SPFBO Review: The Annointed by Keith Ward

In continuing my quest to read all the top ten SPFBO finalists, next on the list was The Annointed by Keith Ward. Usual disclaimer that I am not associated with the contest in any way and my review has no bearing whatsoever on the final results.

Like the previous finalist I reviewed, Sowing, this book had a lot of things I enjoyed about it, tainted somewhat by some things I really didn’t like. Actually, some of my main complaints about The Annointed are similar to my main complaints about Sowing: that is, gratuitous baby murder, and a so-called “good-guy” who is a just plain awful human being.

This book takes place in a world where people learn their lifespans ahead of time, but can increase their lifespans by ritualistically sacrificing and stealing the life force of someone else. These sacrifices are called proxies, and the act of sacrificing them is called a transfer. The most powerful transfers come from infant proxies who are exactly 99 days old. It is never precisely clarified why 99 days specifically, but perhaps some of the other books set in this world explain it.

The main character of this book is a guy named Xinlas, one of the triplet children of a well-to-do family of dragon breeders. Xinlas was kidnapped and sacrificed on his own 99th day, but miraculously came back to life. Because of this, he believes he is some kind of extra special chosen one. Xinlas is, to put it in the most polite terms possible, an entitled little shit. When we first meet him, he is awaiting his coming of age ceremony where he will learn his predicted lifespan. When he learns that he will live 71 years but maybe, just maybe, the seer who predicted it might have botched the reading, he throws a temper tantrum and leaves on one of his father’s dragons. This is pretty much Xinlas in a nutshell. As the story progresses, we get to see him selfishly flout his parents’ authority multiple times, and he angrily fights tooth and claw against every attempt to make him grow up a bit. When he meets the other main character, Greengrass, he accepts it as a given inevitability that she will fall in love with him, and then resorts to cruelty, insults, and even attempted sexual assault when she doesn’t return his affections. Because of course he does.

I actually am a fan of the trope in fiction where a character starts out as an obnoxious spoiled brat and gradually learns harsh lessons and grows into a decent person. Characters like Malta from Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders and Jezal from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law are some of my favorites in all of fantasy. So I can respect what Ward was trying to do with the character, but unfortunately the execution fell a bit flat. The biggest problem was that Xinlas’s character growth was in no way gradual, and happens all at once near the end. Before that sudden moment of revelation and  change, however, the time we spend in Xinlas’s head is not pleasant, and I found him to be a very difficult character to root for.

Fortunately, although Xinlas is ostensibly the main character, he is far from the only POV character, so even if I didn’t enjoy my time with Xinlas, there are plenty of others to choose from. We have Danak, Xinlas’s stepmother, who wishes to end the unethical practice of proxies and transfers. We have Greengrass, the girl from the remote and isolated village of Peacewood who yearns to see the world. We have the people of Greengrass’s village, terrified to confront the outside world for the first time in centuries when the barrier that protects  their land starts to fail. We have Xinlas’s triplet siblings, Wrowen and Imbis, who each have their own dreams and hopes for the future. We have Plyonia, the queen, who yearns to raise her children and not see them sacrificed to further her husband’s ambition. And we have Donald Tru– er, I mean, DuQuall, the paranoid manchild of a king, who yearns to cement his rule and his legacy as a more powerful ruler than his father before him.

All of these subplots are quite compelling on their own. Ward creates a world that is vivid and richly imagined, and characters who, for the most part, are compelling and enjoyable to read about.

The biggest weakness of the overall structure of this book is that I felt like it was trying to do too much at once. The main plot centers around the village of Peacewood, named for magical trees of the same name. What’s so special about Peacewood trees? Well, lots of things, but first and foremost is the fact that they float. In this world, nothing else floats on water, not even other types of wood. Dragons exist, making long-distance travel possible, but there’s nothing available that can convey a lot of people at once like a boat could.

Peacewood only grows in this one tiny area, and that area has been cut off from the outside world by a magical barrier for thousands of years. True to their name, the people of Peacewood are a peaceful folk, living in a perfect socialist utopia free of any conflict or poverty or even dishonesty. The barrier is failing, however, and although Greengrass is excited about it, the rest of the people are terrified. They have every right to be, because King Donald-I-Mean-DuQuall has beef with the politicians across the ocean. Unfortunately the limitations in available transportation make an invasion impossible — until he finds out about Peacewood boats. One can see that this is not likely to go well for the citizens of Peacewood. Honestly I expected this story to turn into another derivative of James Cameron’s Avatar, or Pocahontas, or Fern Gully, where Greengrass and Xinlas must team up save Peacewood from the invaders. That … isn’t quite what happens, but more on that later.

