Grudging, a newly published young adult fantasy and the first in a new series called BIRTH OF SAINTS from Michelle Hauck, is set in a country reminiscent of medieval Spain, where noble warhorses are a soldier’s right arm and religious faith is a significant part of most people’s lives, giving this fantasy an somewhat unusual cultural flavor.
Seventeen year old Ramiro wants nothing more than to be a respected soldier in his pelotón like his older brother Salvador: to fight in hand-to-hand combat with his sword and earn the right to grow a beard, the ultimate sign of manhood in his society. Ramiro’s people avoid the legendary witches who live in the swamps and kill strangers with the magic in their voices. But when barbaric Northern invaders besiege Ramiro’s walled city of Colina Hermosa and threaten to murder all who live there, his father, one of the city councilmen, sends Ramiro, his brother and a few others off on a hazardous mission to seek out the swamp witches and see if they can be persuaded to use their magic to drive off the Northern armies.
Claire lives a lonely life, alone in the swamps with her mother, who is one of the most gifted Women of the Song. Claire can’t figure out why her mother won’t do a better job of training her to use her magic and voice, meet any new friends (even among their own people), visit the local village, or do anything fun at all. But her mother warns her: “The city men would try to kill you. Women of the Song aren’t welcome in the cities. You’ll never go near another human because I love you too much to risk it.”
Naturally, Ramiro and Claire are on a collision course. The overall plot plays out in a fairly predictable way, although there are a few minor surprises, and there was enough intrigue and tension to keep my attention. Ramiro and Claire, the main characters, are both fairly standard characters from young adult fiction, with the typical romantic tensions developing between them as they become reluctant allies, but they are both sympathetic as they deal with their prejudices and the profound griefs and troubles that befall them. The more interesting characters were actually the secondary ones: Ramiro’s father Julian, a respected city leader desperately trying to save his people and his family; his mother Beatriz, who at first seems a typical fussy, worrying mother who carries around a fluffy lapdog and is inclined to baby her grown sons, but unexpectedly shows some backbone and strength as the story progresses; and the burly priest Father Telo, who plays a minor but significant role in the story. Telo is an honest and thoughtful individual who steps outside of his normal role as priest to help spy on the Northerners and try to negotiate the return of some children taken as hostages:
Telo had searched for fear in his own soul and had found too much… Telo had touched head, heart, liver, and spleen. That was not to say he took the Lord’s intervention for granted. One was not stupid merely because one believed. One still needed to act with common sense and not put the Lord in a position of keeping one out of trouble.
These characters all grow and change during the course of the story. The willingness to sacrifice one’s self for the greater good is a major theme explored in several different plotlines.
Three different cultures clash during the course of Grudging: the Spanish-style society of Colina Hermosa, the isolated, matriarchal culture of the Women of the Song, and the Germanic northern invaders. The best developed by far was the first. The strictures of social rules and roles and the importance of honor and family are realistically conveyed through the characters’ thoughts and actions. The magnificent and intelligent dapple-gray warhorses, who have a lifelong, exclusive bond to their masters, were wonderful, and sometimes heartbreaking, to read about. Some inhabitants of Colina Hermosa have the Sight, but generally magic plays a very minor role in their society. I appreciated the way faith was woven into the fabric of the lives of the people of Colina Hermosa. Some people believe, others do not, but religiously beliefs are treated respectfully without any preachiness.
The matriarchal society of the Women of the Song is intriguing. Claire’s mother tells some brief stories about the traditional gathering of Women of the Song at age sixteen, to hone their magical skills and compete for the title of Thorn among Roses. The Women of Song have the practice of going to the towns for a year or so to learn about society and get pregnant, but otherwise they shun men. (It’s not clear what happens if they have a baby boy, but apparently they have methods of primarily conceiving girls.) This has the potential to be an imaginatively developed society, but we only catch a few glimpses of it in this first book. Similarly, the Northern invaders are, at least so far, a fairly one-note group, defined primarily by their cruelty and bloodthirstiness and their dark religion. One interesting feature is provided by the white rods carried by their priests and priestesses, which kill people and animals with a single touch. They seem to be a magical weapon, although I wondered if they might actually be a type of technology, which would be an interesting twist in this world.
The bloodshed and gore factor is fairly high in Grudging, acceptable for most older teenage readers, but I don’t recommend it for young or sensitive readers. It will be interesting to see what direction the story takes in the next book in the BIRTH OF SAINTS series.