Leona Wisoker, Secrets of the Sands (Mercury Retrograde Press, 2009)
I should start with a disclaimer: Several years ago, fellow GMR staffer Leona Wisoker emailed me with a request to take a look at a chapter she was working on and give her a critique. I agreed, and my response was simple: this is good, I said. It's really good. So when offered the chance to review her debut novel, Secrets of the Sands, I was more than agreeable. I haven't been disappointed.
Wisoker is running two parallel story lines here that meet at the end in a very satisfying way. We're first introduced to Idisio, a street thief in the city of Bright Bay, seat of King Oruen, who has recently replaced the mad Ninnic. Idisio is given to intuitions, although his intuition fails him when he attempts to liberate the purse of a desert lord striding through the city streets. It's Lord Scratha, on his way to meet with the King, and Scratha's no fool: he apprehends Idisio before the purse is completely liberated and, for reasons of his own, decides to keep the boy to hand, making him his servant. Idisio's no fool, either: being servant to a desert lord beats scrabbling for a living on the streets of Bright Bay.
Scratha, however, is in trouble with Oruen because of an incident involving a daughter of the Sessin family. Oruen decides the best way to smooth things over is to get Scratha out from underfoot by giving him a "research" project that will get him out of the city -- and away from the Sessins, whom Scratha is convinced were behind the massacre of his family. Scratha, however, makes sure it's not painless for the King: he in turn makes Oruen steward of his fortress in the desert, to insure that his lands are still his when he returns.
Oruen makes Lord Alyea Peysimun his agent at Scratha's fortress, assigning her two advisers, Micru and Chac, who can be trusted -- probably. On the way they meet a trader named Deic, who probably cannot be trusted and is quite taken with Alyea.
Rest assured that the plot is not terribly complex -- it's your basic quest/journey, and quite deftly handled. What is complex, and very rewarding, is the milieu. The world unfolds itself slowly as we journey along with Idisio and Alyea on their separate paths, as we learn the history of the desert peoples of the South and the Northern kingdom to which they, in theory, owe allegiance. And we learn something of the history of those who came before, the hareye, and the ha'ra'ha, their mixed-blood descendants. Wisoker also has a good grasp of politics and how it works, which she uses to good advantage here, because in one dimension, this book is about politics and how power games determine outcomes -- and that's another plus for Wisoker: this book has many dimensions.
This is all driven by some extraordinary people, characters whom we come to know well and yet who can surprise us. They grow and they change, but as we look back over the story we realize their potential was always part of the mix -- there are depths that are not always obvious, but they're there.
Which leads to yet another virtue: there's a lot here, a complex world with a history, filled with people with their own histories, and events that have ramifications beyond the immediate context, and Wisoker lets us discover it. Like Isidio, like Alyea, we learn what we need to know when we need to know it, and we are left with enough clues to put things together without being led by the nose. (And I should point out one of the strongest virtues of this story: we are not treated to endless passages of slogging through desert sands, thank the beneficent gods.)
Wisoker also very thoughtfully included the requisite map, a glossary, some information on the desert Families, and a wonderful appendix commenting on Gerau Sa'adenit's A History of Places, the end result of Scratha's "research project." ("Gerau Sa'adenit" was his alias for the trip.) The fun part is the scholars' concern over the two markedly different tones in the narrative: there's a joke here, but I'm not going to spoil it for you. The one lack is a listing of characters -- there are enough of them that it would have been nice to have an easy reference, although I suspect if you're not reviewing the book, you won't find it to be such a major omission.
There's much more I could say -- it's a work that doesn't beat you over the head with itself, but allows you to put pieces together, to have a role in building a fascinating world. Any writer who assumes that I have some degree of intelligence and an attention span longer than that of a not-very-bright gnat has won my immediate favor. And a writer who works from that assumption to create a story that is lean, understated, rich, clear, and totally absorbing has won my undying admiration.
This is Book One of Children of the Desert. I am waiting impatiently for Book Two.
Mercury Retrograde Press is online here.