War and plague have recently swept across the kingdom of Wa, leaving a new emperor feeling insecure on his throne. He feels threatened by the ancient houses of Wa, and most especially by the revered Lord Shonto, an intelligent and highly competent man. When the emperor appoints Shonto as governor of the northern province of Seh, Shonto isn’t sure if this is an honor, or a trap.
Both men have some excellent allies. Shonto has adopted the lovely and gifted Lady Nishima, the last heir of the former empire, and has recently secured as his spiritual advisor the Botahist monk Shuyun who is recognized by his brothers as the most promising monk in ages. He has also befriended a minor lord from the North who has little influence in that region, but seems to see things more clearly than his elders do. The emperor’s staff includes handsome and clever General Jaku Katta, the famous kickboxer, and Jaku’s clever young brother.
Of course, all of these allies — Lady Nishima, Shuyun, Jaku Katta — have their own human desires and concerns. For example, Shuyun is worried about the Botahist order — the ancient scrolls are missing, and some of his brother monks have disappeared. When he leaves his monastery, he sees things which make him question some of the teachings of his faith.
As you can tell by the names, Sean Russell’s The Initiate Brother, first published in 1991, is an Eastern-flavored fantasy similar to Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. The Initiate Brother also reminds me of GGK’s work because it’s full of fascinating twisty political intrigue and there’s a large cast of realistic and appealing characters who we get to know well when we’re privy to their internal thoughts. If you’re a fan of GGK, you’re almost certain to enjoy The Initiate Brother (and you probably won’t mind the frequent POV shifts).
The occasional use of short Japanese poems and a strategy game similar to the ancient Chinese boardgame Go, add to the world-building and inspire the story. The plot, which is layered with conflict and intrigue, gradually and inexhaustibly rises to a tense climax at the end of the novel. Then it stops. I was sorry that I didn’t have the sequel, Gatherer of Clouds, on hand to begin immediately, but I will be picking it up soon — it promises plenty of excitement and I look forward to finding out what happens to these interesting people.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s production of The Initiate Brother, read by Elijah Alexander. Mostly I enjoyed Mr. Alexander’s narration — he has a superb reading voice. However, because the cast of characters was so large, he used a couple of annoying techniques to distinguish minor characters. For example, in this ancient Oriental culture, the merchant Tanaka has a Boston accent and a female nun sounds like a Chicago mobster. More distracting, though, was what happened when Mr. Alexander ran out of voices. Instead of recycling, he gave each new character a peculiar speech tempo which often makes the character seem like he has a speech impediment or, worse, like he is mentally disabled. I doubt that this is what Sean Russell intended for his emperor. Realizing that such a large cast must be problematic for an audiobook reader, I’m willing to overlook this little quirk — and I’ll be happily reading the sequel on audio.