head doctor represent competent women with some power, and a lot of the highly-competent bodyguards are women.
Della's family story was well-developed. It wasn't quite clear why one of the low castes was abhorred except when playing classical music.
Some worldbuilding got skipped, though. Why are we underground? Why haven't the nobles been overthrown in a messy Bastille Day? Why are there numbered families?
This society can't last long, but I accept that we're seeing a slice of its brief history.
What the above doesn't capture is the layered plot that builds and accelerates to a desperate climax involving nearly all of the plot threads at once. Warning: if you get too close to the end late at night, you're going to need to stay up late and finish it.
This is not the kind of book I like, so I'm somewhat fascinated that I got so caught up in it. This first novel, and first book in a trilogy, is set in a complex fictional society with eight strongly delineated and profoundly separated castes with constructed names--when I saw the list at the beginning, I thought, "Oh, I'll never be able to keep track." However, Wade (who is a friendly acquaintance) is extremely deft at clarifying and reminding the reader, so this turned out to be easy. It's also a very melodramatic story, loaded with lifelong hatreds, love at first sight, and unlikely alliances created by various passions--something else that generally makes me look the other way. Again, Wade made me care about these high-drama, high-color people. To be fair, many of them are teenagers. It's not like Shakespeare didn't turn up the gain on teenage passion.
So what did I like? I liked the characters, and I especially liked the way she gets inside the head of a teenager with obsessive-compulsive disorder. She can't make her readers like him, since he's a vengeful, scheming young man--but she can make us understand him, and want things to be better for him. I liked the way she portrays the servant caste, again making us support their learned values without supporting the system that teaches them. I liked the complexity of the story. Finally, I liked her writing and specifically her descriptive powers. Partway through the book I started comparing it to Laurie J. Marks' extraordinary Elemental Logic tetralogy ... and while I don't think Wade is in Marks' class yet, I think she could get there. I intend to keep reading.
The Grobal Race rules the eight cavern cities of Varin, but its strict rules for membership are based on blood and birth, creating nobles who have become increasingly inbred. This genetic bottleneck has left them more susceptible than the other castes of Varin to an illness called Kinders fever. An outbreak would devastate their diminished population. So when the Speaker suddenly falls ill at the annual Announcement proclaiming the state of the Grobal Race’s health, the nobles in attendance panic, fleeing from the grand ballroom before a performance of the controversial new symphony The Catacomb can begin. But seventeen-year-old Tagaret of the First Family is determined to hear the symphony, even if it means muckwalking among the Lowers to watch a later performance. Despite his discomfort in associating with other castes, Tagaret enjoys the concert and falls in love with a fellow Grobal in attendance, Della of the Sixth Family.
With rigid rules governing what kind of interaction is appropriate between genders, there are political consequences for Tagaret’s chance meeting with Della. Tagaret soon discovers just how dire those consequences are when a high-ranking Grobal dies from Kinders fever, setting into motion the competition for Heir to the Throne. Selected to represent the First Family, Tagaret is ensnared in the complex political web of Grobal society. While Tagaret is an unwilling participant, his megalomaniacal brother Nekantor is obsessed with the First Family’s prestige and schemes to gain more power.
The return of their mother Lady Tamelera from being stationed at another cavern city further complicates matters. Reunited with her abusive husband Garr, Tamelera finds herself stripped of her last symbol of safety when Garr forces her to end her relationship with Eyli, her Imbati bodyguard and servant. Against Tamelera’s wishes, Aloran, a recent graduate of the Imbati Service Academy, is assigned as her new servant. Although he is unsure how to navigate their tense relationship, Aloran still does his best to honor his duty to Tamelera, all while grappling with his own role in the city of Pelismara.
With a huge cast of characters, Juliette Wade’s debut novel Mazes of Power (The Broken Trust #1) promises rich political intrigue in a secondary world entirely divorced from our own. Wade is also the host of Dive Into Worldbuilding, a YouTube conversation series on worldbuilding as a craft, and describes worldbuilding as “any time you are creating a sense of place while storytelling.” Indeed, the opening line of Mazes of Power immediately establishes the alienness of the world of Varin: “Tagaret believed in music the same way he believed in the sky.” Wade doesn’t hesitate to layer on more details about the fantastic cavern cities and Varin society, where a person is born into one of seven occupation-based castes, each with its own norms and expectations. Aside from the Grobal Race, there are also Arissen, the officers; Imbati, the servants; Kartunnen, the artisans; Venorai, the laborers; Melumalai, the merchants; and Akrabitti, the Undercaste, who perform undesirable labor like trash collecting and taking care of dead bodies. The caste system also has an element of class to it: although money is virtually meaningless to the wealthy nobility, it is a major decision-making factor for all other castes. Aside from caste-based divisions, Grobal society is also very structured when it comes to interactions between genders and between the twelve noble Families. Grobal society is so strict about gender roles that the ascension of the first-ever lady cabinet member is a major political scandal.
