THE JAGUAR PATH by Anna Stephens From @HarperVoyagerUK #BookReview #Fantasy #GrimDark

THE JAGUAR PATH by Anna Stephens

Harper Voyager, 623 page HC, £16.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

The term GrimDark was coined for that kind of fantasy that was steeped in blood and gore, where the character the reader empathizes with has a high likelihood of being killed or maimed before the end of the book. The focus for most of the books that fall into this category is warfare at its ugliest.

            The Jaguar Path is the second book of the ‘Songs of the Drowned’ trilogy, and it is always difficult to jump into the middle of a series without prior knowledge of the characters and the social geography of the fantasy world. The names and pyramidal structures suggest a correlation with Central America, especially Mexico. Here, the dominant culture controls its society by means of The Song, which is broadcast from the Singing City in the Pechacan region of the Ixachipan peninsula by the revered Singer, who is treated in much the same way as the Chinese Emperors. Without him, the Song falters, and civilization will collapse. Volume One, The Stone Knife, saw the expansion of the kingdom with the intention of bringing all the tribes of the peninsula under the influence of the Song.

            This volume follows the principal characters, tracing what happens to them and their changing attitudes and allegiances. The captured warriors have become slaves. Xessa, who is deaf and communicates using sign language, is a pit fighter. She is owned by Pilos, one of the elite, the High Feather (high-ranking officer in the army) in the Singing City. Lilla, like many others of his tribe, has been drafted into the army under a harsh training regime at the Melody Fortress in the Dead Plains and is effectively owned by the state. His husband, Tayan, was a shaman owned by Enet, the Great Octave, who is expected to be the next Singer. Enet uses him as a bed slave, but as Tayan is a healer, she has lent him to the Singer, who is ailing. Ilandeh is a member of the Chorus, the warriors who are charged with protecting the Singer.

            The point of view switches between the seven principal characters, all of whom have their own agendas, though only Enet and Pilos have a significant chance of carrying them through. This is too many and dilutes the plot’s progression. Much of the thrust of this middle volume centres around the Great Star. The passage of this across the sky is a measure of time. For 246 days, it has been in the evening sky, but when it vanishes for eight days, it is the signal for the Singer to try and wake the World Spirit, the presence of which, it is believed, will bring peace. It is also a signal for an uprising.

            For those who just want an action-packed story of war, misplaced loyalty and betrayal, along with some unusual and original dimensions, this is something they will enjoy. For the more critical reader, there are several issues that may niggle at their potential enjoyment. This is an Empire controlled by sound, which reaches into all places under its jurisdiction. One can imagine that most of the time, this manifests as a kind of background tinnitus. It seems to be transmitted via songstone that forms the capstones of pyramids. The conquest of the whole peninsula seems to have been carried out relatively quickly, leaving very little time to erect the large pyramids, especially in the newly conquered areas. A subliminal frequency, such as radio waves, would need the population to have some kind of receptor inherent to receive the signals. Even though the propagation of the song can be explained by the magic of the Singer and the gods, it doesn’t quite explain why bloody conquest has to take place first. The song appears constant and is apparently unaffected by distance or weather, yet it respects boundaries. Zellipan, the country beyond the narrow neck that separates the peninsula from the rest of the continent, doesn’t seem affected.

            The Great Star is also a concern. Whether it is a natural phenomenon or connected to the gods, the only reason for it to be visible for so many consecutive days and then vanish for a mere eight suggests something is eclipsing it. This has to be a regular, observable event as it is predictable. This is perhaps the more intriguing of the phenomena because there are possibilities of an explanation in volume three of the trilogy.

            Characters in narratives such as this are expendable. It will be interesting to see if any viewpoint characters survive to the end of the series.

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