The Weavers of Saramyr and The Skein of Lament by Chris Wooding
These two books form the first two thirds of the Braided Path series by Chris Wooding. I decided to read this series because I absolutely loved Wooding’s Tales of the Ketty Jay series. Short review: the Braided Path series isn’t anywhere near as good (so far). I’ve decided to review these two chaps together now, because I’m taking a bit of a break from the series before the third book.
Like most of the stuff I’ve been reading this year, this is fantasy. This time the place we’re in is called Saramyr. The book opens with our heroine, Kaiku, narrowly escaping the murder of her family by a bunch of shin-shin (vaguely spider-ish demons, just one of an assortment of demons knocking about in Saramyr) thanks to her handmaid (turned bodyguard) Asara. Technically, Asara doesn’t so much save Kaiku as bring her back to life, which makes for a pretty decent opening, as it’s fairly rare that a book starts with the main character being dead. Kaiku shows her thanks to Asara by accidentally killing her, and decides that the only place she can go to find safety (and answers about the mysterious mask that her now-dead father found) is with her childhood friend Mishani, in the capital city of Saramyr, Axekami.
There’s another plot which runs alongside this and concerns the heir to throne of Saramyr, Lucia, a precocious child kept hidden in the castle by her mother (the Empress, rather than Queen, what with Saramyr being an Empire). Turns out pretty quickly that Lucia is an “Aberrant”. Aberrants are freaks of nature that come in many different varieties that can broadly be described as good, bad and ugly – some are hideously deformed freaks, some have terrible magical powers, and some look normal but are something along the lines of the next evolutionary step of humanity. The latter one of these categories (and obviously the one that Lucia sits in) isn’t well known publicly, because the public view of Aberrants, pushed most vehemently by the Weavers (we’ll get to them), is that all Aberrants are monsters. Typically, when discovered they are summarily executed.
Obviously Lucia’s status as an Aberrant becomes public, which causes consternation in Saramyr as folks don’t really want what they see as a monster becoming their ruler. Lucia being one of the lesser-known good Aberrants makes this more complex, and the whole plotline features a bunch of interesting and twisty political fighting, posturing and backstabbing (literally, at times) which escalates very nicely throughout the novel, leading to a pretty fun and unexpected climax.
Anyway, the Weavers. They get their name in the title, so clearly they are pretty important to the plot. The shorthand for Weavers is that they are wizards. They’ve positioned themselves as aids to government: they are mainly used to send messages between powerful families (each of which has their own Weaver) to rule the Empire. Obviously they also have their own nefarious motives (which at the outset of the series are unknown). They are also ridiculously powerful. They send their messages through the “Weave” (hence their name), a Matrix-y shadow world that only they (in theory) can access. They can also use the Weave instantly kill any non-Weavers if they fancy.
The Weavers are good fun, both as a whole and as the individual Weavers who get a bit of character. They aren’t hugely interesting from a story point of view, because it’s utterly clear that they will become the villains from the outset, so it isn’t like there’s really ever a twist coming. But they are entirely evil, in a wide range of quite delicious ways, so they never really get boring. There’s also the fact that the Weavers are seen by most of Saramyr (and particularly by those in power, who rely on them most) to be utterly awful creatures, existing in a readily-acknowledged area of conflict: being needed but not wanted. When you add into that mix that the Weavers are serving people that they could kill with a click of their fingers (literally), and the relationship between the Weavers and Saramyr as a whole is a good source of tension, which Wooding does a very good job of retaining throughout the two books so far (I imagine it’s going to have disappeared a little in the third book).
The Weavers of Saramyr does a decent job of introducing a range of interesting characters, and bringing them all together. Most first books in series follow this path, but here it’s done in such a way that it never feels like characters coming together is predetermined. It also helps that there is a defined, self-contained plot that runs from start to finish within the opening book, while still establishing the wider plot. It’s a strong balance that many books at the start of a series struggle with (for example, the lack of a strong self-contained story is basically the only glaring flaw in Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, which is one of my favourites).
Despite a good self-contained story and interesting setup for the wider trilogy, Weavers isn’t in the class of Abercrombie (or Wooding’s Ketty Jay books). There just aren’t really any attributes of Weavers which make it outstanding, although there also aren’t any specific problems that stop it being outstanding either. It’s just solidly decent throughout. My only real complaints about it are more minor quibbles than anything else.
The first is that sometimes the perspective from which a section is inconsistent. As is the standard in ensemble-cast fantasy, there are a range of point-of-view characters, with each chapter written from the perspective of one of them. However, while Wooding sticks to this, every so often there will be a paragraph or two which tell you the thoughts and feelings of another character. And it’s not a suggestion of what they may be thinking from the point of view of the main character, it’s an outright shift of perspective.
