I have a thing for fantasy that isn’t purely hero-worshiping, good-vs-evil shenanigans, with supporting characters you use and toss like old toilet paper. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to see realistic people in extraordinary circumstances who don’t instantly rise to the occasion, whose growth and improvement are struggled for. It makes my whole life feel less like a long descent into efficient mediocrity! Routine is good for kids, right..?
So thankfully, if you enjoy high fantasy, lovable yet unlikely heroes, and magic with some nifty niches and limits, this will be a good read for you! Flesh and Spirit, by Carole Berg is a first-person fantasy that doesn’t focus on some amazing kid with a single silly flaw who becomes a magical superman and saves the day. Or, not exactly. And you should believe me because this particular reading came off an epic list from Reddit – “Reddit’s top 100 books” and Reddit never lies! I mean, this and Perdido Street Station were both there, a sure sign of quality!
What’s it all about?
Flesh and Spirit follows Valen, the renegade son of a magical pure-blood family, as he attempts to live life freely outside the confining ways of his society. This is a difficult endeavor when every pure-blood (with their family magic) is expected to be contracted out for prestige and profit based on their talents and family name; runaways are hunted forever and severely punished by their own families for abdicating their responsibilities and endangering the pureblood lineage (a big no-no!).
So we find Valen, badly injured after about 15 years on the lam, being taken into a monastery for healing after having been robbed by his only companion, with only his last meaningful (and valuable) possessions: a book of magical maps from his own family, rumored to lead to the lands of angels themselves as well as a small bag of magic drugs the man needs to stay sane. After surviving treatment of his wounds, he sees the monastery as a decent place to wait out hard times – famine, civil war between the late king’s sons, and religious unrest being the rule of the day. But, of course, Valen’s life is not to be a carefree existence, and his past comes back to grasp him even as his future winds ever further into uncertainty along with the rest of his land.
Give me numbers, please!
I filled a little checklist as I read, amending as I went, and got the following for my main literary point. I score between 1 and 5, and generally the book is between a 4 and 5! A 5 simply means I personally found that aspect of the book to be especially strong, and a 4 means I found it strong but not more so than other works I’ve read. Totally subjective.
1 – ugh, 2- meh, 3 – OK, 4 – Good, 5 – Great
- Characterization: 5 Great
- Social interactions that feel real: 5 Great
- People exist as more than plot hooks: 4 Good
- Dialog: 4 Good
- World Building: 4 Good
- Description and immersion: 4 Good
Highlights of the book or style?
Carol’s writing is lovely; she prefers chains of short, quick, descriptive sentences that somehow meld into a much gander telling. It’s not long-winded like SOME find Tolkien (not me, I love that about his writing), but it also somehow avoids the overly-direct nature of most modern books that I personally hate. Add in the occasional archaic terms (example: braies, like medieval shorts) and spoken structure, and you end up with a quaint yet satisfying word-meal. Neither too heavy nor too fluffy and light:
“The abbot rang his bell. After more prayers, Prior Nemsio led us from the refectory. My soup remained unfinished, a casualty in a holy war.”
What really made this book come alive to me was Valen’s character and his ability to see the good in people no matter what they did to him personally. Valen is cheerful, friendly, always ready to indulge in the joys of the world: music, dance, laughter, food and drink, and “intimate company”. He’s a little bemused by others’ preoccupations with serious matters and completely flummoxed when serious-seeming people not only accept but like him. And though he is light-hearted, he takes his own commitments seriously and does his best even when he is sure he shall fail. This man is literally ready to go to the underworld and back in order to save a boy he likes and admires. He’s a genuine person you’d want to be friends with, maybe even more than friends. I’d sure as hell go for a drink or 6 with him. He loves dancing, too.
And while Valen is the main character, he isn’t the only one who gets fleshed out. You come to know the monks, the tavern wenches, the thane and his daughter in the way you always hope to know supporting roles. These are not paper people and their motivations are as grey and complex as a person’s can be. So while there is a whiff of good-vs-evil, Carol lets complex human (and unhuman) goals and desires direct what happens, not some overwhelming moral theme. And magic is never a cure-all-fix-all. I’m always so happy when fantasy writers don’t use this as a bandage for plot holes. Magic is deep in this story. It requires effort and sacrifice and the right bloodlines. It’s not an “I Win” button you can press with a few swishes of a wand.
I also really enjoyed the little social nuances: the unease between the three nations united under the crown, the way the monks interact with nobles and commoners, the vastly disparate princes and their methods of winning against one another, the closed yet beautiful culture of the Danae… Carol’s world is certainly alive with people, and they all have their own very specific beliefs and preoccupations and goals. Again (and for the most part), the groups in this book are NOT solely plot devices.
HOWEVER! Sadly, the main villains the Harrowers DO come across a little black-and-white. Vengeance seems to be a common theme for why-bad-guys-do-bad-stuff, but it wears a little thin in most books, including here. It sometimes seems like a reason you work backwards from that never quite makes sense.
“My charismatic villain makes a whole group of people do terrible things…Why? Hmm… Maybe something bad happened to them! And now they’re determined to destroy everyone who allowed that to happen! Which is the entire race!”
Why not make the ones directly responsible pay? Why harm your own people in the process? Why do they always go in for grand schemes when smaller, more focused action would do the same without drawing attention? I guess we’ll never know. I much prefer the ones who truly believe in their own cause, or who simply want power and know how to manipulate others but aren’t 100% “evil”. Give me a social engineer bent on actually bettering the world but going the most… direct… route. Murder for the sake of life. That sort of thing. Oryx style.
Overall, would I recommend this? Yes, it was amazing! If you’re lacking in fantasy goodness, this one is a great read that isn’t stuck in an elves-vs-orcs or “I GOTS DA SORD MAMA GONNA AVENGE YOOUUUUUU” arc. I think LOTR pretty much has elves covered, thanks.