(Originally published in The Very Slow Book Reviewer, February 4th, 2020)
One of the virtues of worldbuilding is to make your reader discover the universe you created in bits and pieces. Too much exposition at once seldom works (except for Kim Stanley Robinson, but let’s not go there). Mazes of Power, by Juliette Wade, is a very good example of well-crafted worldbuilding – starting with the epigraph. It’s very revealing, and gave me goosebumps: Varin is a place where humans have always lived on an alien world. It is also your home.
This is a powerful statement, because it throws us headlong into a world in which not only the characters have always lived, but the readers too. This is an incredibly astute strategy to make us care more about the world. I caught myself along the reading musing where this planet would be. In what star system would it be located? Or – maybe it would be right here, and instead of Earth we would have Varin all the time.
This thought reminded me for a moment of Harry Turtledove’s A World of Difference, a cosmological alternate history, where Mars simply do not exist and we have a planet called Minerva in its place. But, even if this novel is interesting and action-packed, it didn’t do much to my sense of wonder. But (pardon the pun) there is a world of difference between that novel and Mazes of Power.
The story is the first volume in The Broken Trust series, and upon reaching the end of the book we can quite understand what is this trust and what happened for it to be broken. Even if I was going to give you spoilers (which I won’t), the process is much more important than the outcome, at least in this first novel.
Mazes of Power tells us the story of brothers Tagaret and Nekantor, teenage sons of the powerful Speaker of the Cabinet Garr, a scheming member of the First Family of Varin and a man who has the ears of the Heir to the throne. The boys, who doesn’t have anything in common with each other, must try to learn to trust each other and the people around them to survive and, eventually be selected to the throne themselves. At the same time, Aloran, a young men but who is soon to be indentured to Tagaret’s mother, Lady Tamelera – a relationship strained since the beginning, but that at some point might probably become more than that.
I read very carefully several passages because at the first moment I thought there was two different species on Varin. But this is not true: there are only humans there (as far as we know) inhabiting the underground in a huge cavern system. But there is a sort of caste system too, of which the two main ones are the Grobal (the ruling caste) and the Imbati (functionaries and servants) and that was the reason I thought of aliens – because the ruling caste tend to see their servants as if they were somehow less than human. So, for people like Tagaret to ascend socially, they must be slaves to a whole host of rules and rituals.
Virtually everyone in Varin is a slave to this system, which is obviously flawed. For instance, even if homosexuality is not exactly forbidden, it’s frowned upon and dismissed as mere play. And, if you have any claim to a modicum amount of power, for instance, you should not play – something that only adds stress to the tortured character of Nekantor.
Maybe the harshest part for me is the description of a character with a neuroatypical condition. Being a father of an atypical girl, I admit I was very moved with Juliette’s description of Nekantor’s behaviour, which seems to be Asperger’s. I confess I felt a bit shaken by the fact that he (at least in this first volume) is a kind of villain in the narrative, and that reminded me on another SF classic. In Dune, Frank Herbert makes of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (who is very fat, probably atypical and definitely gay) the villain, in opposition to all the other characters, which are all straight, thin and (on the surface at least) typical. Fortunately, Juliette is much more deft than Herbert, because she balances this with many other characters who are far from being straight. In fact, most of the men in Mazes of Power show at least a pronounced sensibility that is very refreshing and most welcome in our particular SFF universe.
What Juliette Wade has done here is another powerful statement, a political one. You know that everything is political (and if you don’t know that, you really should), and even the funniest space opera of yore that some of you enjoyed reading as children and teens (as I did) also issued statements, usually by absence – absence of people of color, of QUILTBAG characters, of female characters with any agency. When a new author enters the scene showing us a whole world with people of color (very few people in Varin are white according to the Caucasian color scheme, if any), she does justice to lots of awesome writers, like Ursula K. LeGuin and N.K.Jemisin, who gave us more representation, and therefore more real life to the fantasy of fiction. And I thank Juliette Wade very much for that.
Thanks also to Alexis C. Nixon, Juliette’s publicist, for making the eARC available to me via NetGalley.