Something Completely Different: Gate to Kandrith by Nicole Luiken

Gate to Kandrith cover Sarathena Remillus, daughter of the newly elected Primus of the Republic of Temboria, has been given a mission: discover the secret of slave magic. Anxious to escape the corruption and treachery of the capital, Sara welcomes the chance to finally prove herself far away in Kandrith, the tiny nation of former slaves.Accompanying her on the journey is Lance, a Kandrithan to whom Sara owes her life. Lance despises the nobility, and is determined to resist his desire for Sara, despite her attempts to entice him into divulging the secret of his magic.

Soon their travels become fraught with peril, and Sara discovers she’s fallen victim to the ultimate betrayal. To end a war between two nations, she will have to make the ultimate sacrifice…
Okay, I know, I know, I said I swore off Carina Press, and I have, but, well, I had to make an exception for this author. Nicole Luiken wrote a couple of books that I adored as a kid, and seeing this one pop up on NetGalley, I couldn’t resist giving her another try as an adult.

Gate to Kandrith is the exceedingly long tale of Sara and Lance, two children of rulers of opposing countries, Temboria and Kandrith, respectively. Well, “opposing countries” is being kind of generous. “The children of rulers of one tiny refugee country and the heavily militarized one surrounding it on all sides” would probably be more accurate.

The summary pretty much says it all – Sara’s father asks her to discover the secrets of the Kandrithian’s magic, which is the only reason they haven’t been invaded and trampled out of existence. She opts to go the seduction route with Lance. As this is a romance, they’re contractually obligated to fall in love, eventually. Shenanigans ensue.

This is one of those books whose plot it would take weeks to recount in full. 300-someodd pages isn’t usually a big deal, but the sheer amount of stuff that happened in Kandrith makes it hard to remember it all. Basically, Sara is asked to be a spy, but there are these Qiph guys who chase after and want to kill her, but then she gets to Kandrith and they’re like LOL U DON’T KNOW Y UR REALLY HERE, DO U?, and then we’re off to see the Kandrith, and you think it’s going to end there, but nope, then there’s a war, and then we have to go back to Temboria and rescue the new Kandrith to end the war, but shenanigans, and then the book just sort of stops, and you can’t really call it a cliffhanger… It’s more like a good dividing point, so one extremely long book can be made into two shorter ones.

At any rate, the ultimate objective changes constantly based on each new plot development, and where we end up is about forty plot twists away from where we began. New objectives are added even in the last hundred pages or so. I ended up grimly eying the page count, wondering exactly where the story was going and when/if we were going to get a boss fight, and then we hit the last twenty pages and it’s like “Ah, okay, there it is. Cutting it a little close, aren’t we?”

Which isn’t to say that the book itself is particularly tedious. Normally I’d call this kind of plot line wandering, but it’s more…hyper-efficient? The book accomplishes a task, and then quickly replaces it with a new one; subplots are resolved before we hit the halfway point, and more are picked up along the way. Characters shift from enemy to ally and back again, and it’s all really only tied together by virtue of being part of these characters’ journey. It’s not exactly can’t-put-it-down compelling, and it’s difficult to build any sort of dramatic tension when the stakes are constantly in flux, but I was never particularly bored, either, and the twists never felt especially arbitrary.

Gate to Kandrith‘s real draw, however, is most definitely the world that Luiken has built for it. Nearly as much time is devoted to exploring, defining, and developing different aspects of Kandrith, Temboria, and their respective mythologies as is spent on plot, and Luiken does a rather masterful job of creating a world that is both familiar and totally alien at the same time.

In fact, that was one of the more confusing aspects – I’m still not entirely sure whether Gate to Kandrith is supposed to take place in a fantasy world, an alternate history, an alien planet, or hell, even a dystopian future. Temboria is essentially ancient Rome, that much is obvious, but the details in the mythology are different. Temborians worship different gods, names and titles differ, and, y’know, magic is literal and tangible. It could as easily be a Roman-esque civilization on a faraway planet as it could be Rome itself.

But that ambiguity aside, the world of Kandrith is interesting, even unique. From the temples of the gods in Temboria, the sacrificial magic of Kandrith, to the scenery, there’s a lot of detail in here that allows the world to feel very real, not to mention massive. This particular installment involves characters from not one, but three different unfamiliar cultures in its story, and there is passing mention of a few others. More than that, the cultures are significantly different – each set of characters has a different philosophical make-up, a different drive, and more than usual, you really feel that this is an entire world Luiken’s building, not just a country, city, or culture. Though it’s not, er, without problematic issues.

For starters, I was a little troubled by the portrayal of the Qiph warriors. Though the civilizations featured in the story aren’t explicitly tied to any particular real-world county or race of people, I was left with the impression that, like the Temborins were Roman, the Qiph were representative of a Middle Eastern culture – the characters bore Arabic names, hailed from a desert homeland, etc. Aaaaaaand they ended up being portrayed as religious extremists. The core of their role in the story involved the pursuit and eventual murder of the “Defiled One”, and while I’m willing to get down with the idea that this might have been in the interest of subversion, and humanizing the one remaining warrior that doesn’t get killed – eventually – but it still kinda left me doing this number:

A blank-slate fantasy world, and the guys on the holy crusade end up being Arabic? Sigh.

From a mythological standpoint, while I liked the idea that the Kandrithian characters had to sacrifice tangible things for their power, and the sort of equivalent exchange principle that went along with that, by the end, it had gotten a little cartoonish.

