Sean Russell, The Initiate Brother (DAW
Sean Russell, Gatherer of Clouds (DAW Books, 1992)
I am strongly tempted to begin this discussion by simply stating that there are very few works of fantasy of which one can say unreservedly, this is brilliant. Of the bare handful of contemporary contenders, it is perhaps of interest to note that one is Barry Hughart's undeniably astonishing and hysterically funny trio of the adventures of Li Kao and Number Ten Ox that begins with Bridge of Birds, set in a China that never was (but, according to some commentators, should have been). Another is Sean Russell's poetic tale of Brother Shuyun of the Botahist Order; the Lady Nishima Fanisan Shonto, descended of Emperors; and her adopted House of Shonto, one of the noblest and most powerful in the Empire of Wa, encompassed in The Initiate Brother and Gatherer of Clouds.
"Of interest to note" because the history and cultures of the ancient Far East are demonstrably a strong foundation on which to build a story, and one that has not yet become old news to readers of fantasy. I suspect, however, that mere familiarity would not affect the power and beauty of Russell's offering.
The story is a complex one, although simply described, and certainly enough to support over a thousand pages of text: Akantsu II, Emperor of Wa, is the second of the Yamaku dynasty, which came to the throne as the victors in a civil war after the death of the old Imperial House in the plague years. Lord Shonto Motoru is head of the most powerful family in the Empire, who had opposed the Yamaku. The Emperor names Lord Shonto Governer of the northern province of Seh, with the charge to put a final end to the raids of the northern barbarians. That this is part of a plot to destroy the House of Shonto is unquestioned by all participants it is merely the agents and the specific means that are at issue. Among the players are General Jaku Katta, Commander of the Imperial Guard, the "Black Tiger," an man of great ability and even greater ambition; his brother, Colonel Jaku Tadamoto, educated, subtle, a man quick to seize advantage and yet a man of principle; Lord Komawara Samyamu, a noble of Seh who is the first to realize the true threat of the barbarians; the Brothers of the Botahist Order, followers of the Perfect Master, out of favor with the Emperor but still powerful and influential, and their rivals, the Sisters of the order of Botahist nuns, who consider that the Brothers have become more politicians than true followers of the Way; Brother Shuyun, a very junior Initiate of the Order, contracted to the House of Shonto as Spiritual Advisor, a self-effacing young man of surprising gifts and daunting abilities; and a fully realized supporting cast.
This story resembles one of Kurosawa's great epics of medieval Japan in more ways than one: it has that scale, that breadth of view, juxtaposed against deftly rendered scenes of intimacy, moving easily from battlefields to ladies' chambers while never missing a beat. And the setting is so beautifully done that it is as nearly perfect as any I have ever witnessed: a seamless blend of the manners of the Imperial Court of Kyoto, subtle and deadly, set into a land based on China perhaps just before the invasion of the Mongols.
Into this setting, aside from an absorbing story of intrigue, war, honor and courage, Russell has set some social commentary with a definite sting. Russell incorporates a trend in fantasy that goes back at least to Katherine Kurtz' Deryni novels and is echoed very strongly in C. J. Cherryh's Fortress series and many others: the Botahist Brothers, as many religious institutions, have become politically powerful, wealthy, and jealous of their prerogatives. It is a position founded as much on deceit as is that of the Emperor and the courtiers who surround him. Russell is much too intelligent to poke fun the tone of this story is serious, and there is much more to his treatment of matters spiritual than the deflation of secularism in religious institutions. The Brothers eventually become victims of their own hubris, not to the point of ruin that is not Russell's goal but to the point of a serious misstep requiring an earnest reevaluation of their methods. The Sisters, although set up as rivals to the Brothers, do not escape unscathed. Their victory over the Brothers is not a matter of moral purity so much as a matter of astute politics: they just happen to be on the right side and their Prioress is smart enough to act on it when it matters. The Emperor Akantsu displays another aspect of their position: he is what we would call a "conspiracy thinker," one who cannot recognize reality when it doesn't fit his world view and will not admit its existence even though his own survival depends on recognizing it.
The contrast here is to Brother Shuyun's journey. He begins as a devout and loyal Brother of the Order, facing moral quandaries because he is the Spiritual Advisor to a warlord, thrust into the glittering arena of court life, with all the conflicts that rise in one devoted to renunciation of the Illusion of mortal life. He is also a man of destiny: his name, from the language of the mountain dwellers, means "The Bearer." It is not until the last few pages of the second volume that the real meaning of this becomes clear, as Shuyun learns to sift what he was taught and what he has learned from teachers that he only belatedly recognizes for the grains of truth among the chaff. He is echoed by Lord Komawara, who first appears as a provincial naif and becomes a hero of the war against the barbarians, although it almost costs him his soul, and the Lady Nishima herself, who realizes that destiny does not often allow any of us to live the life we would choose.
There is, of course, much more to this story than satire. Technically, it is an amazing accomplishment: one would think that a tale involving elaborate manners, scenes of courtiers engaging in poetry contests and the studied rituals of tea drinking (in this case, "cha"), a milieu in which the elegance of his calligraphy is one of the bases for judging the acceptability of a potential lover, would be slow going. I am happy to report that Russell suffers no problems in pacing, no passages that are better skipped than enjoyed, although, thankfully, he does provide places where one can leave the story for a while to catch one's breath: his prose, while strong, is never so gorgeous as to be intrusive. (He also happens to be a creditable poet.) I've read the story several times, and it still catches and holds my attention. Characters are sharply delineated and fully developed even the bit players are real. And, in spite of all the twists and turns in the plot, one looks back and realizes that one should have expected that because the clues were there.
This is one of those very rare stories in any genre, one that can be read again and again and always reveals something new. I'm beginning to think it truly does deserve to be called a masterpiece.