The Guild of the Cowry Catchers: Embers
(The Guild of the Cowry Catchers series, Book 1)
Abigail Hilton Books
DESCRIPTION: The myriad islands of Wefrivain, populated by all manner of beasts, talking animals, and animal-human hybrid shelts, have long been under the sway of the Priestess of the wyvern gods. Grishnards, half-griffin shelts, dominate their lesser kindred in her name, even exercising their blood right to enslave and consume hoofed fauns. Between the Temple Sea Watch on the waters and the Police on land, the Priestess intimidates and controls all within her domain... but, keen as the eyes and ears of the wyverns may be, sharp and deadly as their fangs, they cannot quash all whispers of rebellion.
Gerard was once in line for the throne of the Wefrivain kingdom of Holovarus, until he defied the temple and his father by taking to wife the low-born but gifted court minstrel. He finds himself in the Temple Sea Watch, where he catches the eye of the Priestess herself with his heroism. She promotes him to captain of her dreaded Police... a promotion that might prove to be a death sentence. Most captains don't last out a year, and the Police are in a sorry state, picked off by the Rebellion faster than they can be replaced, let alone trained. Gerard grimly sets himself on the trail of Gwain, the near-legendary leader of the Rebellion... only to find that trail leading him right back to the Temple Sea Watch and the domain of Admiral Silveo. A rare foxling in the grishnard ranks, the thoroughly unpleasant little shelt hasn't made himself any friends in his vicious climb up the ranks. Gerard himself has crossed paths with Silveo before, and nearly lost his life. Silveo harbors no love for grishnards and even less for the former princeling Gerard. The thought of having to work with each other knots both their tails no end. But, as the Priestess demands, they must obey.
Assuming one of them doesn't wind up dead along the way...
REVIEW: Some time ago, I saw a humorous little graphic on the Internet, a graph showing how the likelihood of a book being good dropped in increasing proportion to the number of words invented by the author. Hilton's story falls on the wrong side of that line. Don't get me wrong - she has obviously taken her time to craft her complex world, with three moons and numerous sapient species and shifting alliances and rivalries and all. She even starts her chapters with information about said world, purportedly written by the leader of the Rebellion - an amateur trick, but one that provided clues to the world's make-up that the biased viewpoints of the protagonists couldn't provide. I cannot fault her for stinting on the world-building, here. But the story she attaches to that world suffers, albeit not solely because of the many made-up words that the reader must learn to keep up. The cult of the Priestess and the pseudo-god wyverns, the cruel dominion of the grishnards over every other sapient species, sets up an Establishment so corrupt and so thoroughly unredeemable that I couldn't sympathize much with any character, protagonist or otherwise, who in any way supported its continued existence. Yet, somehow, out of this stew of injustice comes Gerard, an almost laughably naive hero who inexplicably has a heart of gold, even rejecting the common practice of slavery despite having obviously been raised to consider it normal and, indeed, a privilege of his race. His wife Thessalyn, the blind singer whose gifts border on magical, is another anachronism in this mean-spirited world, so lovely and so innocent (yet so capable of melting even the hardest and most wounded of hearts with her voice) that she's downright ridiculous. As Gerard squirms his way through his unpleasant job of torturing innocents and oppressing the masses, he finds himself surrounded by characters who revel in their power and their sadism. The Rebellion itself remains a nebulous concept throughout the book, only briefly gaining a human (or rather a shelt) face that quickly dissolves into the unreal again... a shame, as I fully sympathized with their plight, while I barely could stand the so-called protagonists' point of view. This e-book edition features several illustrations, which had the unfortunate effect of making the shelts look like cartoons rather than characters. Their boots inexplicably lace up to their true ankles, making them look like they're walking around on tiptoe in clown shoes, and the one illustration of Gerard's companion griffin shows a significant lack of knowledge of feline or avian anatomy. (Combine the sub-par artwork with misused words - "compliment" instead of "complement," "censor" instead of "censer" - and the whole thing took on an amateur sheen.) Then, after all the unpleasantness, it ends on something just shy of a cliffhanger, but equally unsatisfying.
Much as I could appreciate the painstaking lengths Hilton went to in constructing the world of Wefrivian, I just could not enjoy my visit to her world. I blame the company I was forced to keep during my journey... and an itinerary that never took me where I most wanted to go.