The Winds of Khalakovo – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)

Lays of Anuskaya #1

Steampunk, Fantasy

Night Shade Books; March 8, 2011

464 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

Behold the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, a collection of windswept archipelagos off the continental shelf of Yrstania. Here eyries serve the Landed, windships bearing goods and passengers amongst the isles as trade connects each duchy in the sea. But it is not so simple as just that. And while the duchies are at peace for the time, this will not always be the case.

Indeed, when the Grand Duke and his retinue are murdered by an elemental spirit, dissent threatens to tear the Grand Duchy apart. The Maharraht—a fanatical fringe group with the indigenous Aramahn—are widely suspected, but not all see the two as distinct. In fact, most Landed do not.

Nikandr is the heir of Khalakovo, a collection of seven isles in the center of the Great Northern Sea. When the Grand Duke falls, and the Maharraht spread their message, he is tasked with finding and retrieving Nasim, the boy believed to be a conduit for the elemental spirit. But this is easier said than done, as Nasim is one of the Landless—and a child prodigy who often exists more in Adhiya than he does in the material realm.

But when Nasim turns out to be more than just a prodigy, Nikandr is left with an impossible choice. To turn the boy over to the Grand Duke’s heir, or to use Nasim to try to cure the wasting plague that has been ravaging the isles. Either way, war is coming, but on which side does Khalakovo fall? And what does it mean for Nikandr and the two women in his life, each representing a different would-be foe?

It’s been several years since I first read the Winds of Khalakovo, and even now when it comes to mind I picture a flurry of images. Of walrus-tusk shell casings and complex magic. Of windships coasting above rough seas, windswept eyries and rugged archipelagos. Of stratified society and torrid affairs. And of a plot I still don’t fully understand.

Now, everything gets a bit clearer after the second installment, but is that really what you want to hear from a new series? That after the second book, you’ll kinda understand a bit more of what was happening in the first book, even if you may not have at the time. No, right? And though WoK certainly wins points for a complex and intricate, highly political plot—it also loses points for the inability to grasp said plot, even by the time the story ends. I mean, at its base level, I understand the book. Find the kid before anyone else does. Save the cheerleader, save the world. But where the stability of the duchies, the wasting disease, the political and cultural hierarchies fit into everything didn’t completely fall into place until after more glimpses of the world.

On one hand, it’s nice that the book evokes a deeper and more significant meaning even after you finish it. That you can come back and enjoy its hidden complexities down the line, when you’re working through Book #2 and 3. But on the other hand, that you pretty much HAVE TO read Book #2 to understand just what is going on in Book #1 is ridiculous. It’s a bit like World War II. You can take a glance and understand that Nazis are bad, but once you get into the history of it—the futility of the Weimar Republic, the anger and resentment it created in the youth, the destabilization of world markets during the Great Depression—everything gets a bit more blurry. Now imagine that instead of starting with “this is a Nazi” introduction to WWII, you started with the fluctuation of the price of grain in 1920’s Eastern Bloc and the effect that had on the monarchies of Europe. I mean, you’ll reach the same destination in the end, but the journey there is remarkably different.

What can I say about the world-building, though? Rich and evocative, like an autumn breeze raising goosebumps along your arms as the lingering scent of wood-smoke fills your nose and you swear you can just taste cherry and apple cider even as you picture curling up in bed while a wicked wind whips through the darkened forest. I mean, it’s pretty much amazing. It’s everything I said in the opening paragraph and more. Wood and bone. Leather and ivory. Cinnamon and clove. Towering mountains and crashing seas. Airships and wind magic. Landed and landless. It’s… I can’t adequately explain how amazing I found the world-building. Very few worlds have ever drank me in quite like this one. That was why it hurt all the worse when I crashed out of it to puzzle out the plot.

The characters are mostly quite good. Very well written; complex, human, relatable—with one pretty glaring exception. But every story needs a villain, right? And often the villain’s motivations don’t have to make sense at first, that’s what hindsight and flashbacks are for. Nikandr, Rehada and Atiana are probably the strongest characters—which makes perfect sense, especially with the whole love-triangle going on. Ashan is remarkably strong considering he probably won’t be fully appreciated until the latter half of the tale, while Nasim is a bit weak, which again, is to be expected.

TL;DR

This is one where I completely want my opinion to be proven wrong. I want you to go out, pick this up, and love it. I want you to leave a glowing review, tell me how wrong I was. Only… I don’t really expect it. Over 1600 ratings on Goodreads, Winds of Khalakovo holds a 3.3 rating, meaning that it was firmly in the realm of Meh. Some people love the plot but hate the world. I loved the world, but was constantly infuriated with the plot. But I still want people to go out and read this—especially if you enjoyed the Shattered Sands, especially if you enjoy steampunk. What I absolutely do not want is for you to just look at the rating and then swear off reading it, for the world itself is an achievement that needs to be experienced. However, there is always more to read, and more out there for the enjoyment. And, at the end of the day, this just may be too divisive for that.

The story continues in The Straits of Galahesh, Book #2 of the Lays of Anuskaya.

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