This novel is the sequel to what I considered to be the 2011 speculative fiction debut of the year, The Winds of Khalakovo (Canada, USA, Europe).Bradley P. Beaulieu made quite an impression on me with his first book, and thus I had rather high expectations for The Straits of Galahesh.
After showing so much potential, I wanted to know if the author could bring this series to another level with the second volume. Well, this sequel delivers on all fronts and is even better than its predecessor! Indeed, Beaulieu managed to iron out most of the kinks that were the shortcomings of The Winds of Khalakovo. In the end, The Straits of Galahesh is an even more ambitious project, one that makes for a wonderful reading experience!
Here's the blurb:
West of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya lies the Empire of Yrstanla, the Motherland. The Empire has lived at peace with Anuskaya for generations, but with political turmoil brewing and the wasting disease still rampant, opportunists from the mainland have begun to set their sights on the Grand Duchy, seeking to expand their empire. Five years have passed since Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, was tasked with finding Nasim, the child prodigy behind a deadly summoning that led to a grand clash between the armies of man and elder elemental spirits. Today, that boy has grown into a young man driven to understand his past - and the darkness from which Nikandr awakened him. Nikandr's lover, Atiana, has become a Matra, casting her spirit forth to explore, influence, and protect the Grand Duchy. But when the Al-Aqim, long thought lost to the past, return to the islands and threaten to bring about indaraqiram - a change that means certain destruction for both the Landed and the Landless - bitter enemies must become allies and stand against their horrific plans. From Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo, comes Book Two of The Lays of Anuskaya, The Straits of Galahesh.
The worldbuilding is terrific. Once more, very Russian and/or Eastern European in style and tone, Beaulieu prefers to go for something different than the clichéd European medieval environment that gives this book its distinctive vibe and flavor. The author elaborates a lot more than he did in his debut, and what was just a hint of hidden depth in The Winds of Khalakovo is finally revealed in full. I liked how we learned more about the Motherland and the threats it's facing, but also the way it's tied to the islands of the Grand Duchy. Moreover, the revelations regarding the Al-Aqim, the rifts, the peace-loving Aramahn, the violent sect of the Maharraht, the mysterious Matri, and the entire magic system were fascinating.
People have asked me what authors Bradley P. Beaulieu reminded me of, and it's a hard question to answer. But in many ways, he appears to be a mix of Steven Erikson and L. E. Modesitt, jr. That's a weird hybrid, I know. But it's the only thing I could come up with. À la Erikson, Beaulieu likes to throw his readers into the heart of the tale without offering much in the way of information. In the first volume, this often resulted in an occasional lack of clarity that left readers wondering what the heck was taking place. Drawing on the material from The Winds of Khalakovo, Beaulieu does it less often in this sequel. But as is the case with Steven Erikson, sometimes you just need to buckle up and be taken along for the ride, hoping that an explanation will be provided down the line.
In terms of characterization and magic system, his approach is very similar to that of L. E. Modesitt, jr. Beaulieu's cast of characters may not be the most flamboyant bunch of people. And yet, for the most part they are solid, genuine, and three-dimensional men and women that remain true to themselves. The same thing goes for the magic, which is consistent and must follow strict rules that make sense. So far, there hasn't been any Deus ex machina moments where magic is concerned. Again, I feel that too little is known about everything that has to do with magic in The Lays of Anuskaya. But instead of finding this off-putting, my curiosity is such that I'm just dying to learn more and see what will occur next.
As was the case with its predecessor, the layered characterization in The Straits of Galahesh was my favorite facet of this novel. The five-year gap between both installments allowed Beaulieu to showcase just how brilliant his character development can be. Nikandr, Atiana, and Nasim are the viewpoint protagonists in this second volume. The structure of the novel is such that each viewpoint always gets two or three chapters at a time, which creates a neat balance between them. Add to that a supporting cast of genuine and interesting men and women, and once again you have a work that really captures your imagination. Special kudos to Beaulieu for letting readers learn more about Soroush and realize that there is much more to him than just being a fundamentalist terrorist leader. All in all, the characterization is top notch.
In addition, I'm not sure Bradley P. Beaulieu sat down and had a beer with George R. R. Martin at a convention in between books, but it looks as though he became fond of creating living and breathing protagonists that readers care about, only to kill them off when you least expect it. Indeed, The Straits of Galahesh features a body count that both GRRM and Joe Abercrombie would approve of. At one point I was left wondering who the hell would be left to make it to the third volume!
In terms of rhythm, there were a few rough spots here and there, the same as in The Winds of Khalakovo. You can see that the author is laying a lot of groundwork for what will follow, but the pace is rarely an issue. In any case, Beaulieu's eye for details and his evocative narrative creates an imagery that never failed to amaze me. There are surprises and shocking moments aplenty throughout the book, making this one extremely unpredictable novel to read.
Dark, ambitious, complex, populated with a great cast of characters that leap off the pages, The Straits of Galahesh is just what the doctor ordered if you are looking for a quality read that's different from everything else on the market today. The Winds of Khalakovo turned out to be one of the very best SFF works of 2011. Somehow, Bradley P. Beaulieu has raised the bar even higher for this sequel, making The Straits of Galahesh a "must read" speculative fiction title for 2012.
Two thumbs way, way up! Do yourself a favor and give Beaulieu's series a shot. You'll thank me. . .