Post-apocalyptic Reading — Impressions: THE JACKAL DREAMING by J.A. Caselberg

Book blurb, from publisher’s website:[1. Review copy provided by Musa Publishing]

A dark god is awakening and a young temple scribe holds the balance of the world in her hands.
Deep beneath the temple, young Tarith makes a discovery, one that will take her on a journey of learning and danger.  The Dreaming God is waking, and it is only Tarith who holds the balance of power within her hands.  Or is it?
Tarith’s journey will take her across vast lands and numerous encounters to try to restore the balance of power that keeps the world safe.”

I need to make a confession. I have not willingly gone out and bought an epic fantasy in a…well, in a long time. I’m currently editing a traditional fantasy (*ahem*releasesinApril*ahem*); you know, the kind with good wizards and bad wizards and lots of magic thrown around. I’m also editing two urban fantasies (ones that, thankfully, do not have any vampires in them whatsoever).
I haven’t read an epic fantasy in a long time. Probably because I’m a bit burned out on the repetitive UFs and I got tired of the whole genre.
But then! The lovely people over at Musa Publishing sent us this book for review. And suddenly I remembered why I like fantasy.
Seriously, this book was that good.

Quick overview: Tarith is a female temple scribe in the main (I think) temple in the city of Akkar. Yes, her being female is a big deal, because I guess temple scribes is Ye Olde Boys Club, and people in the temple are all, “Dude, what? A GIRL? BLASPHEMY!” and Tarith is all, “Oh, shut up you testosterone-y old fool, I can read and write and count better than you can.” (Not an actual quote from the book.)
Unfortunately for Tarith, being a scribe is one of the most boring jobs on the planet–even though she does acknowledge it’s better than the job where she–ahem–lies down all day. (You know.) So while she’s glad she gets to keep her virtue without having to wear a chastity belt, she’s still bored out of her mind. So one day she sneaks off to the basement, where she finds an old library (!) (I like this girl already). There she finds a lot of Very Important Books, ones that the priests have been keeping from the people. (I thought this was a fantasy world?)
Her mentor, Achmir, sends her on a job as the scribe for a traveling merchant caravan because she’s now able to carry that responsibility (or something). As a going away present, he gives her a really old book and tells her to keep it wrapped up and to not show anybody EVER because bad shit will happen if she does. (Now if that isn’t temptation, I don’t know what is.) Then he says goodbye like they’ll never see each other again, which made go “What?” because won’t she be coming back?
Anyway. So she sets off with the caravan. The caravan master, Choros, is the douchebaggiest douchebag this side of Inyuttet. He’s strong, silent, and an asshole. (Seriously.) But apparently that’s part of his charm.
Meanwhile, over in Burkaz (I have no idea where that is in relation to Akkar), a power-hungry High Priestess named Alaika is getting ready to send her nephew and boy-king Karol to some ritual on an island where he sleeps. (Yeah, I don’t know. That’s what I got from it.)
Her secret plan, of course, is to release the (evil) Dreaming God, Inyuttet, who looks like a jackal and exists as…wisps of…something. Then she’ll have His power and she can take over the world. Woo-hoo! Unfortunately (for her), Inyuttet says “Fuck yo plan, bitch!” (also not a quote from the book) and instead takes over the body of her nephew.
Yeah. Oops. Totally didn’t see that one coming.
But lucky for her, Inyuttet is slightly grateful she released him, and gives her some of his power. Which is totally not the best thing to give to a power-hungry High Priestess, but whatevs. Inyuttet sends Alaika and one of her priestesses to a town named Anazar (I have no idea where that is in relation to Burkaz and Akkar), where Alaika’s supposed to start taking over the world. Only on Inyuttet’s behalf. But that’s okay, Alaika can just pretend she’s doing it for herself, since she’s got all this power now and everything.
But! Because there wouldn’t be balance (or a book) without someone who can stop Inyuttet and his minions, it turns out that Tarith is the only one in the world with the ability to stop Inyuttet (because of course she is). She has help from the Arkaya (also called The Ones Who Wait–maybe they’re waiting for Inyuttet? I don’t know), who defeated Inyuttet the first time, and the Watchers (who are watching for Inyuttet). (Clearly, Inyuttet’s a bit of an asshat. A slightly evil.)
And…you’re going to have to read the book to find out what else happens. I’m not giving spoilers. (Heh.)
The first thing that jumped out at me was that both the protagonist (Tarith) and the antagonist (Alaika) are female. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve read a fantasy that “stars” females in both lead roles (urban fantasies don’t count–and Tarith doesn’t have a sarcastic bone in her body, she doesn’t really fit the mold of UF heroine anyway).
That being said, Alaika is a little too much of the rote fantasy villain for my liking. We’re not really given her motives for releasing Inyuttet, other than her desire to take over the world. Which I can understand, since that’s one of my secret desires too (kidding CIA, don’t arrest me), but I’d like to get an idea of the deeper underlying reason why she wants to do that. And was she always that evil? If not, what happened to make her evil? Did her plans for becoming queen get thwarted when little Karol was born? (Kinda like Scar from The Lion King.)
While I was intrigued by the role religion played in the book, I was also a little puzzled as to why it wasn’t more fleshed out. Do the priests of Tarith’s temple worship the same gods as Alaika’s? Inyuttet seems to be pretty well known, so does this world have the same pantheon everywhere? Or is it more like reality, where each region has its own pantheon of gods? This is never explained, which was a little disappointing. The book also doesn’t explain if the people in this world are strong believers. The character of Jedahrian, a soldier and noble, doesn’t seem to really believe the possibility of a god waking up and causing all sorts of chaos and destruction–is this the case with most of the population? Or does it depend?
The book’s magic system is intriguing. It’s a lot like weaving or sewing, but it’s not threads of magic per se. It’s more like threads of…elemental auras, which are visible thanks to some kind of second (or maybe etheric?) sight.
Okay, let me explain. This world has five elements, much like our world does. Those elements are water, fire, earth, crystal (instead of air), and spirit (which is apparently a rarefied form of air? or something). To “do” magic, the mage (or whatever they’re called) takes strands of those elements (usually spirit) and weaves them together and gets them to do…stuff. For example, to make a roof collapse, you can take strands of earth and crystal (and spirit) and pick them apart. This will loosen the stone, which will make the roof collapse. Which will make people die. Which will be fun, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The one thing that confused me was the ending. (I’ll try to explain without giving anything away.) The big battle jumped from one location to the other, and at first Tarith was alone, and then she wasn’t. I think they were locations in the dreaming (I call it ethereal) world, but maybe not? I mean, Tarith and Alaika have these weird out of body experiences in the book that allow them to travel from one place to the other using their spirit selves (or something) but they’re tied to their bodies using strands of power from other people. (Yeah. I know.) So maybe they were just having a series of OBEs? Or maybe they went to Inyuttet’s dream realm? I don’t know. It never really explained it, so I ended up just jumping around with Tarith and being confused (but enjoying the battle, because I like battles).
I did think the beginning started off a little slowly, and some parts are passive (quite a few instances of “Tarith felt fear” or similar). But overall, I really enjoyed it. It was well written, and once Tarith and the caravan got going on their trip, the pace picked up considerably. The characters were interesting and written in a way that made me care about them. So much so that I had a serious sad when one of them died at the end. (What? I really liked that character.) The book’s world is interesting, the magic system is intriguing, and the female lead characters are a refreshing change to many epic fantasies I’ve read.
If you like fantasy, magic, power-hungry religious people, and evil deities, you’ll probably like this book. So go get it. Now.
 

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