Wraeththu by Storm Constantine
Oddly enough, I started reading Wraeththu because I happened upon it randomly in the bookstore and I was absolutely entranced by the fact that I didn’t like the cover art at all. That’s the opposite response I usually have toward cover art. I’m not sure why this is the one book that I looked at and thought, “Wow, that’s pretty terrible cover art. I better read the book.” Whatever the reason, I’m glad I did.
This was my first experience with any of Storm Constantine’s work, and I have never read such flowing, beautiful and absolutely evocative prose. While the subject matter will be hit-or-miss with readers, the writing itself is worth reading the book for. Constantine has mastered lyrical, flowing prose. Her writing makes her world and characters fly off the page. You aren’t reading this book; you are experiencing it.
Along with the beautiful prose, Wraeththu is written in a rather dense way that will require your full attention to fully absorb. This also means that this is the type of book that you can read again and again and get something new out of it each time (much like Janny Wurts’s WARS OF LIGHT AND SHADOW series).
Wraeththu (1993) is an omnibus edition containing the first three books in the WRAETHTHU series: The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (1987), The Bewitchments of Love and Hate (1988), and The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire (1989). The series that is set on a future Earth where societies have risen and fallen and humanity has developed new methods of living (new religions, ruling systems, social rules and more). Introduced into this steaming hotpot of newness is a new evolution of humanity, the androgynous Wraeththu and all sorts of new beliefs, practices and even magic that comes along with them.
Constantine is adept at writing dark fantasy, which is a genre I personally love. It’s also a subgenre that seems to be hard to do right. Good dark fantasy is adept at toying with your darkest fears and most avoided imaginings. Wraeththu is a cornerstone and a genre bender in a fantasy niche that is very hard for authors to perfect.
That being said, there is some subject matter that Constantine deals with that might not appeal to all readers. She also calls into light some uncomfortable social beliefs, and uses sex as a direct tool to manipulate the magic system she has created. While all of these matters are just surface-level plot points that hint at the much deeper and more intricate workings of Constantine’s mind, I could easily see how the subject matter could be unappetizing to some readers.
Constantine doesn’t drive her narrative in a typical way. Things happen that you wouldn’t expect, and characters make decisions that are shockingly human, despite their (at times) obviously inhuman nature. Many of them are prone to mistakes, which often drive the plot. While all of the characters are memorable, it’s Cal and Pel that stuck with me more than the others. They have a complex relationship that can, at times, be hard to understand. However, they seem to be symbolic of many of the issues that face Constantine’s world. It should also be noted that each installment in this omnibus is narrated by a different character, and each has its own unique appeal. Some readers will enjoy some perspectives more than others.
In fact, much of what Constantine writes in this book seems to be symbolic of something deeper and more complex. That’s another reason why you could read Wraeththu again and again and always feel like you are reading it for the first time. Constantine uses her characters as tools to hint at the deeper workings of what she is trying to portray. They come across as beautiful, complex, mistake-prone, clunky, occasionally offensive individuals that can’t help but shock you with their sheer humanness, despite the fact that many of them are anything but.
Constantine started her WRAETHTHU series in the 1980s, and continued publishing short stories and histories for this universe into the 2010s. Even the 1980s material still feels modern and forward-thinking today.
The writing is, as mentioned previously, absolutely stunning. The world is rich and complex and the characters are so believable you can’t help but feel like they are alive — living, breathing parts of you. Storm Constantine and her WRAETHTHU books are easily ranked among my favorite dark fantasy books of all time.