Rating: ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
Date Read: January 20 to 23, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: no one, just something I’d been meaning to read for awhile
Recommended for: fans of Robin Hobb and Lynn Flewelling; maybe fans of David Eddings and Terry Brooks as well
Ten years ago I would have liked Transformation a lot more. Back when I used to enjoy high fantasy this book would have been memorable. Now? Now I’m trying to get back to the genre but not doing very well, mostly because I’m tired of reading about the same things over and over again. Medieval setting, a conquering empire on the rise,
boring court life, boring court intrigue, boring political maneuverings, ridiculously exacerbating nobles, tiresome royalty, etc etc. One exception is I still find intuitive dog and horse characters fascinating. Credit goes to Carol Berg’s writing for keeping this book engaging. I wouldn’t have abandoned it, but it would have been an uphill battle if not for Ms. Berg’s handle on prose and world-building.
The story starts out strong with Seyonne, an Ezzarian slave and former mage, on the auction block in the process of being bought by Aleksander, the crown prince of the Derzhi Empire and the race responsible for enslaving most peoples of this world. We follow Seyonne as he carefully navigates through life as a slave in the royal palace. After nearly 20 years in bondage, he knows how to stay in his place and stay alive, but when a Khelid emissary visit to celebrate Prince Aleksander’s coronation, Seyonne recognizes in the lead Khelid a Rai Kirah demon lurking behind his eyes, and this sets up events for the rest of the book.
Seyonne must choose between thwarting the demon’s plans and risking his life, or let things play out and stand by as the people who killed and enslaved his people die at the demon’s hands. He chooses to thwart, and I was like “…honestly?? Just let the damn world burn.” This was where the book lost me completely because I couldn’t get behind Seyonne’s purpose for saving the asshole prince. Sure, saving the prince = saving the world. But still, his people have been persecuted and enslaved. The writing wasn’t convincing enough for me to believe that Seyonne would cast aside his suffering and the suffering of his entire race for the good of the world. In that sense Seyonne went from an interesting, nuanced character to a Gary Stu in a matter of two pages. But I suppose… good for Seyonne for putting his enslavement and vengeance aside, and doubly good for him for choosing the righteous path.
Anyhow. Things slow down as the story introduces more
boring court politics, then pick up again at the coronation when it’s revealed that someone framed Aleksander for murder. Aleksander is well hated among the nobility for his arrogance and frivolity, and his enemies, the Khelid among them, are waiting for the chance to take him down. Good thing Seyonne’s got his back. The two of them travel far and wide–to a hidden Ezzarian enclave–to escape the Khelid’s pursuit, and on the way, Seyonne regains his magic and Aleksander becomes a decent human being (sort of).
So many issues. Where to begin? Let’s start at the beginning.
* * *
* * * * spoilers * * * *
I don’t just feel for the characters in this book. Carol Berg has created a pair of contrasting leads with personality and depth and a varied supporting cast, but none of them don’t speak to me. I merely read on to find out how certain events play out, not because I want to follow the characters on their journeys. I know Seyonne and Aleksander are fan favorites, but for me, they’re little more than set pieces.
Let’s break it down.
…is a total Gary Stu and punching bag, almost a rival to Robin Hobb’s Fitzchivalry. He’s put through so much hardship during his time as a slave, almost like Fitz’s trials and tribulations, that I find it hard to believe he’s able to put almost two decade of suffering, along with the near decimation of his people, land, and magic, aside so he could help his ridiculous captor save this ridiculous empire. And he makes the choice quickly too. Just shoves everything aside for the “greater good.” I don’t buy it. The reason given for Seyonne’s empire-saving relentlessness is he thinks he sees in Aleksander the mythological savior of the world. It’s a bright shining beacon in the depths of the Prince’s soul–really? That douchebag? The world deserves better, yes? This is just too hard to me to accept, and the more I think about it, the more I’m annoyed with the story.
Twenty years ago, Seyonne was captured by Derzhi slavers and almost killed in the process. When he takes Aleksander to hide out in the Ezzarian enclave, he runs into old friends, a former love, and a best friend, Rhys, who left him to die at the hands of the Derzhi all those years ago. Seyonne learns it was Rhys who betrayed him while convincing everyone else he was as good as dead. This discovery cuts Seyonne deeply, and for the rest of the story, Rhys continues to deceive and betray, not only Seyonne but what’s left of their people. And yet Seyonne doesn’t hold a grudge; he only feels hurt that Rhys has turned out this way. Before Rhys dies a vaguely heroic death, he is absolved of his sins–cue the violins. Seyonne even carries his body back to the Ezzarians for a proper burial–more violins. I can’t with this book. I just can’t. Too many unbelievable things happening in quick succession, and very few of them make sense, with Seyonne’s selflessness/righteousness making the least sense to me. He is able to forgive two people who wronged him the most and goes on to prevent evil from engulfing the world. What is he, the world’s true savior? I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how the trilogy ends.
…is an asshole. I don’t, for one second, believe that it’s possible for this character to redeem himself. It says in the book that he goes from being an entitled tantrum-throwing princeling to a less entitled princeling, but I don’t buy that at all. Suffering through his transformative curse (PUN), courtesy of the Khelid, supposedly transforms (PUN) him into a better person, and his tentative friendship with Seyonne seems to hint that he’ll become a better ruler. Proof? As a coronation present, he asks that the Ezzarians’ land be returned to them and no more Ezzarians will be enslaved. It’s a start, I guess, but what about the Ezzarians who are still enslaved. Will they be compensated for all their years of slavery? Not likely. Also, there’s a long list of things the Derzhis still have to atone for, like the enslavement of other races and the continual eradication of foreign magic by torture. I will probably never finish this series, so I don’t know how this will play out later on. My guess is it will be pushed aside in favor of an apocalyptic story arc.
Why the Derzhi empire is ridiculous and in no way believable: they look down on literacy. Their royalty and nobility see being literate as barbaric and far beneath them. Say what now? The Derzhi are a proud warrior race that have been marauding the land for centuries. And they did it by not being able to read or write? Correct! How do they even…? They have people for that sorta thing. You know, like scribes and servants who are prone to spying and gossip. You’d think they’d be more open to book-learnin’ to eliminate that courtly mess, but you’d be wrong. And they’ve been successfully ruling this vast empire how? My thoughts exactly. The explanation is they rule and conquer by might, that’s why they look down on books. But how do they read maps? Doesn’t say in the book. Then how do they plot and strategize? Also doesn’t say. So many holes. Yup.
The Derzhi fear and shun powerful magic. So they force magical abilities out of their slaves by way of torture; Ezzarians, known for their strong magic, are tortured sometimes to death. So it’s karmic irony when Aleksander finds out that the only way to defeat the demons and his own curse is to use Ezzarian magic, but since the Derzhi slaughtered almost all Ezzarian mages, they doomed themselves. Seyonne is one of the last mages, and by the end of the story, he is the only mage left. Irony!
There’s more, but I already returned the book to the library.
This isn’t to say everything about Transformation irritates me. I like the writing; Ms. Berg’s prose is descriptive and engaging. Despite all the problems I listed above, the writing made me want to keep reading. The magic is interesting and imaginative–to reclaim a possessed soul, a pair of mages must battle the demon right inside the soul. The mortality rate for inexperienced mage pairs is high, as the stakes are high. Overall, interesting, but not enough to get me to pick up the next book. There are a couple of moments that pulled me into the story (many of them have to do with Seyonne’s enslavement), but for the most part, I couldn’t help over analyzing the characters and their predicaments.
People say I should ease up if I want to enjoy high fantasy again. I’d like to think people are wrong, but they may be right about this.