I found this while browsing through freebies. I liked the cover, but the description made the book sound like a train wreck. I admit, I downloaded it mostly out of morbid curiosity.
Hiresha is an Elder Enchantress, a woman who possesses powerful magic but can only use it in her sleep. Her sleeping disorder gives her great power as an enchantress but prevents her from achieving the life she most wants, that of a wife and mother. At the request of Sri the Flawless, she returns to Morimound, the city of her birth, only to discover that something awful has happened. Despite being in her eighties, Sri the Once Flawless is now pregnant. Not only that, so is every other woman and girl age 12 and up.
The city is in turmoil. Some, like Abwar, the Priest of the Ever Always, declare the pregnancies to be a divine gift. Others beat the women and girls, call them sluts, and feed them poisons to try to purge them of their pregnancies. As Hiresha begins her investigation, she learns horrifying things about the fetuses and finds herself having to make choices that could potentially bring even greater harm to the citizens of Morimound.
I wasn't sure, going in, how well the book's premise would work for me. It sounded incredibly bizarre. Marling managed to make it work, although I had to take breaks several times. The way people treated the women and girls was almost uniformly awful, the fetuses themselves were little abominations, and the villain was vile.
The things I turned out to dislike the most about this book were Marling's writing and Hiresha's drowsiness. I haven't been able to put into words what it is about Marling's writing that doesn't work for me, but Hiresha's drowsiness had a tendency to make her waking world feel surreal. She had trouble staying focused, and her clothing didn't help – in addition to wearing six dresses, she had 21 more trailing behind her, plus a golden hump strapped to her back. She moved with the aid of a cane, Janny, her maid, and Deepmand, her bodyguard. Even then, she was always one slight misstep away from landing on her face or one moment away from sweating herself into dehydration. The hump and gowns did turn out to be useful, but I'm not sure they were worth the 200+ pages they spent hampering her movements.
This book was at its best when Hiresha was asleep or in the presence of the Lord of the Feast. Sleep allowed Hiresha to enter her dream laboratory, where she could replay her memories and analyze them in the most minute detail, noting microexpressions and other things that her sluggish waking mind missed. Sleep also gave Hiresha access to her magic, which could heal terrible wounds, regrow limbs, and enchant objects and clothing. I thought that the benefits and drawbacks of her magic were well-balanced and nicely done.
Being with the Lord of the Feast had similar effects on Hiresha. Something about him (maybe instinctual self-preservation?) flooded Hiresha's system with adrenaline, which allowed her to observe the world at the same level as when she was asleep. Hiresha's conversations with him were usually a lot of fun. Unfortunately, he didn't show up until about halfway through the book. Also, he brought with him a discomfiting possible romantic subplot. He was way too obviously Hiresha's future tragic and dangerous vampire boyfriend (well, not a vampire in the traditional sense – he could create and feed upon fear – but close).
I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to continue reading this series.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- The Unconsoled (book) by Kazuo Ishiguro - This is not an easy book to read - I stalled and DNFed at about a third of the way through, unable to continue dealing with the surreal setting and happenings and multi-page paragraphs. Readers who'd like another incredibly drowsy main character may want to give it a shot. Here's my DNF review.
- The Mountains of Mourning (e-novella) by Lois McMaster Bujold - Unlike Hiresha, Miles is sharply intelligent at all times. In this story, he investigates the death of an infant, and the circumstances hit a little closer to home than he's comfortable with. I've written about this story. Those who'd like another fantasy with strong mystery elements may want to give it a try.
- Paprika (anime movie) - It's been years since I last saw this movie, but I think it could be described as a sci-fi thriller. It involves technology that allows therapists to enter their patients' dreams. It's more action-filled than Marling's story, but the mix of dreams and investigating might appeal. I've written about this movie.
- The Sandman (graphic novel series) by Neil Gaiman - This series mixes horror and fantasy and often involves a blend of dreams and reality.