Sasha is the first volume in A TRIAL OF BLOOD AND STEEL, a projected 4-book fantasy series by Australian author Joel Shepherd, who previously also published a science fiction trilogy called the CASSANDRA KRESNOV series. His novels have been available in Australia for several years, and are now being released in the US thanks to Pyr, with Petrodor, the next volume in A TRIAL OF BLOOD AND STEEL, due out in March 2010. Based on the strength of Sasha, I expect Joel Shepherd to become a well-known name in US fantasy circles soon.
The land of Lenayin is spiritually divided into two different religions. The Goeren-yai faith, which is the original Lenayin religion and embraced by most of the common people, has a pagan flavor, its adherents guided by spirits and focused on strength and honor. The Verenthane belief more closely resembles a traditional organized religion and counts the vast majority of Lenayin’s nobility amongst its followers. When the sole remaining Goeren-yai High Lord kills a neighboring province’s Verenthane leader, a complex conflict begins that threatens to tear apart the fragile balance keeping Lenayin together.
In this setting we encounter the novel’s fascinating heroine, Sasha (short for Sashandra), a younger daughter of the Lenay king who has abandoned her royal privileges to live among the Goeren-yai and study svaalverd fighting techniques with Kessligh, the hero of a past war with neighboring Cherrovan. She has also adopted the Nasi-Keth, a third belief system that follows the teachings of the non-human serrinim. Sasha is an interesting protagonist — a supremely talented sword fighter, but temperamental, stubborn, and torn in different directions by her desire to lead a simple life studying swordwork on the one hand, and the call of history and duty on the other hand… especially when it becomes clear that the Goeren-yai believe she is guided by the Synnich spirit that will liberate them from Verenthane oppression.
Complex as all of this may sound, it’s only a very crude sketch of the intricate and frankly huge fantasy world Joel Shepherd has created in A TRIAL OF BLOOD AND STEEL. The novel introduces or hints at several other plot threads, and the country of Lenayin, which this entire novel is set in, barely takes up 5% of the map. It’s very clear that there is a huge amount of space and story left for the next novels in the series to explore and develop, but at the same time, Sasha is a self-contained story. While the novel starts out slow due to the understandable need for some basic exposition early on, it quickly ratchets up the intensity to the point where I had trouble putting it down, and reaches an explosive conclusion.
One minor criticism: Sasha has a LOT of characters, and unfortunately, several of them have quite similar names. Not counting the historical names, the cast list has 66 names, and almost 50 of those contain the letter Y: Jaryd, Daryd, Garys… Tyrun, Tarryn, Tarynt… the Lords Usyn Telgar and Udys Varan… You get the idea. There’s really nothing wrong with this in principle, but combined with the slower pace of the first few chapters, it makes this novel a bit harder to get into than it could be, and impatient readers may unfortunately lose interest and miss out on the big pay-off later on.
Aside from that minor point, I thought Sasha was excellent, especially given that this is Joel Shepherd’s first fantasy novel. It offers a huge fantasy world, a fascinating heroine, heart-pounding descriptions of both small-scale sword fights and full-on warfare, several characters that genuinely grow and change, and — maybe most importantly — the hint that this is just the start of what could become a great series. While I wouldn’t rank it quite as high as George R.R. Martin‘s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, I think Sasha will go down very well with fans of that series because it shares some of its characteristics, including its huge scope and cast, its focus on politics and noble intrigue, and (at least in the early novels of ASoIaF) the almost complete absence of magic and mystical creatures. Based on the cover art of the recent Pyr edition (which, to my eyes, unfortunately resembles a screen capture of a bad video game and made more than one person ask me if this is a YA novel), I had low expectations for this novel, but those were quickly blown out of the water. Sasha is an excellent epic fantasy novel that promises great things for the rest of the series. Recommended.