Morgan Howell's first series, Queen of the Orcs, definitely had its ups and downs, with pedestrian prose but great society-building. With that series complete, what would Howell do for an encore?
A Woman Worth Ten Coppers is an intriguing book, far better written than his first series, but it still has a few bumps to get over. Unlike his first series, it wasn't written all at once and published in a monthly fashion (the second book comes out later this year), so there is hope that these bumps will be smoothed out in subsequent books. As it is, Howell sets up an interesting world and tells a pretty good tale.
Yim is a young girl with a destiny, though she doesn't yet know exactly what that is. A gifted seer, she is sent on the road to fulfill that destiny of bearing somebody's child with no clue as to who that somebody might be. At the beginning of her journey, she's captured and sold into slavery. Honus is a Sarf, a warrior dedicated to the service of the goddess Karm. His Bearer (and master) has been killed, and the last thing he told Honus was that he should never carry his own pack. When Honus purchases Yim for ten coppers, their destinies are intersected, perhaps eventually blunting the evil that has invaded the world in the form of the Devourer. But that is for them to discover.
The introductory book to a series has a lot of setting up to do, and Howell takes that burden on even more than most. There is a lot of setup in A Woman Worth Ten Coppers, and for a while I was annoyed by the seemingly glacial pace of the book. Howell gets Yim and Honus together fairly quickly, but when they start out on their journey we get a lot of background information on the two of them, or on the world in general and how it works. Each holds secrets from the other; Honus alternates between being considerate of Yim and being surly and dismissive, the latter usually when her questions start to get too close to things he doesn't want to talk about. They spend so much time talking past each other, hiding things that the reader is already aware of, that I seriously wanted to reach into the book and knock their heads together.
Things change as their journey continues, though, and I started becoming more interested in both of them and how their destinies would intersect. We learn more about the world in general (one much larger than the one he created in Queen of the Orcs, which was one of my criticisms of that series). Honus is trying to get back to the sanctuary of Karm and find a new Bearer, but as he gets nearer he finds that the evil afoot in the world has come closer to home than he realized. Howell is very effective at creating this atmosphere of gloom, and he also achieves that with some of the encounters Yim and Honus have on their journey.
It's a good thing that Howell's characterization and mood setting have improved, because sadly the prose hasn't - or maybe I'm just not the intended audience. Most of the sentences are short and stilted. The dialogue (especially the accented way some of the characters speak) seems a bit simple, though it's definitely hiding some adult concepts. It's an adult novel (no explicit sex or language, just ideas), which jars with the more basic prose. It just feels… off.
Thankfully, the narrative grew on me, and I stopped noticing that “off” feeling as my interest grew in the world Howell has created. While the Devourer is the stereotypical evil force with no real reason behind it (as is his minion, Lord Bahl), he operates by taking control of certain humans who have offered themselves to him. Thus, we see how these humans act rather than how the god acts, which definitely helps. There are no other races in this world, at least not that we're shown - no orcs or other creatures like that - though there is definitely magic to be had.
One final thing about A Woman Worth Ten Coppers is the issue of slavery and how Howell will deal with it. I enjoy fantasy novels that set up worlds where slavery is just a fact of life rather than moralizing to the reader about it (as long as there are interesting slave characters, as in Jennifer Fallon's books). We all know slavery is wrong; we don't need it preached to us. However, as Yim moves toward freedom, she is assigned a slave of her own by the people she is staying with, and it makes her very uncomfortable.
It will be interesting to see how Yim continues to react to that situation in future books, and how Howell will deal with the whole thing. Howell's previous series features the same kind of servitude, though, and he used it as a jumping off point for his exploration of the Orcish culture in that world. I'm curious to know why Howell keeps going back to involuntary servitude as a basis for his world-building.
Ultimately, I did enjoy A Woman Worth Ten Coppers, though not as much as I might have. I'm looking forward to the second book to see where things go from here.