Unfortunately, much of the worldbuilding advertised in Mazes of Power doesn’t make it to the actual page. In Mazes of Power, Wade uses an extremely high-context style that leaves much of Varin unexplained. Readers are immersed in Pelismaran society and expected to piece together the clues for a bigger picture of the world, which itself is high context: much of the story is spent on characters reading between the lines of what’s said to them to decipher their next political moves. For better or worse, the reader must figure out the significance of social cues and transgressions.
HIGHLIGHTS ~do not trust the pretty glowy floaty things ~the sky is a myth ~gloves will save your life ~“My heart is as deep as the heavens. No word uttered in confidence will escape it.” ~cavern-cities are safe from everything except other people
Reader, I have a new favourite series.
Like so many other books I’ve fallen in love with, I discovered Wade’s Broken Trust series via KA Doores’ annual list of queer SFF – 2021’s list included book two of the series, Transgressions of Power, and it sounded interesting, so I picked up book one to give it a try.
And was hooked pretty much instantly.
VARIN IS A PLACE WHERE HUMANS HAVE ALWAYS LIVED ON AN ALIEN WORLD.
IT IS ALSO YOUR HOME.
The world Wade has created is phenomenal – detailed, intricate, believable, and other – by which I mean, the society and culture (cultures, really) of Varin are not drawn from any real-world culture; the characters are very human, but the society they live in is just alien enough to make it really feel like we’re not in Kansas anymore. Too often, I see fictional worlds which really don’t capture that sense of being separate from ours; settings that don’t feel like they developed organically on another planet or in some other dimension, uninfluenced by our world’s history and religions and conflicts and everything else. But the world of Mazes absolutely feels like that – as though Wade isn’t writing fiction, but is instead giving us a look into a real place, populated by real people; a parallel universe, maybe, where humans evolved on some other planet entirely and thus turned out very differently.
Does that make sense?
Mazes is set in the capital city Pelismara – which exists entirely underground; of all the characters we meet in this book, only two have ever seen the open sky. The people of Pelismara – actually, all the people of Varin, the world in which Mazes is set – are divided into castes, with each caste having its own role in the function of society; Arissen are guards and police officers; Imbati serve; and the Grobal…well, the Grobal rule. Or the men do, at least; unlike the other castes we see, the Grobal are very patriarchal. Grobal women are meant to be decorative, good helpmeets, and, most of all, fertile – Grobal birthrates are very low, Grobal children tend to be pretty sickly, and Kinders fever, while occasionally dangerous to members of other castes, is pretty much a death-sentence for any Grobal who contracts it. Grobal are very much obsessed with the Failure of the Race and their Duty to the Race (aka, the low birthrate and the duty to procreate) and all in all, I suspect Wade deliberately gave the Grobal caste the only caste-name that sounds unpleasant (‘grobal’ is simply not a very pretty word) because there’s not much about the Grobal to like. They’re misogynistic, classist, insular, arrogant, queerphobic, and go all-in on demonising rape victims and sex work and marrying young women off to much older men. They’re a fairly clear stand-in for white supremacists in way too many ways.
Although there are definitely Grobal individuals who are pretty great, like Tagaret, a young Grobal man whose love of music is greater than his fear of Kinders fever, as we see when he risks attending a concert despite a potential outbreak, and his mother Tamelera, who takes refuge from her horrific marriage in designing exquisite clothing. Then there’s Nekantor, Tageret’s younger brother and Tamelera’s son, who is definitely not someone I’d want to be friends with – he’s manipulative, abusive, and doesn’t recognise most people as being actual people – but who is still incredibly interesting, and whom I felt real sympathy for even when he was transitioning into villain territory.
I don't know. I feel like I'm being too harsh, because I did finish this book and I might check out the second (not right now; I am not in the mood for more of that old hoary and utterly predictable tale of brother vs. brother, but I might find myself really bored one day). But...well, here are our POV characters:
1. Teenage idiot from an inbred af "Race" who spends the novel having no consistent character traits and in fact swings wildly from one idea to another in a way that reads less like a confused teenager and more like very poor editing on the author's/publisher's part. Like in one paragraph Tagaret will resolve to do a thing, and in the next it's like he never had the thought to begin with. So in the end I have no idea who Tagaret is as a character despite him being basically the main protagonist. Except that he's in love with Della because she...has nice hair, I guess? I also can't figure out if he's supposed to be a burgeoning political mastermind or if some things just work out for him due to dumb luck.
2. Teenage idiot from an inbred af "Race" who is severely mentally ill. He is also the antagonist, so let's not think too closely about the implications of that. He's portrayed as so mentally ill that he can barely function in society, and yet is always in just enough control of his faculties around the people that matter that no one believes Tagaret when he claims his brother is "defective." Even though he is literally being watched almost constantly by people just praying for him to show some kind of weakness. Convenient, that.
3. Actual sane adult who has nevertheless been brainwashed his entire life to bow and scrape and swear fealty and love to the inbred idiots, and never, ever questions it despite being the one somewhat intelligent character in the whole book.
