Saturday, 31 July 2021

The Initiate Brother (Book #1)

AuthorSean Russell (aka Sean T. Russell)
Publisher: Daw Books
Publication Date: 1991
Pages: 480
Cover Art: Michael Whelan 
Not currently available in eBook format, but available as an Audiobook.

The Initiate Brother by Sean Russell is a long story split into two volumes, of the first half consists mainly of a huge cast of characters with weird-sounding names talking to each other, and not a lot of action or adventure until the final quarter. Contrary to how that introduction might sound, I was so thoroughly impressed by it, that it has forced it's way in to my top twenty favourite books of all time. Depending upon how the second half in this duology pans out, it could even work its way into my top ten of all time - it was that good.

Attributing a genre to this novel written in the early nineties is slightly misleading. Although the setting and background are very heavily influenced by Chinese/Japanese culture, author Russell has created his own fantasy world that could easily read like it has been directly lifted from ancient historical novels such as The Tale of Genji or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But it's relationship to the fantasy genre is so slight that it almost takes a back seat and gives the reader the impression that they are actually reading a lost novel from our own history.

The Initiate Brother is set in a land dominated by the Empire of Wa, where the ruling Emporer, Akhantsu II, controls the land and waterways over his subjects. To the north the empire of Wa is protected from being invaded by savages by one of many House Clans. The empire has two main religions, the Botahist Order and the Tomsoian Church.

In terms of social status and heriditary, below the Emporer there are many Houses competing for the right to become the next ruling dynasty. Pacts and feuds are commonplace between many of the families, who are all simultaneously grovelling to the current Imperial power whilst scheming behind everyone's backs to futher their own needs and aspirations. Marriages between Houses, or killing off a rival political opponent to greatly advance ones status is a commonplace part of imperial court life.

One the main Houses is run by Lord Shonto, whose clan is considered of high status, almost to the point where it is seen as equal or even higher than the current Emporer. This obviously puts Shonto, his retainers, followers and family at great risk - always subservient to the Emporer as tradition and honour demands, but constantly treading a tightrope of suspicion of complicity in trying to overthrow and a fear that they might be targetted by others.

One of the legacies of the Shonto clan, is that they employ a Botahist monk as an advisor. This is seen as a great coup for the Botahist movement and breeds envy within the rival Tomsoian religious order. The Botahist monks are reknown for their almost mythical abilities. The time has arrived for Lord Shonto to replace his previous advisor, whose cause of death is unclear at the start of the tale. In his place we are introduced to Shuyun, one of the most talented monks to come out of the Order for many decades. He has the ability to slow down time to the point where actions that he carries out seem, to everyone around him, to occur almost supernaturally fast. He is also a champion wrestler, and has had a previous encounter in a famous martial arts tournament that resulted in defeat for the current Emporer's Prime Advisor and Commander of the Imperial Guard, Jaku Katta.

Sean Russel, in what was his first published novel, delivered a stunning debut. I found it very hard to put this book down once I'd started. Despite the lack of outright action and adventure that I was expecting, the slower pace and the slow build up of character developement, scene-setting and world-building is exceptional. There aren't many 200+ page books that have court intrigue as their main focus that can hold my attention quite like this superb book did.

'Magic' in The Initiate Brother is very thinly spread. I loved how it was described more akin to being something like a finely tuned version of Tai Chi or Bhuddist/Zen meditation. There are no flashy whiz-bang explosions, or staff-waving dramatics here. Just plain and simple extraordinary feats of strength or speed.

The way that Russell has incorporated many influential elements of ancient Chinese and Japanese culture into his light-fantasy, or if you prefer, historical-fantasy, is highly impressive. You are very quickly drawn into the world he has created. There is nothing here that sounds out of place, every page is full of wonderful scenes, intricate characters and fascinating plot developement. And to top it all off, he drops in some really exquisite prose to describe the environment of Wa; the beautiful gardens, the opulent palaces - all of it jumps off the page in glorious technicolour.

As you might guess, the plot involves a large cast. Despite the adoption of asian naming tradition this doesn't get confusing at all. The multiple narrative format is easily followed, and due to the fact that each person is always fascinating to read about, it means you are never racing through to get back to your favourite one.

If only this exceptional story didn't just consist of two novels! I wonder if Russell has ever considered re-visting Wa at some point? I certainly hope he does, because based upon The Initiate Brother, it should be held up as one fo the best fantasy tales out there. Do yourself a favour and grab a copy - you will not be dissapointed, it is just brilliant.

Although this book is not available in eBook format, there is an audiobook available, and also the most recent paperback published is a rather beautiful trade paperback sized collection of both volumes together in a single 1,000 page edition.

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