Saturday, 6 August 2011

Book Review: Talyn

Talyn - Holly Lisle - 2005 - 592 pages

I've had a bit of a break from the writing this week (think I blew a fuse the week before) but have started up again now. So instead of writing I got myself reading again and finished off "Talyn", which I bought a while ago. It isn't a book you'll be able to find in most places, and at the moment it's only seems to be available in the UK as second hand or from sellers. Which is a real shame as this is a very interesting and unusual fantasy book.

I grew up reading fantasy stories, particularly ones written in the seventies and eighties, thanks to my mum being a huge science-fiction and fantasy fan. She especially loved the female writers of those decades, such as Sheri Tepper and Tanith Lee, as they normally wrote adventures with women as the main protagonist. I too loved these types of stories, and though I had no problem with stories with male main characters, the books that have made the most lasting impressions on me generally feature a strong central female role. So when I discovered Holly Lisle's website a couple of years ago (which I highly recommend any would-be author visit - her advice is excellent) I was interested to see that she too seemed to have strong central female characters in her stories. And, as I found her writing advice so helpful, I wanted to know what her own writing was like. I chose to buy "Talyn" as it sounded similar to those works I've enjoyed from others. Having now finished it I can say it bears some likeness to those works (which made me think it was a much older book than it actually is) but it also stands on its own. One thing it lacks that the likes of Sheri Tepper include in their stories, is the feminist message, but it in no way is the worse for this. There are themes a plenty in "Talyn" and these stay with you long after you put the book down.

The tale begins with a soldier called Talyn, using her magical abilities in her people's fight against their neighbour, the Eastils. Talyn is a Tonk, and the Tonks and the Eastils have been fighting their war for 300 years with no respite. Needless to say both of their societies have been shaped by this constant state of war, and Lisle does a wonderful job of fully building this world, and the two warring cultures within it. The Tonks are a scattered people, many of them nomadic and the rest made up of individual city-states. The Eastils however are ruled by one central government, headed by a King, and are expansionist by nature. The people of both lands have only ever known war, and Talyn is no exception with her whole life revolving around her duty. Then suddenly the Feegash arrive from over the sea and broker a deal between the two sides, effectively putting Talyn out of a job but more importantly removing her whole purpose. She has to learn what's left to her without the war, and whether without duty she can find meaning in her life. Before long though she comes to see that something even darker may be threatening Tonk and Eastil lands, and she must choose between duty and honour if she wants to protect her family, and herself.

The most remarkable things about Lisle's writing is the deep and multilayered world she creates. Just as in real life, nothing is simple or necessarily what it seems. The people are no different; we delve into the mind of Talyn and find a woman who is torn and uncertain of her life, but at the same time is incredibly strong and confident. Lisle also uses an interesting writing style that I didn't even notice until half way through. Whenever the action is from Talyn's perspective we are told events in the first person. But when we see events from anyone else's point of view it's told in the third person. This is a bit odd when you first notice it but it seems to work; the reader is drawn into Talyn's mind, and needs to be there for some scenes to work, but we are never sure of anyone else's thoughts or feelings, just as Talyn isn't. Her distrust of non-Tonks is a feature throughout the book and it's interesting to see her wrestle with this, being betrayed when she puts it aside, and being helped when she doesn't.

The themes are strong throughout the tale, with not just honour and duty featuring, but the total divide between good and evil, and how even former enemies need to unite when faced with the darkest of threats. At times these strong themes actually hinder the story a little, as we get internal discussions from Talyn that don't have any immediate relevance to the story. But the effect is cumulative, and ultimately results in a deeper book that stays with you after you read that last page. The only areas where some may struggle is the slow beginning, which sets up the world so when it all gets ripped apart we understand how devastating that is, and the end, which I thought was too sudden. Then again that may also be to do with wanting the story to go on for a little longer as I enjoyed it so much.

Some warning about "Talyn"; this is not a book that is appropriate for children. It features some sex but more relevantly, it includes scenes of sadistic torture, and I was surprised at how much it dealt with how victims of violence blame themselves for their pain, and how they get trapped into thinking about what they could have or should have done differently to prevent it. Not your typical fantasy subject matter, but it brought a solemnity and realism to the story that I hadn't expected and only added to the impact of this book.

I enjoyed Talyn very much, and will be seeing what other works of Holly Lisle's I can find as her writing is excellent and she shows how important it is to create a fully realised world. She has recently announced that she is self-publishing her books, including her back catalogue, so we can only hope that "Talyn" gets a rerelease in a print version, and is made available in an ebook format too. With more access I truly think this book could sell extremely well, and offer something a bit different to us Fantasy fans tired of the same old cliches.

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