I was asked to review Darrell Drake's A Star-Reckoner's Lot, a story that takes place during the Sassanian Empire in Persia. I typically stay away from fantasy, but it was the unique and imaginative synopsis that led me to venture outside of my normal comfort zone and follow Ashtadukht on her strange journey.
The Situation: Ashtadukht has been trained to be a star-reckoner, but she is terrible at it. Her path to where she is now was never a straight one, and is full of ups and downs, mostly downs. After an interaction as a young child that left a favorable impression with the King of Kings, Ashtadukht was sent away to become a star-reckoner. But now, many years later, and after suffering the tragedy of losing her husband, Ashtadukht sets out on a journey with her cousin, Tirdad, to find the being responsible. It is clear from the beginning that the trip will be a difficult one, if only because of Ashtadukht's illness. It will take the pair across the Iranian countryside, and at one point, they will end up picking up a companion who shares the same unfortunate heritage as the being that killed Ashtadukht's husband. Divs are creatures of the Lie, and Ashtadukht serves the Truth. So to have such a creature as part of her traveling party will prove to be challenging, and it may also prove to be unwise.
The Problem: Ashtadukht, Tirdad, and Waray, the div, encountere various obstacles as they journey from city to city. Ashtadukht's primary objective is always to vanquish any div she finds along the way, with Waray being the one exception. At first, her story seems little more than an odyssey of adventures, but the more the trio travels, the more they learn about Waray, the truth behind Ashtadukht's husband, and the truth behind Ashtadukht. Turns out there is a reason why she is terrible at star-reckoning, and there is an explanation for Waray's strange behavior beyond it being because she is half-div and half-human. There is even a reason for Ashtadukht's mysterious illness that she has always known as part of her life. The longer they travel, the more the group finds out, and the more bitter, resentful, cruel, and harsh Ashtadukht becomes. She has not made as much peace with her husband's death as she believed, and the trials of the journey may prove more than she can handle.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fantasy novel set during the Sassanian Empire of what is now Iran. Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner, though a terrible one, and her cousin Tirdad has be sent on the journey along with her at the request of her father. The two set off on one grand adventure that is made up of many smaller adventures along the way, allowing them to come across all sorts of people, cities, villages, and of course, divs. There is not simply one brand of divs. The beings come in all shapes and sizes, but it seems they all smell terrible and cannot be trusted. Even Waray, who is half-human, must be regarded with a great deal of caution. But the longer Ashtadukht and Tirdad travel with her, the more they come to like her, and even trust her. At first, the novel may seem like one grand adventure for justice and retribution, and while it most certainly is, it is also a cautionary tale of what holding onto the past can do to a person. Searching for truth and justice is one thing, but doing so when you are not fully ready for what you may find is something else.
My Verdict: I thought I was in for a unique story with the type of characters I do not regularly come across in the books I normally choose, and with A Star-Reckoner's Lot, I was right. I enjoyed reading about Ashtadukht's adventures as she traveled across Iran. Every chapter contained a different confrontation, new divs to fight or conquer, and new information that would give a new layer to what was happening to and around Ashtadukht. The story did become more difficult to read as it went on, if only because it was clear Ashtadukht was not headed in a noble direction, and things were only going to get worse before they ever got better...if they got better. If you like a blend of historical fiction and fantasy, then I recommend this novel.
Favorite Moment: When Ashtadukht comes face to face with what she really is. It may cause her great pain, but her recent actions make her less than likeable, so seeing her suffer a bit brought me a certain amount of satisfaction.
Favorite Character: Tirdad is the type of traveling companion you would want for this type of journey. Though Ashtadukht does not appreciate him as much as she should, and Waray cannot stop pulling tricks on him, he manages to remain patient, kind, and protective.
Recommended Reading: I recommend Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler. Though Butler's story may take place in 20th century America, and involves vampires instead of divs, it is also a story or justice and retribution, as well as identity and acceptance.