For one, with our hero Lance around, the threat and impact of physical injury was almost completely nullified. This guy can fix everything from a life-threatening gut wound to a little riding stiffness with a brush of his hand, and as a result, his party members get utterly thrashed, frequently. While I appreciate the willingness to let characters – even protagonists – get seriously injured in situations where this is likely, thanks to Lance’s powers, it happens so often that it almost hits drinking-game levels. Take a shot whenever somebody gets mortally wounded or maimed and Lance has to fix them. At one point, I shit you not, he even repairs a beheading. No really.

Similarly, the magic and sacrifices that the slaves made got kind of…oddly specific as the book goes on. The system makes sense in a depressing sort of way – trade sight for psychic vision, good health for the ability to heal, a human body for an animal’s strength – I get that. I can buy the “lifegifts”, too – freed slaves can sacrifice their lives to leave their people with magical “gifts”, like topographical barriers to protect their country, or magical traps that keep invaders out.

But then we get to the guy who gives up his ability to move to teleport people from one place to another. Literally. He is rooted to the spot in the middle of a doorway, cannot move, except to hoist people through, er, himself, I guess? That…sucks. In the story we see him utilized in a time of war, to move Kandrith’s “troops” from one place to another, and yeah, you can see the need there, but what does he do the rest of the time? Is he actually alive? Does he need to eat or sleep or…pee? How does he make end’s meet? Does he run a small teleporting business for food money?

I dunno, but for me, that guy kind of crossed my immersion-breaking weirdness line. He jumps on a train already occupied by some of the stranger lifegifts that we see – people who’ve turned themselves into trees that produce benches or plows or arrows, and it’s even implied, a spectacular marble fountain depicting their struggles. While most of my brain can grasp the need for such services, another part just keeps going: “Dude, plow blades are growing from a tree. It used to be a person. A person gave their life to become a tree that produces plow blades. Wut.”

Finally, I have to bring up the…frequent…use of rape. I’m pretty sure that at one point or another in the story, nearly every single character, male and female alike, is, or is revealed to have been, subjected to rape. The story even opens on an attempted sexual assault – that’s how our protagonists meet. As far as I can tell, the rape really doesn’t do much but show just how awful, and perhaps in keeping with current fantasy trends, dark and gritty the setting and characters are. Quick litmus test of a character’s morality: have they raped anybody? Enabling the rape of his daughter is presented as Sara’s father’s moral event horizon, even after he’s offered her life as a sacrifice and sold his soul for power. Likewise, at one point in the book, two Temborian soldiers are judged side-by-side for their crimes. The one denied Lance’s healing touch? The rapist.

I get that we’re supposed to see how terrible and awful Temboria is, both for women and for slaves in general, and the scenes aren’t particularly detailed or graphic, but the frequent usage is a little much. It’s not particularly about the victims and/or their recovery. It’s just a line in the sand that the really bad guys have to cross, and I’m sorry, but that’s just not a very good way to use an act as traumatizing as rape.

*shudder* Moving on.

I was more or less okay with the cast or characters. Our heroine, Sarathena Remillus, is refreshingly flawed, and not in that endearing, Mary-Sue-ish way. Her arc throughout the story mostly involves overcoming her privilege, and that’s something you don’t see every day in a story like this – well, something I don’t anyway. I quite enjoyed how, despite her uncommon compassion for her slaves – which would get most protagonists off the hook entirely – Sara was still held accountable for not truly understanding slavery, and for treating them as less than equals. Furthermore, even after she’s come to this realization, it doesn’t magically repair the strained relationship between her and her (now former) slave. That that character chooses and is allowed to have a life as something more than Sara’s accessory is pretty awesome.

On the other hand, I went in to the book expecting a competent, capable female spy of some sort (after all, why else would a ruler ask his daughter to go off spying in dangerous enemy territory otherwise?), but as it turns out, that’s not the case. Sara is more the princess type, and again, her arc is more about learning than actually doing anything. She ends up being more or less an unwitting tool of, well, everyone until the very end. Her ultimate fate is a little disconcerting in itself – there’s just something so disturbing about a character who’s just been raped being ordered by another man to kick her rapist because she’s soulless and can’t be bothered to care.

Our male lead, Lance, was…uh…not a douche? I feel like I should have more good things to say about him, since he is literally the kind of character who would sacrifice his health for the sake of others, but well…that’s just it. He’s literally the kind of character who would sacrifice his health for the sake of others. He’s got no flaw that I could name off the top of my head, aside from judging Sara for owning slaves, but well, that’s a pretty valid thing to judge someone on if you ask me. The book isn’t so much about his growth, so he just ended up coming off sort of…bland to me.

On the upside, I appreciated that while he and Sara were given to the traditional “uncommonly strong lust at first sight”, they had days and weeks to develop a romantic attachment, and they use that time to get to know one another, so that there’s actually something to base that contractually-obligated love on.

All in all, after a week of on-and-off reading and 134,000 words, my reaction to Gate to Kandrith is more or less…meh. I’ve got no strong feelings about it one way or the other. There were things I liked about it, things that confused me, and things that were kind of problematic. I’ll pick up the next one to see how it ends. But there’s nothing particularly rage- or gush-inspiring, and I’m left wondering if that isn’t sort of worse. I wanted to really enthuse over this book, to be captured by it the way I was Luiken’s books as a kid, but it just didn’t quite do it for me.

Somewhere between two and a half and three stars.

three stars


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