Spoilers: Extremely strong recommendation. This is an excellent book all around: characters, world-building, plot are all superlative. I adored Kei, adored Arman--their story is beautiful and deeply satisfying. The book is very long, but it earns it.
Probably what impressed me most was the novel’s depiction of war itself, and here I felt it really went above and beyond the average fantasy novel--as another reviewer argued, it rises to the level of epic. It’s an amazing sequence: first the news of the invasion, the choice of which villagers to serve as hostages, the arrival of the enemy, the forced march, the stay in the prison camp, and finally the harrowing experience as hostages in an enemy capitol--unforgettable.
It makes all the difference that Somerville immerses the reader so deeply in both sides of the conflict. Her portrayal is just so rich and complex. The differences in attitude and assumption between these two cultures is all-important, and yet very, very few people are in a position to make any sense of them. Arman’s journey from genocidal hatred of the Darshianese, to becoming friends with one, to making peace with all, to finally emigrating, feels like an allegory for any warring person or culture that has somehow managed to create a true and lasting peace with a hated enemy.
Great as the invasion sequence is, his journey as a prisoner back through the villages he’d invaded months earlier is just revealing and crucial. And all-importantly it’s not just his journey: we see the Darshianese struggle and sometimes fail to get past their suffering; some choose bitterness and revenge, some are able to choose peace. The generous length means that Somerville never rushes through the process. I hope I never experience war, but I felt like I learned a lot about it reading this.
My only hesitation comes with the final sequence--the return to Kuprij, where I felt like a lot of the earlier complexity was lost. The Darshianese are so totally the superiors in every way--morally, magically, culturally, intellectually. They were so noble it verged on sentimental. Meanwhile, the Prij except for Arman and a handful of others are all worthless. Anyone who’s not horrible either dies or emigrates. I shared in the glee at their humiliation, but it left me unsatisfied. It didn’t feel equal to what had come before.
But given the extraordinary quality of the novel, this feels like a quibble. Seriously, I cannot recommend it enough.