It’s been a while since I’ve read an A.C. Crispin book, so I had forgotten how in-your-face she writes. Her Star Trek books are one of the few earlier ones to actually use the words “make love” or anything like that (back when Trek books just didn’t acknowledge stuff like that openly, though the subtlety was always there), and she’s not afraid to write about sensitive topics. Thus, Storms of Destiny, the first book in her “The Exiles of Boq’urain”, hit me hard right at the outset. It’s an extremely strong fantasy with vivid characters who don’t fit any of the standard stereotypes except in the broadest sense. Even better, the story is self-contained, though the ending opens up a lot of vistas for the rest of the series to explore. The book is brutal but effective.
Thia, a young priestess of the god Boq’urak, has never seen life outside the cloister. She also isn’t much for rules, having been secretly taught to read and write by a mentor, and how to get around secret passages in the complex. Using one of those passages to make it to dinner on time, she encounters a horrible rite that sours her entire belief system, revealing Boq’urak to be almost evil incarnate. So she runs away. Eventually she meets up with a warrior priest on the run from his own people for abandoning his fellow soldiers to die; a gender-neuter healer of a race of scholars, exiled for investigating the ancient ruins around his home too diligently; an enslaved prince captured by pirates while reconnoitering a rebellious province; and a bitter spy for that same rebellion. Together they must aid the prince’s realm as it reels from invasion, as well as fight off Thia’s demonic god before he can kill them all.
Let me repeat, before I go any further, that this can be a brutal book. Crispin doesn’t shy from descriptions of battle, though she’s no Michael Stackpole. No, it’s the sex that’s brutal (though, thankfully, not “on-screen” much). Talis, the spy, was brutalized by her uncle and has sworn off men. Thia is on the run from a god who brutalizes some of his “Chosen Ones” much the same way, and the woman whom Prince Eregard loves must marry Eregard’s oldest brother, who is nothing but horrible to her. And he’s not even the villain of the book! These scenes do not quite reach the level of rape, usually because either something happens to forestall it or because Crispin moves away from it in the telling, but it certainly isn’t pleasant to read about. This roughness is a clear contrast with Thia herself, who is the ultimate innocent, and with Princess Ulandra, who is just as clean, and neither understands this sort of thing. The innocent love that develops for both of them (I’m not going to tell you who their partners end up being, because it’s not clear until the end of the book) is quite pleasant when compared to all that came before.
Crispin has a way with her characters, grasping them and clearly showing us (rather than telling us) what makes them tick. She spends almost forty percent of the book getting them all together, so we get to see them as individuals before they are in a group. They all eventually end up in the same city - a coincidence, but one I can live with. The brother/sister relationship that develops between Jezzil the warrior priest and Thia is sweet, and it is interesting to see just how sheltered both of them have been. When Jezzil finally comes to a decision about his loyalties, it is clear that the women who have befriended him are a big part of it, and it stems from the character we have seen.
In fact, all of them grow and change in believable fashion, and they are all a joy to read about. They are interesting, their backgrounds are interesting, and those histories always inform what they’re currently doing. The only thing that I might have liked to have seen is more foreshadowing for one sequence between Eregard and Talis after his secret is revealed (Talis is Eregard’s final owner, before it becomes known that he’s really a prince). That comes a bit out of nowhere, but it does show the effect that his wearing of the slave collar for over a year has done to him. While I found the coincidence of them being in the same city a bit much, I did think that the reasons for them getting together, once they all had met, were quite realistic.
Finally, I’ll mention the plotting. Crispin has given us an interesting story that moves from the flight from a demon to fighting off an invasion, and the last two chapters turn all of the events of the book on their head, paving the way for the next book. Crispin’s description of action is good, but it is the quieter moments where she really excels. The unpleasant scenes are quite unpleasant, but the tender moments are a nice salve for those wounds. These characters form a bond that is a treasure to behold, and Crispin doesn’t just give it to us - she shows it to us as it develops, and we believe it. The prose is wonderful, and each scene does exactly what Crispin wants it to do.
If you go into Storms of Destiny knowing there are some harsh scenes to prepare you for them, it is an even better book. Without knowing, I quickly righted myself and could not put the book down. It will be a long wait for the next one, and I plan to have it as soon as it’s published.