The Silvered - Tanya Huff I like this book. And I don’t like it. I enjoyed most of Tanya Huff’s previous works and think her one of the best writers in the fantasy genre. Besides, she is my fellow Canadian. So I had high expectations for this book, but instead, it disappointed me.
The plot is simple. A big aggressive empire attacks the small country of Aydori, the country ruled by wolf-shifters and mages. The empire doesn’t have mages but it has science: dirigibles, muskets, explosives, gas light and the like, approximately on the level of mid-19th century Europe. During the attack, a detachment of imperial soldiers under the command of Captain Reiter penetrate deep into Aydori to carry out a special order from the emperor: to kidnap a group of local top-level mages, all pregnant women, for the emperor’s scientific experiments. A seventeen-year-old girl Mirian, who considers herself a failed magic student, witnesses the kidnapping and decides to liberate the mages. Together with a young wolf-shifter Tomas, she follows the soldiers and the mages into the heart of the empire. On the road, she tries to get control of her wayward magic, and her magical fumbling leads them into one predicament after another, until finally, she and Tomas succeed in their self-appointed task. Kind of…
The above is just a dry summary. The book itself is deeper and more disturbing than its plotline suggests. Its prose is strong, gripping the readers from the start and not letting go until the end. The world building is solid and original. The author weaves together three interconnected story lines, each with its own leading character. I wouldn’t even call them subplots, because each of the three protagonists embarks on his/her own inner and outer journeys and confronts his/her own demons.
The first story is the story of Danika, the leader of the kidnapped women mages. With their magic neutralized by ancient artifacts, the women are practically helpless. The only resistance available to them is passive, but they do all they can to thwart their enemies, including the emperor himself. The author paints him as a rather scary guy, an all-powerful, scientifically-minded fanatic. He believes that shape-shifters and mages are abominations, less than humans, something like rats with the ability to talk. For him, Danika and the other women mages are not people but living material for his brutal scientific experiments, which remind the readers of the Nazis’ medical tinkering.
Faced with such horror, Danika demonstrates outstanding leadership abilities and bottomless compassion. She wouldn’t submit, but her defenses are subtle, and her main goal is to keep the hope alive in her fellow mages and not let despair claim them. Her courage, determination, and wit lead the captives to their eventual escape.
Straightforward and satisfactory, Danika’s tale is a tale of a heroine and her friends in captivity, fighting for their freedom. Their travails pull at the readers’ heartstrings and keep the tension high until the victorious denouement.
The second story is the story of Captain Reiter. He is the most interesting character of the book. Starting out as a loyal imperial officer, capable and smart, always following his orders no matter how distasteful, he goes through the deepest transformation in this novel. He is the one who changes.
Revolted by the emperor’s atrocities, the captain can’t accept torture for the sake of science. As a soldier, he killed and watched his mates killed, but he knows a difference between killing in war and murdering innocents in cold blood. Even though in the beginning, he shares the emperor’s conviction that mages and shape-shifters are inferior, after a while, he starts seeing people in them. His conscience wouldn’t condone his emperor’s bloody research, but he can’t oppose his ruler without turning a traitor. His road to betrayal is agonizing and complex but utterly logical. In the end, helping the captive mages to escape becomes the only possible, the only humane choice for him.
The third story is the story of Mirian, and here I ran into trouble. Mirian is the most important character in the novel, or she should be, according to the number of pages devoted to her. But I couldn’t understand her motivations. Why did she decide to free the mages herself? She is absolutely unsuitable to the job and she knows it.
Unfortunately, the only answer she could give to this question, and people do ask her several times during the course of the novel, is that she was the only one there. I didn’t believe it. And my disbelief colored my perception of the girl and her senseless, unexplainable escapade.
At the start of the novel, Mirian is a pampered daughter of a banker. Her mother wants her to make an advantageous marriage to one of the wolf-shifters. But for Mirian, this seems like a dead-end. Oh, she doesn’t mind a wolf-shifter for a husband; they are the elite of their society after all and charming men to boot. But she wants to make something of herself as well. I believe it and sympathize with her sentiments.
Then the war starts, the empire attacks, and Mirian dives headlong into her adventure, with no reason at all. None of the kidnapped mages is her kin. She has nothing to discover. No revenge is involved. No one of her friends is involved. Logically, she can and should choose a different path. She doesn’t need to go after the mages. As I don’t understand what drives her, I stop believing her story.
Besides, even after she undergoes much suffering and danger and turns herself into a heroine, she still faces a dead-end, although of a different kind. Before, she was a useless society girl. Now, she is a super mage, not entirely human, and responsible for a bunch of damaged wolf-shifters. Her future seems just as hopeless now as it was before. What did she achieve? Well, she didn’t free the mages – they freed themselves – but she did free the rest of the emperor’s experimental menagerie and killed the crazed emperor. Good for her, I suppose, and that should be enough for one novel, but Mirian’s exploits still left a bad taste in my mouth. Why did she do it?