There’s something inherently cool (pun not intended) about fantasy stories taking place in the snow. I’m not sure why this is — perhaps it’s got something to do with the danger and harshness of cold, remote locations and the feeling that something fantastic or dangerous can be hanging out in the peaks and the frost. Or maybe fantasy characters just look really cool when they’re dolled up in big fur cloaks and their breath turns to mist. I think this factor might explain some of the success of Game of Thrones (or at least the chilly parts of that show) and may be why the frozen wastes of Skyrim are so appealing. Well, I recently got to read the first part of what seems to be a very cool fantasy trilogy that makes full use of a chilly environment. It’s called Disciples, Part I: For Want of a Piglet by L. Blankenship and I was graciously given this copy for a review. I’ll be reviewing Parts Two and Three as well, since they’re available as individual books.
Disciples does a lot of stuff that — at least in theory — I don’t like. It’s set in a world with obvious fantasy counterparts to Western European cultures, with most of the action taking place in a Germanic-esque state called Wodenberg. Its main character, brave sixteen-year-old Kate Carpenter, is one of the few who can use spiritual power, called Kir. A lot of others can use Kir, some for super-powered feats of swordsmanship or strength. Kate can use Kir to heal and she’s an apprentice when the book starts out, who is assigned to an expedition of knights heading to Caercoed, a nation of female warriors. They need to forge an alliance to help Wodenberg resist an invasion from the powerful Arceal Empire — an expansionist power who uses Kir to make freaky composite creatures like centaurs. I’m not a big fan of using obvious fantasy stand-ins for major cultures. It seems like a waste of time. Why not just make it an alternate history, if you want to create cultures that are so similar to the ones we know and love? However, the world of Disciples — with its Kir-users getting horns and other mutations — is indeed fantastic enough to be different from our world. The Kir is a clever way to do magic and the scenes where Kate uses it to heal are always well done. It’s a good setting, overall.
When it comes to characters, Disciples also does some stuff that I might not like. On the expedition, Kate finds herself traveling with none other than Prince Kiefan — a hunky knight who is just dark and brooding enough to be an acceptable love interest. The romance between them is fine, thought it a little predictable. However, some of the other characters on the expedition, like the gung-ho royal bastard Anders and the nimble woodsmen Ulf, are a lot of fun and Kate herself remains an appealing protagonist — vulnerable, but well-meaning and noble too. Disciples also deserves credit for putting a female spin on an often male-dominated genre. Besides Kate’s perspective (which features the hardships of being a woman in a medieval world), there is also the woman-dominated society of Caercoed. Its woman warriors and nurturing men aren’t just cheap gender swaps and the society feels real. I definitely hopes Caercoed shows up later in the series.
Overall, the book won me over with its excellent descriptions of the journey to Caercoed and back — where Kate, Prience Kiefan and their companions have to brave a stormy mountain packed with ferocious mutant wolf-monsters called lamia. The description of the harsh elements, the lamia attacks and, yes, the cool cloaks and misting breath, made for fun reading. Blankenship creates a style of writing that is medieval-sounding enough to feel authentic, but modern enough to be evocative and even, occasionally, humorous. The scenes of combat and war, from the lamia attacks to Kate reminiscing about frenzied battlefield surgery, are harrowing and intense. Blankenship deserves a lot of credit for breathing life into the fantasy with such awesome prose.
So, I’m certainly looking forward to digging into the next volume of Kate’s adventures. L. Blankenship’s Disciples feels like a worthy addition to the Frosty Fantasy genre and I heartily recommend joining Kate on her journey — just be sure to pack a cloak.