Petrodor picks up shortly after the ending of Sasha, the first novel in Joel Shepherd‘s A Trial of Blood and Steel series. Sashandra Lenayin (Sasha for short) now resides in the Torrovan port city Petrodor, a true hotbed of intrigue with several political factions squaring off against each other. With a brewing Verenthane crusade to retake the Bakosh provinces that are occupied by the serrin, war is in the air, and the tensions between the various camps are threatening to come to a boil: the powerful and rich merchant families, the nobility, the clergy, and the common folk who are torn between the predominant Verenthane religion and the serrin-influenced Nasi-Keth. Add to this the “talmaad” — serrin agents living in Petrodor — and you have a tension-filled setting that promises — and delivers — an exciting read.
A large part of what makes A Trial of Blood and Steel so memorable is its main character, Sasha, who is (for a fantasy character) refreshingly human: she is a supremely talented swordswoman, devoted to her cause, her training, and her friends, but at the same time she’s also a hothead, a bit full of herself, and not as tactful as she could be. One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is seeing Sasha become more mature and aware, e.g. applying the theory and patterns of the svaalverd fighting style to larger concepts such as politics (at the start of chapter 13), or coming to terms with the fact that her concept of honor doesn’t always translate well into the Petrodor environment (throughout the entire book). Sasha, as a character, probably learns and grows more in Petrodor than she did in the first novel of the series.
A second main character who reappears in Petrodor is Jaryd, who is now training with the Goeren-yay in Sasha’s old village after having abandoned his Verenthane faith at the end of Sasha. He is hell-bent on revenge for the murder of his little brother, and the way he sometimes lets his passion and temperament take over make him, in some ways, a mirror of Sasha.
A new viewpoint character is Sasha’s sister, the princess Alythia, who is also in Petrodor after having been married into one of the merchant families. Alythia is another great example of Joel Shepherd’s ability to create characters who go through genuine changes throughout the novel, and I am curious to see if and how her story will continue in later books in the series. (Side-note: the many reviewers who compared Sasha to George R.R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire will probably be amused to find out that Alythia ends up with, yes, a pet wolf in this novel.)
Most other characters and factions also avoid falling into black-and-white stereotypes: not all Verenthanes are evil, not all nasi-keth are honorable, and the serrin aren’t quite as unified and angelic as they seemed at the end of Sasha. Everyone tries to look out for their own interests as best as they can. The political set-up is once again very complex, with factions within factions depending on or plotting against each other. It’s a shame that Petrodor doesn’t include a Dramatis Personae (like Sasha did), as it would have been helpful in keeping track of the many different players in this story. Likewise, including a map of the city of Petrodor would have been great to help visualize some of the gripping street battles.
There are some minor issues (including the occasional tendency of characters to engage in debate and speak back and forth in full paragraphs, even in the middle of action scenes), but overall, Petrodor is an excellent continuation of the story started in Sasha. Both books are opening chapters that show separate glimpses of the build-up to a major conflict. Joel Shepherd has carefully built up this fantasy world’s complexity, with considerable focus on the nature of power, politics, and religion, while at the same time creating some fascinating, memorable characters. An intricate setting, interesting characters, and a solid plot arc that leads up to what promises to be a strong climax — what’s not to love? Tracato, book 3 in A Trial of Blood and Steel, is due out from Pyr in October 2010, and I, for one, can’t wait.
A Trial of Blood and Steel — (2007-2011) Publisher: SASHA IS A FIGHTER, THE LIKE OF WHICH THE HIGHLAND COUNTRY OF LENAYIN HAS NEVER SEEN. Spurning her royal heritage to be raised by the great warrior, Kessligh, her exquisite swordplay astonishes all who witness it. But Sasha is still young, untested in battle and often led by her rash temper. In the complex world of Lenayin loyalties, her defiant wilfulness is attracting the wrong kind of attention. Lenayin is a land almost divided by its two faiths: the Verenthane of the ruling classes and the pagan Goeren-yai, amongst whom Sasha now lives. The Goeren-yai worship swordplay and honour and begin to see Sasha as the great spirit the Synnich who will unite them. But Sasha is still searching for what she believes and must choose her side carefully. When the Udalyn people — the symbol of Goeren-yai pride and courage — are attacked, Sasha will face her moment of testing. How will she act? Is she ready to lead? Can she be the saviour they need her to be?