Review: Transformation by Carol Berg

Initially, I’d thought about opening this blog with an introductory post of some sort, but… that’s what the About page and the sidebar are for, so let’s just get into the good stuff.

 

Transformation – Carol Berg

The Rai-Kirah, Book 1; published in 2000.  439 pages.  ★★★★★

“Would I could undo what has been done.”

Summary:
Seyonne is a man waiting to die. He has been a slave for sixteen years, almost half his life, and has lost everything of meaning to him: his dignity, the people and homeland he loves, and the Warden’s power he used to defend an unsuspecting world from the ravages of demons. Seyonne has made peace with his fate. With strict self-discipline he forces himself to exist only in the present moment and to avoid the pain of hope or caring about anyone. But from the moment he is sold to the arrogant, careless Prince Aleksander, the heir to the Derzhi Empire, Seyonne’s uneasy peace begins to crumble. And when he discovers a demon lurking in the Derzhi court, he must find hope and strength in a most unlikely place…
(From Goodreads)

Transformation was simultaneously wonderful and very, very frustrating.  To its credit, it is by far the most compellingly readable thing I’ve picked up in several months.  On a technical level, it’s fantastic, and easily merits five stars.  However, there was one major drawback for me and that… was that it felt like the central relationship of the book was a hair shy of being romantic, and would have been if the two main characters hadn’t both been male.

(The plus side is that both of these things make it a great first entry for this blog.)

At its heart, Transformation is a truly character-driven story:  the entire plot turns on the slow growth and increasing open-mindedness of its two main characters.  Aleksander changes faster than Seyonne, which neatly avoids the potential grossness of a slave coming to easily sympathize with a cruel master.  Indeed, much of the first 200 pages focuses on Aleksander’s slowly-growing respect for Seyonne; when he realizes that he cannot control Seyonne with fear or cruelty, he begins to seek approval, though he’s resentful of it the whole time.  For his part, Seyonne is caught between anger (at Aleksander and the empire he represents) and duty to a much larger cause.  Duty wins out, but grudgingly, and neither of the two are at all enthusiastic about working together – at first.

The stakes that they’re playing for, however, cannot be ignored.  Berg gives the main conflict of the book both personal and abstract weight:  Aleksander’s life and sanity are on the line, and so is the future of the world, via the future of the Derzhi Empire.  There is a prophecy involved, which is a little cheesey, but its resolution has a neat (if not unexpected) twist, and it serves more as additional motivation than the central driving force of the story.  The identity of one of the antagonists is also presented as a twist, and while it’s not a particularly innovative one, it does add emotional weight to the plot and makes the conflict feel a little more complicated.  (Overall, humans vs. demons is still pretty morally simplistic, but the book is crafted well enough that I’m inclined to let that slide.)

The worldbuilding isn’t wildly original or otherworldly, but it hung together well.  The Derzhi Empire includes or deals with numerous different cultures, all of which are distinct and have their own religious beliefs, standards of dress and behavior, and attitudes towards magic.  The Ezzarian people, to whom Seyonne belongs, may be meant to be non-white (though it’s not particularly clear).  The Derzhi, who are otherwise a pretty straightforward Proud Desert Warrior Race, seem to be comparably light-skinned, which is an interesting twist on the stereotypes.  Berg also shows some cultural diversity in attitudes towards gender roles: the Ezzarians are mocked by other nations for being ruled by a queen (a title which is not hereditary, but passed down via apprenticeship), and give women significant political power.  At the same time, however, the tasks given to the magically gifted are rigidly divided on gender lines, with women consistently in a position of support and anything involving combat reserved for men.

On the topic of gender, however… I finished the book with little doubt in my mind that, had either Aleksander or Seyonne been female, they would have had a romantic relationship.  They have incredible chemistry, which is a testament to Berg’s skilled characterization and something not generally afforded to same-gender friendships.  Their relation to each other is far more intense, detailed, and significant to the plot than either of their female love interests, and hits so many notes that could have been romantic – they care for each other’s wounds, break laws and cultural boundaries for one another, prize the other’s safety and health far above their own, share intimately small spaces and touch a great deal, and grow and change together in parallel.  That they are somewhat emotionally dependent on one another is clear:  Seyonne kick-starts Aleksander’s conscience, and Aleksander stands by Seyonne when no one else will, placing inestimable value on the life of a former slave.

They read almost like queerplatonic partners, at the end, which I find myself of two minds about.  On the one hand, there is a lack of representation of this kind of close, emotional friendship, especially as the most important relationship in a character’s life.  While this is reality for many actual people, popular media tends to treat romantic relationships as the most central and important, and in a way this book offers a counter to that trend.  On the other hand… when Aleksander sits day and night next to Seyonne’s bedside, or Seyonne swears to protect his prince at any cost, it’s hard not to regret the romance that might have been.  I found myself simultaneously enjoying Transformation for its queer undertones and wishing that it had a cousin, of sorts, with a similar fantasy adventure plot and just a dash of romance, but without the obligatory heterosexuality.

Despite that, for sheer enjoyment I can’t rate this book lower than five stars, and if you’re looking for an enjoyable, well-crafted fantasy, this is a good bet.  I’ve already started the sequel, Revelation, and I look forward to finishing the series and exploring Berg’s other work.

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