Generally, I only read fantasy as a way to kill time before they can jack me into the Matrix and send me directly into Middle Earth or Krynn or the Star Wars galaxy. Despite that fact, I’m not actually well-versed in modern fantasy novels or authors. It’s pretty rare that my reading list doesn’t resemble a queue of hipsters leading into a Chipotle, so on those rare occasions when I have nothing specific to read, I like to go to Barnes and Noble and pick up random authors I’ve never heard about. This practice makes me realize that for a culture that teaches us not to judge books by their covers, it’s rather irritating that we’ve set up our system of consumer commerce in a way that requires us to literally judge books by their covers. Which is how I ended up with The Initiate Brother Duology, a book about the size of a toaster that contains The Initiate Brother and its sequel, the Gatherer of Clouds. Today I’ll review the Initiate Brother. Or rather, half of the Initiate Brother.
Set in a world based so heavily on East Asia that the continent could sue for defamation of character, The Initiate Brother follows the story of Shuyun, a novice Botahist monk with the combat prowess of Bruce Lee and the personality of Bella Swan on a heavy dose of Valium. The story opens with a nun approaching the head of Shuyun’s order with an interlibrary loan request for some of their holy texts. The head of the order approves her request with the tiny caveat that the paperwork may take up to seven years to process, mostly because he’s lost the texts and wants the time to find them. So logically, the plot progresses by sending Shuyun to advise the most influential samurai in the empire. And that’s pretty much the end of that. The book takes a sudden shift in chapter three to focus on the political sparring between said samurai—Lord Shonto—and the emperor. The emperor calls Shonto to the palace to honor him with a legendary sword, an internship for his daughter, and a one-way ticket to the far northern wilderness where he’ll most likely wind up as a throw rug for some barbarian’s hut.
Amazon readers apparently love this book and can’t get enough of it. One reviewer called this his desert island read. Another praised it for its avoidance of magic in favor of mysticism, and compared it to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. So I thought I’d be in for sword fights and quests and bandits and exciting things like that. But instead of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the book reads more like Pride and Prejudice and Samurai. Except that sounds exciting, too. Essentially what this book comes down to is a lot of long-winded conversations full of political maneuvering. Except not the interesting kind like in Song of Ice and Fire or The Lion in Winter. More like a passive-aggressive mom arguing with the school board president.
And while the world-building could have saved it, so much time is given to the soap-opera-like interactions between the Shonto and the emperor, author Sean Russel doesn’t have any space left to devote to the world (not even enough to tell us why sometimes Shonto is a name and sometimes its a title). I gather that it’s Asia. Almost not even “like” Asia, but Asia itself. Rather than draw inspiration for portions of a fantasy world, starting with knowledge of a real-life culture and growing fantastical locations and people and customs out of that, he treats Japan like a character from an episode of Dragnet. The Bohatists are Buddhists. The Northern Barbarians are the Mongol hoards. The empire is Japan and the emperor is…well, still the emperor, but at least other people can look at him.
Some stuff happens, to be fair. There’s an altercation between Shuyun and the priest of another order that ends in a stabbing and a poisoning. There’s an assassination attempt, most likely staged. And about halfway through, Shonto finally leaves the capital for the north. I think. I could be wrong about that. Keeping track of every characters’ sinister plot and contrived motivations took a lot of effort, and I understood them about as well as advanced calculus.
Generally speaking, judging a book I’ve only partially read is unfair. But isn’t it also unfair to make readers suffer for hours before something good happens? If you put a bunch of strippers on an island accessible only by a bridge made of razor wire, knowing how many travelers bled out before they made it halfway across might be pretty crucial information. Probably even a deal breaker. You do, after all, have options to get what you want without high levels of prolonged pain.