by Jessica Rydill




Children of the Shaman
Cover by blacksheep

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Jessica Rydill's debut novel, Children of the Shaman is set in a world very much like our own, with magic and different nomenclature.  In that respect, it is reminiscent of some of the more recent novels by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay.  Set in what appears to be a nineteenth-century Eastern European analog, the story focuses on the young Wanderer Shaman Annat and her attempts to build a relationship with her father, Yuda Vasilyevich.

The story begins with Annat and her older brother, Malchik, deposited with Yuda, who left their mother shortly after Annat was born.  Their mother now dead, an aunt, Yuste, has been caring for them, but her illness means she must give them into the care of their father, who they will now get the chance to know.  Yuda is working as a guard on the railroad, but is about to take a position in a frontier town as a healer, using his powers as a Shaman.  Annat's own nascent ability as a healer provides her father with an apprentice as well as an opening for them to make their relationship work, something Yuda lacks with his son, Malchik.

Rydill attempts to tell several different types of story in Children of the Shaman, with the result that the novel does not seem as cohesive as one would like.  It appears to open as a story about a reconciliation between father and children, which does continue through the book, but is frequently eclipsed by the murder mystery which begins to unfold in Gard Ademar, a mythic quest when Yuda and Annat, accompanied by Yuda's friends Govorin and Casildis try to discover the whereabouts of some of the missing people in the faerie land of La Souterraine..

The novel is slow to pick up steam, with the plot only really getting moving a third of the way through the book.  However, the early chapters allow Rydill to present her world, at once familiar and exotic, at a leisurely pace to let the reader become acclimatized to the differences between our world and Annat's.  These descriptions, of places, foods, clothing, are one of the areas in which Rydill excels.  She provides texture to her civilization which is all too often lacking in more derivative works of fantasy.

In some ways, the very familiarity of Rydill’s setting is distracting.  The similarity to our own world results in attempts to figure out what our world’s analog is for everything in Rydill’s novel, when in many cases the analog does not exist, or is only a partial analog at best.  Furthermore, the similarities have a tendency to make the reader wonder about them.  Why are there some linguistic links between worlds, but the languages themselves (and the histories which created them) do not always seem to exist.

Rydill seems to know a lot more about her world than she is letting on, and she may choose to reveal additional information in future novels set in this world, but for the duration of Children of the Shaman, the civilization Rydill depicts seems to be missing keystones and raises as many questions as it answers.

Children of the Shaman is a good debut novel which provides hints of things to come from the author, both within the framework of the world she has built and in the potential her use of language implies for future work.  With luck, those future novels will live up to the promise she shows in Children of the Shaman.

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