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So on the one hand this is a fairytale retelling set in a world based on medieval Mongolia, which is not a common thing in a book. On the other hand, while the fact that it's very clearly Not Really Medieval Mongolia (different religion, kingdom structure, magic, class system) means that I should not be annoyed about inaccuracies in how it portrays medieval Mongolia, I... kind of can't help that.

I think the things that bother me are the places where reality is more complicated than what we get, and/or the worldbuilding is bent around the demands of the plot.

Said plot involves a highborn lady and her maid, who are shut into a tower for seven years because the lady refuses to marry as her father tells her to and insists on picking her own suitor. The book is an account of their imprisonment by the maid, Dashti. The tower scenes are very well done logistically, the descriptions of how they have to work at fighting off rats, conserving stores and candles, the ways in which imprisonment wears on them. And when the suitor the lady wants comes to talk to his betrothed through the small flap they use for waste disposal, it's plausible that the lady is no longer in any kind of psychological shape to cope with talking to him, and insists that Dashti pretend to be her and speak in her place. Things of course proceed from there about how you'd expect, and the man the lady's father picked is nicely menacing.

However, I think Hale was looking for a plot reason for Dashti to be unwilling to take her mistress's place, a reason stronger than the fear of getting caught, because Dashti has to keep insisting on her unwillingness for the entire book, even in circumstances where any sane person would just have gone with it (her employer doesn't want to be a lady anymore, and is actually pretty happy not being). Therefore we wind up with an entire culture centered around a belief that the gentry are more than mortal and favored of the gods and must be obeyed so that Dashti can keep being terrified that she isn't sufficiently shiny to do this. And because the lady has to be locked up in a tower, the gentry have to have towers, meaning they aren't nomadic, meaning that we then get this settled people as good/noble/etc. vs. nomadic people as dirty/poor/etc., so that Dashti is always managing to do useful survival-related things because of her nomadic background and talking about how much she enjoyed traveling with her mother and their herds while at the same time going on about how she is not worthy to even be a lady's maid and is just not cool or anything and ought to be killed for being so presumptuous.

THIS IS NOT HOW PEOPLE FEEL ABOUT NOMADS IN CENTRAL AND NORTHERN ASIA. And it bothers me because the USSR tried very hard to wipe out nomadism among the peoples of Mongolia and Tuvia and Kazakhstan and the other areas they conquered, spent years insisting that everybody settle in one place and build collective farms. While semi-European feudalism may be sometimes possibly be a better option than forced collectivism-- though there have been wars about that question; I can think of three without really having to work at it-- the imposition of semi-European feudalism into a nomadic culture as a scaffolding for story annoys me, because there have also been actual revolutions, plural, over the right of people to maintain their nomadic ways of living. ACTUAL MONGOLIAN NOBILITY STRUCTURE WAS TOTALLY DIFFERENT. I HAVE CITATIONS um if anybody cares there is an anthropological slapfight that's been going on for a while about whether you can apply the word 'feudalism' to a non-agrarian society and the general consensus is no, no you cannot.

The fairy tale is from the Brothers Grimm. If it could not be told in the setting Hale wanted without these changes to the setting, I would have made the setting less recognizable and/or changed the story more.

That said. Hale is trying. This is not a terrible book. It is well written, well characterized, the creepy guy is actually creepy, the romance is fairly believable. I don't like the way the shamans come off as villains because shamanism is something that has been persecuted in portions of Mongolia since the Buddhists moved in some several centuries back and started being the state religion and beating everyone else up, but hey, there is shamanism. Dashti is a pleasingly competent heroine and her mistress is convincingly crazy enough for it to be an issue in believable post-traumatic ways. You could really do worse.

I guess what I'm saying here boils down to 'when a particular way of life or custom has been oppressed and nearly wiped out for long periods of time, it would be nice if the only times it turns up in novels do not show it as bad/inferior/damaged/villainous'. Like, if there were seventeen other books out there set in pseudo-medieval-Mongolia, I would be a lot less annoyed about the class structure of this one. But there aren't.

Although on that note, it's not fantasy, but you all really, really want to read Kaoru Mori's A Bride's Story, v.1 available from Yen Press, which is the best volume of manga I have read this year. Set on the Silk Road, late 18th/early 19th century, somewhere Uzbek-ish, and oh God, so beautifully researched and gorgeously drawn and gently funny and the main characters are adorable and there is a bonus hilariously dorky British anthropologist living with the principal family whose purpose in life is to ask whether the ridiculous things that are going on are customary or are just, you know, this week. I go incoherently handwavy about this manga. SO GOOD. SO, SO GOOD. Absolutely one of those things I recommend to people who don't read manga. This is how to write fiction about places one does not live.

Hale... means well.

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