[I received a copy of this book through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.]
Mixed bag of feelings and opinions regarding this novel: it has the making of a great epic, with battles and politics and court intrigue and betrayals... but more than once, it read more like a history book, which didn't make the characters really three-dimensional.
This is the story of Mata Zyndu, “the Chrysanthemum”, scion of a noble though destroyed family, a powerful warrior destined to do great things and convinced everything and everyone has their rightful place in the world; and Kuni Garu, “the Dandelion”, a good-to-nothing son turned gangster for want of fidning a goal in life first, but who's gradually proving himself very resourceful. As Emperor Mapidéré's reign of terror plunges more and more people into poverty and forced building works, these two men, each for their own reasons, find themselves taking arms in the hopes of making the isles of Dara a peaceful set of kingdoms again... But can thisbe achieved, or will the empowered kings go back to petty squabbling of old?
As a lot of stories go, it is ripe with strife, brothers turning against each other, allies found where nobody ever expected them, faithful families and love interests turned traitors, and... ell, you name it, it probably has it. The pacing was usually fast, covering several weeks or months at times, the novel spanning a few years of fights and rebellion and of trying to build a new world. It never wants for events, for the tide turning suddenly for this or that character, for another character managing to come up with a new deal, and so on.
The setting is reminiscent of feudal Chinese society, with a dash of steampunk (there are rudimentary airships, and later steam technology gets developed). The Emperor is law, everybody's below him, those who voice out their criticism tend to be silenced forever very quickly. Sons and daughters are expected to uphold the family's honour, and if they don't, they often get cast away or at least partly shunned. While I confess not knowing much to Chinese history, customs and mores, the story managed to make me feel its influences, in a good way. I had no trouble imagining the complex sitting and greeting etiquette, or to picture schools with ancient men dispensing the teachings of sages of old (obviously modelled on Confucius or Sun Tzu, but whether this is plagiarism or homage didn't matter much to me, since I liked the world depicted here).
And even though the world of Dara isn't perfect, even though the Emperor is a tyrant and his son a naïve, sheltered teenager, there aren't only bad sides to the “tyranny”: as Mapidéré displaces noble families to prevent them from rallying supporters in their original lands, trade develops (because, simply enough, people sent to other islands long for their home's cooking and clothing, and so on). There's a vision gone wrong in all this... but a vision nonetheless.
On the downside, the writing style, while beautiful in some places, often felt dry and too descriptive—too much telling, not enough showing, making the action read as if it was being told by a remote observer. This in turn impeded the characters' development, as often, too, we're told of their merits and flaws, of how they evolve... instead of being shown. I still found myself rooting alternatively for Kuni, for Mata, for Gin and a few others; nevertheless, I would've liked them even more had their potential complexity really shone through, rather than being recounted. And they really had such potential, considering the nest of opportunities and treasons they went through. So many scenes that could have been between Jia and Risana, for instance, but were told in too few, too short paragraphs.
Also, I must admit I didn't really care for the part played by the gods. So they shouldn't interfere directly... but some did it indirectly... but was it really so indirect... but wait, in the end it's still the mere mortals making history anyway... I sort of get this message, however the way it was handed felt like a series of devices meant to advance the plot, and nothing more.
Conclusion: mostly I liked this story, and may check the second volume later. It had potential for something bigger, though, something grander, especially when the characters were concerned—and in the end, it wasn't so much.