I finished Gown of Shadow and Flame last night. It’s an ambitious novel for young adults that takes on genre tropes in an interesting way. It’s set in the Lands of Loam, the same general setting for Marling’s “Enchantress” novels for adults.
What It’s About
The book tells the story of Celaise, a town girl embarked on a trial, and Jerani, a member of a plains herding tribe. Celaise has been sent on a mission to contain the growing threat of a bizarre creature called a “headless” or a “rock-back” before they overrun the plains and attack the cities. Jerani’s people are some of the most sorely afflicted. Jerani is one of the tribe’s warriors, and has had to take full responsibility for his family much earlier than usual because his parents are both gone.
Described this way, it sounds like a standard quest novel. I suppose it is, but it has some very nonstandard participants.
Celaise is a Feaster, a person gifted (cursed?) with the ability to weave illusions that inspire fear. They take that fear and distill it into their Black Wine which grants them greater power and strength. This is the first way that the book departs from the standard tropes. Feasters are predators, and Celaise is no exception. Usually, a similar protagonist like a vampire would be reformed, regretful, and conflicted. Celaise’s only regret is that the Lord of the Feast has forbidden her from feasting on humans during her trial. She’s an active predator, and hates and distrusts her fellow humans. She’s only helping these people because the Lord of the Feast can (and will) hurt or kill her if she disobeys. The Lord himself asks her to do it because he doesn’t want the creatures bothering him and the other Feasters in the city.
Jerani is treated as an adult in his tribe, though a young one. He’s a conscientious father figure to two younger siblings, and mostly happy with his lot. Doing the chores of a mother and a father takes its toll on him, but until the rock-backs start massing, he’s pretty content. There are rivalries with other warriors, and a girl who won’t look his way. Missing are the usual rebellion against authority, desires to get away and general lack of direction you frequently see with older teen protagonists in YA novels.
The setting itself adds another layer of originality to the story. The Lands of Loam show a mixture of influences from south-west Asian and African societies in the real world, with a healthy dose of originality thrown in. Jerani’s plains-people are a simple and low-tech society whose lives center around their herds of huge-horned cattle. They live on the slope of a volcano (which they consider their goddess, the Angry Mother), trading the added fertility for crops and grazing for the occasional need to rebuild the village after an eruption. They distrust outsiders and their strange, sacrilegious ways.
Celaise has to find a way to use her power against the bizarre rock-back creatures, headless beasts with mouths on their chests and eyes on their shoulders, without being able to feed on humans to replenish herself. She can’t allow the Greatheart tribe to learn she’s a Feaster, or they’ll drive her away at best, or kill her. She will need to overcome her enormous distrust of normal humans to work with the Greathearts and eliminate the threat. And finally, she has to figure out what the strange beasts are afraid of, or her magic will be useless.
Jerani becomes the liaison between his tribe and the beautiful stranger that comes among them. He thinks she may be an avatar of their goddess, or one or Her attendant beings. His younger brother is pushing hard to be accepted as a man and a warrior before he’s ready. And their father hasn’t been right since their mother died.
How I Liked It
After a bit of a shaky start, I ended up loving it. The characters (with a couple of exceptions) are complex and enjoyable. The setting is unusual and captivating. The choice to use an unrepentant murderer as a protagonist was interesting in itself. Celaise and Jerani’s arcs of growth are believable and engaging. The clash of cultures was predictable in some ways, but original in others, and left me quite content.
Marling’s fantasy is all informed by a healthy sense of the creepy and disturbing. The rock-backs continue this trend with their bizarre anatomy and faceless insectoid implacability.
I felt like this book worked on multiple levels. The most obvious is the quest-story. At the same time, Marling is dealing with questions of responsibility, maturity, and growth for Jerani. Trust, independence, and chemical dependence are themes that concerned Celaise. (There’s a definite correlation between the amount of Black Wine she’s been using and her mental processes.) Individual desires and growth vs. societal expectations and tradition are a fairly common theme with young adult protagonists in both adult and YA books, but Marling deals with his without resorting to iconoclasm or mindless conformity.
The sheer amount of unusual or outright strange stuff is a lot to digest as the story gets going. In addition, he starts out just before things get bad in terms of the rock-back encroachment. Trying to get Jerani and Celaise into their respective places in the story, he switches back and forth between the two perspectives in the first chapter repeatedly. All these things together resulted in a bit of a herky-jerky feel at the start. It was more than worth it to ride this out, because once the stage is set, the story unfolds very well.
Title: Gown of Shadow and Flame
Author: A. E. Marling
Recommendation: Definitely recommended
Disclaimer: I received a reviewer copy from the author.