Yeah, yeah, worldbuilding, highly stratified society, etc., etc, but I just don't buy the set up and the characters come off the poorer for it. How did this society form? Why are they all living in a giant cave? I thought maybe the surface of the planet they were on was uninhabitable, or the sun too intense or something, but there's a laborer caste that works out in the farms on the surface. So are the laborers genetically different from everyone else somehow, or is everyone else too inbred and fragile to stand the light of a perfectly normal sun? And this book is swimming in same-sex relationships, so that I got the impression most people were at least somewhat bisexual, but then it turns out same-sex relationships are super taboo. Like, taboo enough to get the inbred nobles kicked into a lower caste if they're caught. Which doesn't at all square with the totally nonchalant way the characters approach these relationships. Shouldn't they be way more afraid of getting caught, or of even having those feelings in the first place? It isn't even mentioned as an issue until over halfway through the book.
Which are just some examples to show that there's no real worldbuilding in this book, because worldbuilding needs to have some kind of thought and reason behind it. It needs to be internally consistent. Maybe there's more detail in subsequent books, but just going by this book, the worldbuilding is very YA. And I don't think this is supposed to be a YA book.
And finally, despite a side plot about taking down the patriarchy and opening up opportunities for women, there is not a single female main character. Most of the women are peripheral and become irrelevant once they have served their small section of the plot. The only one who gets the slightest bit of focus is Tagaret's mother, and even she mostly just helplessly weeps and rages. Awesome job taking down the patriarchy there.
To start with some of the technical/writing concerns: It wasn't my favorite writing style. I'm not sure if it felt a little older (90s maybe), but there were often shorter sentences, and so many exclamation points (the exclamation points really got to me). It made the characters seem melodramatic.
I also found myself wondering if this was initially intended to be YA, based both on the characters' ages, and that things seemed like they should get darker, but then never did. I'd definitely consider it a good cross-over novel.
For me, the pacing was also off in some places. About half the book I didn't want to stop reading, and about half the book felt much slower (and it flipped between the two).
I also agree with some other reviewers that it would have been nice to have some perspectives from women in the book. I also found myself wishing for a perspective from someone from the under case system. Tagaret and Aloran are bother pretty boring, honestly. And gah the god-awful insta-love between Tagaret and Della.
Nekantor is interesting, but again, I agree with other reviewers that how his mental illness is handled is, um, off putting. I don't know, I kept thinking about how he was only 15, and had already been so demonized. And I think this is where some of the "was this originally YA?" comes into play, because none of his really horrible behavior is shown. We hear about how he's terrible to the Imbati, but any scenes depicting come off more as a petulant, spoiled child. Ugh, I don't know, I just feel like his characterization was messy and I really hate the portrayal of OCD (which is also an incredibly misunderstood illness) (and also that he seems to be gay...). Maybe further books will break this down, but it definitely made me feel uncomfortable.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This book is super delicious. Part political intrigue, part dystopian caste-based society drama, part romance novel (a little, like as flavor, not super-salaciously), part coming of age, this book was a page turner from the first chapter. There is a wide cast of characters to keep straight, but the book includes a guide to the social system, the deities, the main characters and their relationships, and the locations for easy following by the reader; I definitely flipped back and forth to make sure I understood for the first few chapters. I did, however, find it easy to read and it would not be difficult to follow the story without flipping back and forth. The writing is very well done, the characters each have their own perspective and motives, and the story ties them together perfectly. The world-building occurs through dialogue and character interaction, in a fast-paced, lively, non-obvious way. I find myself caring strongly for the characters . . . and deeply disliking the characters that would do them harm, which I think is indicative of a well-written villain. The characters have actual flaws that affect how they interact with the world and each other, which I think adds an element of relatability to an otherwise Hunger Games-style social setting.
Highly recommend; I deeply enjoyed getting lost in this story.
Please note: I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this piece through a Goodreads giveaway; the on-sale date is 2/4/2020. I CANNOT wait for the rest of this series!
This book is entertaining enough, but a bit all over the place. Wade has built a fascinating world, but getting know it is often a chore, and the characters can be exhausting. Tagaret means well, but cannot make a successful plan to save his life, and there are few things more frustrating in a book than a protagonist who cannot seem to be able to actually do anything. His brother Nekantor is the last person who should be entering politics, so of course he does, and is successful. There are only so many times a book's plot can allow me to lose hope in the situation before I simply stop caring. Though I will say this, the plot is anything but predicable, and keeps the reader guessing as to how things will end up. Despite my issues with the book, I can see it being a successful series as curiosity may win over annoyance.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I gave it my best shot - 240 pages. But I just couldn't read any more. I'll admit that I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight, couldn't get a firm idea of the setting for the novel. Perhaps I was expecting more detail, like "The City of Ember" by Jeanne DuPrau. The preview warns of the decline of technology. What technology, the only time I see it mentioned is the skimmers. I also didn't expect the depth of the prejudice between the classes. I thought that this disparity would be addressed as part of the story line, but by the end of the 240, nope. And like another viewer asked, why do they keep going on about Brunel's power and why the neck squeezing?