In this first novel in his Risen Kingdoms series, Curtis Craddock is coming at us like the love child of Alexandre Dumas and Frank Herbert, possibly as fostered in his youth by Scott Lynch. It’s a helluva combination, and I don’t make a comparison like this lightly. If you’re a fan of any of those authors, or of intricately plotted fantasy that’s full of surprises, well, grab onto a restraining rope and climb aboard my airship.
That’s right, I said airship. The fantasy world of the Risen Kingdoms is one of floating continents*, some thickly settled, some just discovered. Travel between them is by airship — but don’t think this is steampunk. I said Alexandre Dumas, not Jules Verne!
Our heroes are a Princess and her faithful King’s Own Musketeer (see?), who quickly learn that, while neither has been of much value in their native land or to the local ruling family, both now have grand destinies, because the Princess has to go marry the Prince of a rival nation and might become that nation’s queen one day, and her musketeer must go with her to continue his life-long charge of Keeping Her Safe.
So far, so ordinary. But the details are where this gets interesting. The Princess, Isabelle, has a birth defect, (phocomelia, or a “flipper arm”) the local Bonehead Bene Gesserit** (we’ll call them BBG for short) regard as a sign that she is the spawn of the devil, and she also doesn’t possess her family’s icky sorcerous power, the “Bloodshadow”, which is very cool and creepy and original and I’m not going to say any more about it because you’re going to find out when you read the book.
Isabelle’s family is a typical cadet branch of royalty, very jealous of its prestige and ancient lineage and very proud of its creepy magical powers, so she is a walking, talking embarrassment to them, and is left largely to her own devices as she has grown up, raised mostly by the aforementioned Musketeer, Jean-Claude, assigned to her at birth by the faraway King. Jean-Claude doesn’t know a whole lot about raising a pretty little girl with a defective hand, but he doesn’t have to do much, really; she’s got a genius-level intellect and a thirst for knowledge and has already forgotten more high-level science and mathematics by the time she’s a teenager than he even knew — even though it is forbidden by the BBG for any woman to do science. Oh no!
And that’s all just prologue.
Before we know it, Isabelle is betrothed to the prince of a nearby kingdom, and must journey there with only Jean-Claude and a retinue she neither knows nor trusts. But the nearby kingdom to which she is traveling is a hotbed of plotting and intrigue and the intriguing plotters are not above making the odd attempt on Isabelle’s life even as she rides the airship to the new floating continent she may one day rule! Plus, an official from the aforementioned Bonehead Bene Gesserit is along for the ride, and he has his own plans within plans! He has promised Isabelle that, if she is good, he can bring her friend Marie, turned into a particularly repulsive and sad kind of zombie by Isabelle’s father many years ago, back to normal life, but only if she is good! She’ll be good. Honest she will!
Except, she is Isabelle. Oh, she is a character to gladden any reader’s heart, especially if that reader loves brainy, brave, inventive young women. Isabelle once invented a court mathematician, so that she could publish her highly original and insightful mathematical treatises under his name (and she was considering “marrying” her made up mathematician as a way to free herself from court life before the BBG and the royal families changed her plans for her). She eavesdrops on learned debates and takes notes on them in the form of sneaky codes she embeds in her beautiful oil paintings she just happens to be creating nearby. She was written to be loved, was Isabelle.
As was Craddock’s fairly original approach to sorcery. While it’s nothing new to build a world in which magical powers are hereditary and only an elite aristocracy possesses them, and it’s nothing very new that one family’s special talent is for traveling magically via mirrors, Craddock really thought about what that kind of travel might mean. One’s soul alone travels; the body is left behind. And the traveling soul, having passed through a mirror, both perceives the world in which he moves backwards and appears to other people are the reverse image of himself (i.e., if he has a freckle on his right cheek, it will show up on the left cheek of his “espejismo”***).
And if that’s not enough, there are… Mistaken identities! Masquerades (both literal and figurative)! Missing heirs!
Does it sound like I liked this book? I liked this book. I’m looking forward to its sequels.
I think you will, too.