Thankfully it doesn’t happen too much, but it still happens often enough to be worth noting. To be fair, sometimes it is done deliberately, as a mid-scene switch of perspective from one character to another, but even then it’s jarring. And when it’s not done for that reason it just feels like uncharacteristically poor writing.
The other thing that annoyed me was references to the Empress. She’s the only one who is often referred to by her full name and title (“Blood Empress Anais tu Erinima”). I think what Wooding was going for here was giving her some sense of regality by referring to her full title as Empress, rather than just her name, although he refers to her inconsistently – the first reference or two of each chapter refers to her full title, then after that it just becomes her name.
Really, this just doesn’t work. Rather than any sense of regality, or maybe even separation between “Empress” and “Anais”, it makes it seem like Wooding is worried that if he just says her name at the start of a chapter the reader will think “who the hell is she?”. I get what he might have been going for, but it makes it feel like every so often he decided to audition as a ghost writer for one of Tom Clancy’s more phoned-in efforts, rather than just be the actual good writer that he is.
Like I said, minor quibbles, but still annoying. These flaws don’t make the difference between Weavers being good or great, but they do probably knock the book down a mark. Anyway, Weavers in summary: good characters, good story (both the self-contained and the setup for the wider story), good world. All in all, good. Definitely good enough to get me to read the second book. Which is what I did after finishing Weavers.
The Skein of Lament picks up five years after the events of Weavers. It’s tough to summarise the story of Skein without spoiling Weavers, so I’ll try to stick to broad terms: the plot is basically the same as The Two Towers.
Following Weavers, the main characters have all made homes in a hidden town called The Fold, which is also home to various organisations making up the resistance in the (currently secret) battle against the Weavers. After spending Weavers bringing the cast together, Skein splits them up again as they face a range of different tasks, mainly attempting to forge alliances with other factions to strengthen the resistance and investigating the Weavers to discover their strength and plans.
This eventually leads to a large scale battle, in a desperate defence against seemingly overwhelming odds (hey, sounds like Helm’s Deep!). At the same time Kaiku and an ally find a way to penetrate into Weaver territory to try to strike a blow against them. Not quite as big a blow as chucking some jewellery into a volcano, but that didn’t happen until Return of the King.
In addition, there’s a third plotline that’s vaguely separated from the resistance itself, focusing on the political machinations around the capital, as the factions (the Weavers and others) seek to grab power for themselves. There’s some decent twists and turns in this plotline, and again it works well to give Skein its own self-contained story running within (and alongside) the wider trilogy.
Skein introduces a range of new supporting characters, and they are largely a decent bunch, although none really ever threaten to be so exciting as to entrench themselves as main characters. A good few of the supporting characters from Weavers also get a fair bit of character development this time around, which means there’s a pretty strong stable of characters throughout the book.
The main problem with Skein is that there’s not much in the way of character development for the main characters. It does happen to some extent, but only really right at the end. At it doesn’t feel like character is sidelined at expense of propelling the story along, because the story doesn’t really get pushed along at a much pace. It’s also a bit annoying that, after the good work in Weavers to believably bring the main characters together, they get split up for most of Skein. Rather than having each main character forming new relationships with new characters I’d rather have seen a deepening of the existing relationships, because the relationships that have been established through Weavers are all pretty good, with a good balance of both friendship and tension.
Skein does open strongly at least, with a section taking place on a separate continent from Saramyr (Okhamba). This works well as both a fairly exciting start to the book and to flesh out the wider world, before we return to Saramyr for the remainder of the plot. It also leads to a pretty decent revelation about the real nature of the Weavers, which was one of the remaining mysteries from the opening book. All in all, the opening quarter or so is the strongest part of Skein. Sadly, the middle half is probably the weakest section of the trilogy to date. Things do pick up in the final quarter or so of the book though as the action kicks in, and the setup for the final part of the trilogy is good enough. Basically, the quality of Skein looks something like an inverted bell curve.
Skein seems to suffer a lot just from being the second book in a trilogy. The main story and characters have been set up in the first book, the resolutions will happen in the third book, and the second is spent trying to escalate these things a bit. Skein is successful enough at this, in that it’s not discouraged me from reading the final book in the trilogy. But it’s also not completely successful, as its not making me want to read the third book right now.
Next up: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
(I’m skipping the “read if you like” bits on this one; I’ll wait until I’ve finished the trilogy before giving my assessment on that).