Thursday, July 19, 2012

An Unexpected Apprentice, by Jody Lynn Nye

An Unexpected Apprentice was a book I had lying around for some time and had been kind of hesitant about reading. It looked a lot like a generic fantasy story and so I was less than enthused with the possibility of another one. However in this fortunate instance I was very wrong and for that I am extremely grateful. Of course, Nye's book still relies upon many over-used fantasy tropes we've since the days of Tolkien but the book somehow manages to feel fresh nonetheless.

An Unexpected Apprentice actually contains two plots-lines, but both center around our main character, Tildi Summerbee. Tildi is one of the smallfolk, humanoids that live in the sheltered Quarters and have very little contact with the outside world. Smallfolk society is extremely patriarchal and women such as Tildi aren't even allowed to talk to the human traders that visit the Quarters, nevermind leave their homeland. Normally this wouldn't be a problem for Tildi, but when all of her brothers are killed in a Thraik attack the Summerbee family farm is left without a male heir. Faced with the option of being married against her will by the village council so the land doesn't go too long without a man's hand, Tildi flees in the night to take up an apprenticeship with the wizard Olen. As stereotypical as Tildi kind of was, being the absurdly sheltered character who doesn't know anything about the outside world and has to be told everything, it still managed to work really well in my opinion. I could really believe that Tildi came from a strongly patriarchal society that actively discouraged women knowing anything out of "appropriate" fields of knowledge and it still served as an excellent introduction to Nye's world.

The other main plot is mentioned a little in the first part of the book, but doesn't really become important until the second half. It's a pretty standard plot: someone has stolen an ancient magical artifact that can destroy the world as the characters know it and so a party must be formed to rescue the artifact. Slight variation on Tolkien's story but essentially the same. And normally I would have rated this as just an average book as a result, but there were two things that made me really elevate this to a good book. First, six of the seven characters who make up the party trying to recover the artifact are female, and secondly Nye manages to give a sense of depth to her world without going through it with a fine-toothed comb.

To be perfectly honest I'm not sure if I should include the first point at all in declaring this a good book. It really should not be so surprising, even in 2007 when the book was written or now when I'm reading it, that a majority of characters are female. It really helps underscore a systemic problem with our fiction and its lack of female main characters, especially in a non-romantic role. I just found it a refreshing change of pace that we had six named characters, main characters at that, who simply were the best people suited for the job and were called upon to complete the quest. I can only hope that later works of fiction will be able to include female characters to such an extent.

As for the second point, as I mentioned, Nye really makes her world feel rich and complex without going through it in minute detail. Just as an example it's mentioned that in this world mermaids and tritons exist. We never meet either of those races, and in fact spend very little time near an ocean at all, but based upon the cultures that we are shown in the novel we can assume that they're equally well-developed and complex. In a way it's almost a less-is-more sort of thing because Nye gives us brief little glimpses into how her societies work rather than launching into a sociological tract on every aspect of their culture. The little snippets hint at a much deeper culture than we could hope to comprehend in a few hundred pages.

I did have a couple of issues, the first was a kind of anachronism issue because I caught references to cannons and treadle-powered sewing machines so I kind of wondered when exactly this story was supposed to be taking place. Really, that concern wasn't too important, though, because it was like one or two sentences which were vague references at best and I really should be focusing on the story rather than the technological development of the society. The other issue I had with the book was that it ended on a cliffhanger and I found myself saying, "But...the quest isn't over! You resolved some of the problems but now there's a whole host of other problems that has to be solved and there's only a page left! Aw man, cliffhanger!" Really that's just a personal gripe but I think I would have appreciated more warning that it was going to end like that.

If you're looking for a good fantasy story I'd definitely recommend An Unexpected Apprentice. It doesn't really explore new ground when it comes to fantasy tropes and plots, but the writing is well done and the female cast provides a refreshing change of pace from the standard fantasy quest. I definitely will be looking into the sequel, A Forthcoming Wizard which is already out, but sadly my book budget has dried up until September. And don't worry, dear readers, I've got plenty of stuff already to keep you entertained until then.

- Kalpar

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