The best books are like good music: They seduce you, they comfort you, they transport you to another place and time, they unsettle you, they make you see things as you hadn't before, they make the blood surge in your veins and make your heart pound like you're on a roller-coaster ride down Mount Everest.
Lord Brother by Carolyn Kephart is such a novel. It's a tremendous, virtuoso perormance of the writer's art that takes the reader to fantastic highs and lows, often within the span of a few paragraphs; it's brimful with inspiration, imagery, memorable characters, and crackling energy. It's a novel of nervewracking suspense, aching romance, heart-stopping beauty, and breathless terror...and the fact that it's only the author's second book makes it all the more impressive.
Lord Brother continues the adventures of Ryel Mirai, Adept of the sorcerous Arts of Markul, who is searching for a way to restore the "rai" or spirit of his mentor, Edris, to a physical body, and defeat the will and the minions of the daimon Dagar, who wish to plunge the World into evil. Ryel's quest, begun in the equally-impressive Wysard (see my review, he said in a shameless fit of self-promotion), leads him from his lonely tower in Markul to the Steppes home of his boyhood, to the magnificent city of Almancar, where he meets its ruler Priamnor, and Priam's sister Diara, whose daimon-induced madness Ryel heals. But a fight between Ryel and a Dagar-goaded Priam leads to the former being wounded, then healed by arch-enemy Michael Essern, Dagar's human protege. Wysard ends, and Lord Brother begins, with Ryel meeting Srin Yan Tai, a wysardess of great power, who gives Ryel information vital to his mission.
Lord Brother takes Ryel further in his travels, through the northen city of Hallagh, the grim wysard-enclave of Ormala, the home of Dame Gwynedd, a wysardess who keeps a dramatic secret -- and to Riana, the One True Immortal, whose tremendous impact on both Ryel and his story cannot be overestimated. These places, and what goes on in them, make Lord Brother a feast for the mind -- there was not a momonent in reading it that I wasn't entranced, thrilled, or seduced by the power of Ryel's story, and by the force of Kephart's writing. Her gifts for descriptive prose and the surprising plot-twist serve her well, even better in some instances than in Wysard. Kephart's ability to surprise the reader is rare indeed, especially in a genre where too many writers seem content to follow the same worn-out footpaths, and to write the same old Tolkienesque prose. Kephart does neither of these; she is an original in almost every respect. As an example let me cite this wonderful moment just past Lord Brother's midpoint, where Ryel attempts to save another of his friends from Dagar's cruel depradations:
"He opened his eyes to the snow, and murmured a phrase. The white flakes began to fall thick, and a rising wind began to blow it about ever more violently, until in a minute's space the entire courtyard was engulfed in a raging storm. Amid the blizzard Ryel could only just discern staggering fleeing figures, and maddened horses. Upon and around the platform, battle reddened and trampled the fresh cold white into bloody slush. The air throbbed with shrieks and cries and sword-clangs, the howl of wind and hiss of storm-driven snow. But one noise rose above it. Out of the high balcony Dagar craned st full length, screaming in fury for Roskerrek's death..."
I'll leave you there to contemplate what may or may not come next. It certainly wasn't what I expected.
Lord Brother's flaws are few and far between. Again Kephart has populated her story with a multitude of characters, so many that it's hard to keep track of them all upon a first reading. A couple of times I had to page back to someone's first appearance to remind myself of who they were, and why they were there. Once I even had to refer to Wysard, the first book, for such information...but I never minded a little research now and then. Another area where I felt Lord Brother lacked was more specific: Ryel's dramatic confrontation with nemesis Michael Essern, which for my tatses wasn't as detailed as I'd have liked it to be. I felt Kephart gave that particular area of her story short shrift -- but it's the only such time I felt that way in reading either of her novels.
In other areas Kephart has made forward strides, like her treatment of female characters. They're far better written here than in Wysard. Riana in particular made a very strong impression on me, and Srin Yan Tai if anything was better as a character than before. Even Diara, who in Wysard seemed little more than a plaything, has been "fleshed out," and Ryel's mother and sister were more than rough sketches of people this time.
All in all, Lord Brother was even more impressive to me than Wysard--a novel I was very impressed with in the first place. I wouldn't hesitate to reccommend it to any lover of the fantasy genre, or any lover of good writing for that matter. I also understand Ms. Kephart is writing another chapter in Ryel Mirai's adventures. When it's done, I'll be one of the first in line to buy it.