Truth be told, Bradley P. Beaulieu's debut wasn't on my reading schedule. And then, either Scott Lynch or Saladin Ahmed (can't remember whom) got in touch with me, saying that Beaulieu had roomed with them at the World Fantasy Con or Worldcon and that perhaps I'd like to take a look at The Winds of Khalakovo. After that, Beaulieu's emails somehow always ended up in my spam folder and it took forever for us to set something up. It didn't look as though I would have time to read the book before the end of the year, but I agreed to post an extract.
The author sent me a complimentary copy of book nonetheless, one I truly wanted to read after going through the excerpt that went up on the Hotlist. I was intrigued by the flying ships and the whole Russian feel that appeared to permeate the story.
And boy am I glad I gave The Winds of Khalakovo a shot! Indeed, if not for a few shortcomings, Beaulieu's debut had the potential to be one of the very best fantasy debuts of all time.
Here's the blurb:
Among inhospitable and unforgiving seas stands Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands, its prominent eyrie stretching a thousand feet into the sky. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the crossroads of world trade. But all is not well in Khalakovo. Conflict has erupted between the ruling Landed, the indigenous Aramahn, and the fanatical Maharraht, and a wasting disease has grown rampant over the past decade. Now, Khalakovo is to play host to the Nine Dukes, a meeting which will weigh heavily upon Khalakovo's future.
When an elemental spirit attacks an incoming windship, murdering the Grand Duke and his retinue, Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, is tasked with finding the child prodigy believed to be behind the summoning. However, Nikandr discovers that the boy is an autistic savant who may hold the key to lifting the blight that has been sweeping the islands. Can the Dukes, thirsty for revenge, be held at bay? Can Khalakovo be saved? The elusive answer drifts upon the Winds of Khalakovo...
The worldbuilding is fantastic. Very Russian and/or Eastern European in style and tone, the author demonstrates that he has a great eye for details. Once again, going for something different than the clichéd European medieval environment gives The Winds of Khalakovo a very distinctive vibe and flavor. The presence of firearms hints at a more modern epoch, both in terms of technology and culture. Overall, the politicking is well-done, though Beaulieu takes the path of least resistance from time to time.
À la Steven Erikson, Beaulieu plunges his readers into the heart of the tale without offering any explanation or information. This works well for some, yet many readers might find it off-putting. Especially since there are no info dumps or other such devices to help us along the way. For instance, I've read the entire novel, but I still have absolutely no idea how the magical system works.
Although far from perfect, the layered characterization is my favorite facet of this work. Nikandr and Rehada's points of view create an interesting balance between perspectives. Add to that POV sections by a supporting cast of engrossing men and women, and you have a book that really captures your imagination. Symbolically and thematically, lovers of Russian literature will recognize a number of traditional devices, both regarding the worldbuilding and the characterization. The dialogue throughout is top notch.
And yet, again à la Erikson, too often does Bradley P. Beaulieu plays his cards very close to his chest. Which, sadly, results in an occasional lack of clarity that will leave readers wondering. Though most of the protagonists are well-drawn and genuine, too often are we left in the dark as to their motivations or their past. Not only don't I understand exactly how the magical system works, but I have no idea as to how the Maharrat master plan came into being. And this particular storyline lies at the very heart of the tale, that's a problem. . .
There are a few rough spots here and there, yet the pace of the novel is rarely an issue. The narrative creates an arresting imagery that sure delighted me. The Winds of Khalakovo seems to be comprised of two different volumes, however. The first and second parts have their own disparate vibes, the latter suffering from the aforementioned shortcomings.
These flaws cannot take away the fact that Bradley P. Beaulieu's debut is a terrific and ambitious fantasy work. Indeed, it is something that even jaded genre readers will appreciate. It is a very good novel, no question about it. But my disappointment stems from the fact that The Winds of Khalakovo had the potential to be the speculative fiction book of the year. Injecting more depth and revealing more about the characters and the mechanics of the fascinating world the author has created would have added another dimension to an already impressive work of fiction. For make no mistake: At times, The Winds of Khalakovo is brilliant. Unfortunately, the obscurities regarding some extremely important plot points could well annoy many a reader.
Since creating the Hotlist, I've come across some incredibly talented fantasy debut authors. One only has to think of Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, Naomi Novik, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Hal Duncan, Brian Ruckley, and many more. Well, Bradley P. Beaulieu has the potential to be as good, or even better, than any of them.