Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Winds of Khalakovo, by Bradley P. Beaulieu

I started reading the paperback I bought at World Fantasy Convention 2011, but I soon switched to Kindle, when that edition was offered up for free (as a promotion, not the author's gift to me for review). In the interest of full disclosure, I will also point out that I know Brad, a little. I met him at WFC because we have some mutual friends, and I first fell in love with his writing after hearing him read from the sequel to this novel.

Now, all that being said, none of it affected my enjoyment of this book, which is one of the best fantasy debuts I've ever come across. Before I share my take, let me give you the blurb, from Amazon:

Among inhospitable and unforgiving seas stands Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands, its prominent eyrie stretching a thousand feet into the sky. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the crossroads of world trade. But all is not well in Khalakovo. Conflict has erupted between the ruling Landed, the indigenous Aramahn, and the fanatical Maharraht, and a wasting disease has grown rampant over the past decade. Now, Khalakovo is to play host to the Nine Dukes, a meeting which will weigh heavily upon Khalakovo's future.

When an elemental spirit attacks an incoming windship, murdering the Grand Duke and his retinue, Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, is tasked with finding the child prodigy believed to be behind the summoning. However, Nikandr discovers that the boy is an autistic savant who may hold the key to lifting the blight that has been sweeping the islands. Can the Dukes, thirsty for revenge, be held at bay? Can Khalakovo be saved? The elusive answer drifts upon the Winds of Khalakovo...

Now, I have to say, it's been about two weeks since I finished this book, and I needed that time, because it was a lot to absorb. I was a huge fan of epic fantasy when I was young--Tolkien was my first love, but authors like Eddings, Jordan, Brooks and others filled my shelves as a teen--but of late I've read very little of it. George Martin is really the only fantasy I've read this decade, and I can't even call A Song of Ice and Fire, High or True Fantasy (not that I mean that as a slight, George's books are phenomenal, just very untraditional, in a good way). Bradley's book is incredibly similar in its inability to fit into a tidy little box.

There were some things that struck me about this novel as the levels through which I was introduced to it expanded.
  • The cover. It's a steampunk-ish, alternate world, air-ship orgasm of a cover, and yet it's painted with such an air of mystery, it's clear this is no juvenile manga-style tale of another world (not that I don't love those too, but I digress)
  • Brad's reading from what was then probably a third stage draft of the sequel. Brad's voice, tone, diction, and resonance probably played a part, but for me it was really the richness of language and culture that drew me in. I heard him read from the sequel before I read the original, but it gave me enough of a taste for the world that I knew I would have to return.
  • The cultures. I don't want to attribute every fantasy I ever read to Tolkien, because as much as I wish it did, it doesn't work that way, and another thing that makes Winds stand out to me is the fact that is does not borrow Orcs, or Elves, or Dwarves. It includes the landed of the great duchies, who are only very loosely based on Tsarist Russia, who I thought were mostly pretty cool, except for amazing standout characters like Nikandr, Atiana, and Victania, but more importantly it included the fascinating Aramahn, a culture that was part Indian Hindi, part Arabic Muslim, and part Japanese Buddhist, whose religion, or more specifically, spiritual system of beliefs, was what really drove this story for me. It's key characters were the morally conflicted Rehada, the vaguely autistic Nasim, his guide and elder Ashan, and the clearly devout, confused, radical, and yet still sympathetic Soroush. The Aramahn really made this book for me, and I look forward to the subsequent volumes in which I hope they will explored even more deeply.
If I had to make one complaint, it would be that the pacing dragged a bit for me in the middle third. However, I suspect this was only due to the fact that I'd been reading so many 60,000 word YA novels lately, and I doubt that most fantasy readers would take issue. People who read a lot of high fantasy understand that a world this rich takes time to build, and you can't just dump it all on the reader. Regardless, the final third of the novel made it all worth it. There were almost sort of two separate climactic moments, both of which I thought were done very well and I thoroughly enjoyed.

I would recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys fantasy, but also for anyone who is looking for something truly new and unique. Before I let you go, allow me to point you to a few places you can find Brad on the web, and read some other opinions on this book:

Brad's website: Quillings.com
Brad's blog
Brad on Facebook
Brad on Twitter: @BBeaulieu

An awesome cross interview between Brad and Rob Ziegler, at Fantasy Book Critic.
Brad on moral ambiguity, at John Scalzi's blog

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist - reviews Khalakovo much better than I
A review at Bookwork Blues
A review at Black Gate

That's it for today. Happy Tuesday, everyone!