The problem is that the Peacewood story, though ostensibly the central plot, too often takes the back seat to the Proxy/Transfer plot line. Danak, stepmother to the main character, is an activist and a religious figure trying to bring an end to the Proxy system. Because of this, she invokes the ire of King Donald-I-Mean-DuQuall and many bad things happen to her and those close to her as a result. However, besides being used to demonstrate that the king is a very bad bad man, this plotline never ties back into the Peacewood plotline in a way that felt particularly satisfying or meaningful. There are also a handful of other subplots that are introduced but never resolved, such as Imbis seeking a baby to murder for her brother, and dragon-worshippers trying to bring an end to dragon ranching.

I was also a bit confused about the nature of spans and what they actually mean. They are clearly not hard and fast predictions, because people die before their span is up all the time, even if they are not used as proxies. Many characters are attacked and murdered in this book, and they never think “A ha, I knew my span was about to run out,” or even, “WTF, I thought I had 20 more years left.” So even if a span means how long you’ll live assuming natural causes, what does that entail? Some people have very short spans, so it can’t just be “how long before you die of old age.” Will you not get fatally ill before your span runs out? Does how you take care of yourself, whether you smoke or drink, how much activity you get, play any role whatsoever?

Anyway, back to the plot, I believe the anti-Proxy activism does tie back into the main plot of the overall series, but in this book, which is meant to be able to be read as a stand-alone, it felt clunky and out of place, and took up a lot of time in the middle so that the Peacewood plot was all shoved in towards the end and resolved, in my opinion, rather hastily in an unsatisfactory way.

The ending was, unfortunately, by far the worst part about this book, and took it from being something I enjoyed with caveats to something that I found truly upsetting. I’m going to attempt a new style of spoiler tag here, but highlight the text for major spoilers.

Xinlas’s father tries to warn the people of Peacewood about DuQuall’s invasion force, but they refuse, claiming they will drive them back with the power of love. What they end up doing is doing some kind of cool in-born magic to join together with their trees and their boats. I had hoped that maybe they
might use some sort of mysterious power to drive back the invasion force, but no luck. Instead, they were just preparing to die, and DuQuall’s forces slaughter them all except for Greengrass, and steal their boats, and head off on an invasion course to the other continent.

Realizing that the boats will sink if the last citizen of Peacewood dies, Greengrass offers to sacrifice her life by volunteering to transfer her life force into Xinlas. Yes, that Xinlas, the dickweed guy who tried to rape her and then kicked her out of the house. Xinlas has had a change of heart at this point and has resolved to try and be a better person, but he has done absolute jack so far to earn forgiveness, and definitely doesn’t deserve to steal the female main character’s life force.

This was the point where I was actually annoyed enough I almost threw the book across the room. I’m glad I didn’t, because that would have likely damaged my Kindle and I can’t afford a new one. However, I had about 2% of the book left at that point, so I forced myself to power through. The horrible ending was mitigated slightly, SLIGHTLY, by what happens next. Unfortunately what also happens next is a good old fashioned deus ex machina.

After the transfer, the boats sink as predicted. DuQuall was on a dragon so he doesn’t die, but he is now stuck in a hostile land without his soldiers to back him up. Not much fun for King Donald. Meanwhile, Xinlas has a vision of some blinking light gods, who have helped him out in the past. They tell him that he can revive Greengrass, if he sacrifices his own life. In his only truly decent act of the whole book, he agrees. But aha! It was a trick! The blinky light gods just wanted to make sure Xinlas was WILLING to die, they didn’t actually plan to kill him. They both survive and live happily ever after! Well except for the fact that Greengrass’s people just got genocided. Oops.

The fate of Greengrass’s people was really disappointing. I get that it is, on some level, the most realistic outcome. I’m having trouble envisioning a way in which the people of Peacewood could have peacefully integrated into the outside world. However, I had hoped Ward would actually try some ideas, rather than having them just give up and accept slaughter, especially since their concerns over life after the barrier collapse were so belabored earlier on.

There were, however, some things I did enjoy about the ending. Xinlas’s character development, though abrupt, was nevertheless heartwarming. And I especially appreciated the fact that Xinlas and Greengrass do not end up together romantically. Xinlas comes to realize that he is not entitled to “Getting the girl,” and that’s okay, and I appreciated that.

I know it sounds like I hated this book, but I didn’t, not really. I think the overall story has a lot of potential with a lot of good ideas, and that Ward is a talented writer. This particular novel just got a bit bogged down in trying to present too many ideas at once, leading to a rushed and ultimately disappointing end.

People who might like this book

  • People who enjoy lots of interconnected storylines and multiple POVs
  • Anyone who likes stories with dragons in them
  • People who enjoy the catharsis that comes from reading about villains who closely  resemble real life politicians

People who might want to avoid this one

  • People who don’t like seeing children and babies getting murdered
  • People who don’t want to read about genocide
  • People who prefer more tightly-woven stories with fewer POVs

R/Fantasy 2019 Bingo Squares

  • Self-Published
  • Twins, hard-mode (actually triplets, but word of Bingo Goddess says it should count, albeit reluctantly)

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