Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Night Bird, by Catherine Asaro (Fantasy)

Joyce Saricks describes Fantasy genre books as “world-building,” emphasizing the author’s ability to let the reader experience the worlds they create through vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, and feelings. Catherine Asaro accomplishes this and more with her romantic fantasy The Night Bird.

Fantasy and romance are both genres with which I have little experience, so I decided to try to explore both genres by choosing an author who blends the two together. Catherine Asaro is known for her science fiction, but lately it seems she has been more interested in writing fantastic tales of love set in magical lands. Her Lost Continent series, in which this book is chronologically placed fifth, features a magical land made up of diverse kingdoms, cultures, and climates. There is the golden paradise of Aronsdale, filled with waterfalls and a beautiful, gentle race of people. Contrastingly, there is Jazid, a barren and war-torn desert run by aggressive nomads with no respect for women. Other kingdoms are mentioned, but not explored in as much detail in this particular title.

Asaro’s protagonist is Allegra, a young and beautiful mage from Aronsdale whose magical gifts have resulted in her being chosen to visit the palace. Allegra is kidnapped on her journey to the palace by ruthless nomads from the barren land of Jazid and sold to the gruff but well-meaning prince regent, Markus Onyx. Despite his role as her owner, as well as his culture’s utter lack of respect for women, Allegra gradually comes to see his gentle side. Markus swiftly falls in love with her and through a marriage proposal, offers to raise her status from a lowly “pleasure girl.” Allegra in turn begins to develop feelings for him, and she struggles throughout the book to discover what exactly these feelings are.

In this world, magic is produced through shapes and colors, creating light and healing that can transform people’s moods and emotions. Allegra begins with minimal abilities, but throughout her captivity she discovers a peculiar power which may allow her to save her homeland, and Markus’ land, from impending war. When coupled with magic, Allegra’s singing voice has the power to put all those in the vicinity to sleep. I won’t give away any more of the plot, which becomes increasingly layered with political intrigue and fascinating characters, but you can probably tell that Allegra’s power will prove instrumental in the unfolding events. “Night Bird,” by the way, is Markus’ endearing nickname for Allegra, referring to her beautiful, sleep-inducing voice.

In my opinion, the author’s strongest point is her ability to explore issues of cultural tensions in a fantasy setting. The kingdoms of Aronsdale and Jazid are as diverse as their contrasting landscapes; in fact, they are quite reminiscent of Athens and Sparta of ancient Greece. The people of Aronsdale value art and beauty and avoid any violence, while the Jazid nomads prize strength and are bent on conquering their enemies. Women are highly esteemed in Aronsdale for their magical abilities, and Allegra experiences intense culture shock when she witnesses the misogynistic cruelty that Jazid men routinely commit against their women. Jazid women are considered lower than horses, and about on par with cattle. Because their cultures are so at odds with each other, it’s truly fascinating to see the relationship between Allegra and Markus develop.

What sets this book and others like it apart from the typical fantasy book, I think, is its equal treatment of the themes of magic and romance. Whereas most fantasy books focus more on the magical elements than any other aspect of the plot, Asaro devotes about the same amount of content to the intense and controversial romance developing between Allegra and Markus.

While their relationship is intriguing and sensual, it can also be uncomfortable at times—there’s definitely a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome going down here. Allegra is a feisty and humorous heroine, if a little weak in her ability to resist Markus’s often nonconsensual advances. I wouldn’t classify her a damsel, but her attraction to the strong and often distant man who could easily overpower her is a bit cliché.

Having said that, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I could not put this book down. I found myself turning the pages faster than anything I’ve read in a long time—I tore through this 571 pager faster than any of the others I’ve read this semester. Much like Twilight and other-worldly romances of the like, this book is definitely a guilty pleasure for me. The writing was mostly simple and direct, but there were some beautifully elaborate depictions of the world’s landscape—one of the vital characteristics of fantasy books. And though this book is part of a series, I had no trouble understanding the basic plot and keeping the characters straight, although my experience probably would have been enhanced if I had read the previous books. Though it’s probably not a masterpiece of fantasy literature, I would not hesitate to recommend this title to women looking for a juicy blend of romance and fantasy.

Book information:

Title: The Night Bird
Author: Catherine Asaro
Series: 5th in the Lost Continent series
Publication date: 2008
Number of pages: 571

1 comment:

  1. Got to get you reviewing books - but not for Kirkus - something more like the NY Times or well, your blog. I hope you keep your blog up and running long after this class is over.