Review of Dangerous Waters – Book 1 of The Hadrumal Crisis by Juliet E. McKenna

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Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I have a particular fondness for politically nuanced Fantasy written by intelligent, talented writers. Her canon of work to date firmly puts McKenna in this category – in fact, I’m frustrated that she isn’t a lot better known. So – would I find this first offering in her latest trilogy up to the mark? After all, this will be her thirteenth book set in this world – can McKenna sustain the originality and range of different situations necessary to keep and extend her readership?

The Archmage rules the island of wizards and has banned the use of magecraft in warfare, but there are corsairs raiding the Caladhrian Coast, enslaving villagers and devastating trade. Barons and merchants beg for magical aid, but all help has been refused so far.

Lady Zurenne’s husband has been murdered by the corsairs. Now a man she doesn’t even know stands as guardian over her and her daughters. Corrain, former captain and now slave, knows that the man is a rogue wizard, illegally selling his skills to the corsairs. If Corrain can escape, he’ll see justice done. Unless the Archmage’s magewoman, Jilseth, can catch the renegade first, before his disobedience is revealed and the scandal shatters the ruler’s hold on power…

The three main protagonists who tell the story are Corrain, the enslaved Caladhrian captain; Lady Zurenne, recently widowed and dangerous waterssuffering the depredations of an insolent steward on behalf of the hated and powerful Minelas; and Jilseth, who is Archmage Planir’s favourite fixer. They all face difficult odds – arguably, Jilseth has the hardest, if not the most desperate task. For it falls to her to try and keep the exploits of the outlaw mage from reaching the ears of the Caladhrian nobility – for the Archmage and his Council are only too aware that for all their power, mages are vulnerable to infuriated mobs with pitchforks.

I loved this book, which grabbed me from the moment I read the first page and held me right up until the end. It’s a long book, but at no point did I feel the action sagged – because this book has it all… slavery, magic, political plotting, overbearing nobility and desperate widows… The contrast of characters is perfect – Corrain’s vengeful fury battling with his need to remain suitably submissive as a slave is deftly portrayed. What I like about McKenna, is that she doesn’t see the need to paint her heroes and heroines as faultless or completely likeable. So Corrain makes some significant mistakes – but given the circumstances and his background, it is entirely realistic that he would underestimate anyone physically weaker.

Jilseth is the most capable of the protagonists – and yet, she cannot sustain her stance of disinterestedness, despite her best efforts. I particularly enjoyed the friction between the magewoman and Lady Zurenne, when Jilseth is trying to discover exactly what is going on. I’ve read a couple of reviewers who were frustrated that Lady Zurenne seemed unable to break free of the rules stifling her ability to act as a free agent. Apparently, they were waiting for her to arm her feisty eldest daughter with a sword and turn her into some female warrior… McKenna has managed to resist the modern trend in historical fantasy of abruptly emancipating her female characters, thank goodness. It is a trend that intensely annoys me.

It suggests that our female forebears merely needed to pull themselves together, learn a few defensive moves, grab a handy weapon and they would be able to operate just fine alongside their menfolk. But as Lady Zurenne’s reactions and instincts clearly demonstrate – no matter how outrageously unfair the law may be to women, it is a far harder business to defy legal and social conventions. If it wasn’t, millions of women wouldn’t be still struggling across the planet in the face of daily injustice and discrimination. I think she rises to the challenge of keeping herself and her daughters safe magnificently and one of the reasons why Jilseth can no longer remain completely impartial, is witnessing Lady Zurenne’s plight – and her gritted courage in coping with it.

As you may have gathered, I really enjoyed this book. McKenna’s nuanced, smart writing presents her world as every bit as messy and complicated as ours – and though this book and series is nested within a very well established setting, at no time does the author rely on a reader’s prior knowledge of her previous output in order to make sense of this one. Which is a harder trick to pull off than you might think – or maybe not, given how few writers really manage to do it.

So, though I would recommend that you dive into McKenna’s world if you are looking for intelligently written, three dimensional fantasy, there is no reason why you shouldn’t start with this particular series. In fact, I strongly recommend you do so – you’ll be thanking me if you do.
9/10

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