  1. This is one I'll definitely have to check out.

    I mean, between you and Glen Cook, how can one go wrong?

  2. Ooooh I do like the sound of windships!!! Yay for a most objective and thought provoking review! All the best to Bradley! Take care

  3. Nice review, Matt. Thanks for sharing it. You've definitely intrigued me.

  4. I'll be buying this book and recommending it to my friend James who has been pressuring me to read Brandon Weeks (I am going to read him...I just need the time). With all the nursing home stuff and paperwork for my mother, time has been difficult to come by.

  5. So it's an adult book? (I don't do young adult.) Cover is really impressive.

  6. It's funny how reading YA all the time starts to condition our expectations for books and might even effect our impression of non-YA, which is a shame because there are some really amazing non-YA books, like Brad's book. At times I even get really annoyed with some YA because it's so short and doesn't always develop characters or the world to the extent I'd like. Great review of Winds! You captured the best.

    1. I completely agree. I even got mad at myself when I was having those feelings in the middle. We get so conditioned to expect a certain thing, and it's not fair.

      I mostly added that comment to the review, because without one semi-negative thing it would just look like a gush fest, and perhaps be taken less seriously.

      This really is a beautiful story. In particular I loved the take on spirituality.

  7. About your comment on ASOIAF, I agree that it isn't truly fantasy for the first three books or so, but you could see its fantasy elements beginning to bubble in Danaerys's last POV chapter in Game of Thrones. It's a new world altogether, and the magic is very subtle, but that's why its unorthodox element is so addicting to non-fantasy and fantasy readers alike.

    ANYWAY, I'm rudely robbing the spotlight from the book review in question.

    I see you compared the plot to "juvenile manga-tale". So, does that mean this is a YA book? Based on the excerpts, it sounds like it isn't catered to a younger genre, but really to anyone who is willing to be immersed. I don't know why, but I have a thing for NOT reading YA books. I just couldn't get through Harry Potter or Hunger Games for the life of me, let alone other stories I picked up from Blogger. It's not an attack against the writers themselves. I think it's a personal preference of some prejudiced sort.

    What I really want to see is how Bradley interweaves the real world cultures which influence the ones in his story. Some fantasy writers just superficially make carbon copies of these cultures without going in-depth (philosophically, etymologically, etc). I hope I won't be disappointed because I am surely going to get myself a copy!

    1. Sorry to confuse you Leila! I was talking only about the cover when I mentioned juvenile manga. Airships just always make me think of anime/manga, because of how much of the stuff I read/watch. This is definitely an adult book. Not in the sense that it's violent or gory, but the characters are all adults, and the themes are generally adult themes.

      As for Martin and ASoIaF, I do agree. Now that we're five books in, there is definitely more magic and fantastic creatures, but there are still no elves, dwarves, or orcs, which is just another thing I love about it (and seemed like an apt comparison to make to Brad's book).

  8. That cover is so cool! I agree with what you said about reading so many YA's, others might seem to lag--I can totally see that!

  9. I must admit, it took me a moment to scroll down to your review. I was fixated on the cover, the vast ridiculous-ness in it's beauty, the earthy tones...all of it tapped me on the shoulder and demanded my attention.

    I enjoyed your review, too :-)

  10. Sounds good. The only adult fantasy I've read is all Forgotten Realms--I'm a dnd nerd. Guess I should branch out a little.

    1. No Dragonlance? Krynn? If you're into D&D you've got to read those ones, Eliza! They're practically modules in novel form.

  11. Great review! I really enjoyed Winds--the world building was freaking awesome--and Brad's one of my favorite people. :)

  12. I like the idea of windships--and what a visual of them on the cover.

    Yes, short YA books make regular books often seem LONG.

  13. By the way, I know how Matthew and I feel about Word Verification. Did you know there's Word Verification on this blog?

    1. I did not. I'll check with the admin, though honestly, no one has posted here in a month, so maybe I need to ask if we're even still active. LOL.

  14. Oooh this book sounds good! I might have to check it out once I've finished the Game of Thrones series. Thanks for the comprehensive review.