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Into the Broken Lands is a fantasy novel by Tanya Huff which deals with problems of identity, power, responsibility, and what to do in a world that is completely beyond control. It’s a high fantasy novel which shuttles back and forth between two time periods about 60 years apart, and covers five point of view characters. Both sets of characters are on parallel quests, though the modern set gets almost twice as much pagetime. The quest is for the Heir of Marsan (Ryan in the present and his great-uncle Garrett in the past) to travel to their ancestral home, now called The Broken Lands, to retrieve the fuel which keeps the symbol of their family’s power, the Black Flame, burning. The Broken Lands earned their name from an event several centuries in the past called the Mage War, where, you guessed it, a bunch of Mages went to war. Their magic went out of control when they all died and has basically been acting like magical radioactivity since then. Distances and spaces in The Broken Lands are out of whack, animals are grotesquely mutated, and even time itself has come unmoored in certain places. Ryan and Garrett both lead their groups through these perils, learning different lessons and facing different challenges. Only one character bridges these time periods, the immortal mage-made weapon Nonee, who has point-of-view chapters in the present day. The two other point-of-view characters are Ryan’s cousin, Scholar Lyelee, and a Healer named Arianna who befriends Nonee in the past. It sounds like a lot, but it’s actually managed quite neatly by using the narrating character’s name as the chapter title and including “NOW” or “THEN” to indicate the time period. So for instance, “LYELEE. NOW” or “GARRETT. THEN.” It’s blunt, but effective. The other thing it will be good to be aware of going in is that despite all signs to the contrary, this is a standalone novel. Nothing on the marketing or the book itself ever indicates it’s not, but at slightly past the halfway point, I started thinking ‘No way is this only one book. No way.’ In fact, way. So let’s get into it.
There are some really strong aspects to this novel. I found Huff’s writing style very easy to engage with, which made other awesome things more accessible too. Her descriptions are particularly vivid, and I always had a good sense of location and environment, which is important for a book like this where the characters travel so much. The magic was also extremely cool, though I saw less of it than I would have liked. Well, there was a lot of magic: it was all just wild, chaotic magic rather than magic that was actually being used by a person since after the Mage War, magic was outlawed and is now regarded as evil and dangerous. The few bits we do get to see hint at a rich and engaging magic system, and I wish we got to see more of it.
Another aspect I appreciated was the lack of a Big Romantic Subplot. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m pretty sick of an obligatory ‘will they won’t they’ between Bicker Boy and Sassy Girl culminating in a dramatic declaration of mutual feelings crowned with a smooch. There is a bit of romance: Ryan starts the book with a boyfriend (unfortunately telling you if he ends the book with one would be spoilers), and Garret develops feelings for Arianna. But it’s an undercurrent rather than an undertow.
My only hesitancy on this enthusiasm comes from Nonee. Nonee is a living weapon, magically forged from a normal human baby until she grew to massive size and strength, developed gray skin impervious to almost any blow, and lost her human body proportions, including secondary sex characteristics like breasts. Over the course of the book, she experiences attraction for a soldier in Ryan’s group, but knows that no human could ever feel attraction for her, a thought which Ryan echoes later on and is borne out in the end. This felt unnecessary to me, since Nonee’s arc was already about loss and identity and came to a nice resolution on those things. On the whole, I think Nonee was my favorite character, and this little thing rubbed me wrong.
Speaking of characters, I think characterization was one of the weaker aspects of the book. It was like each character got one characteristic (one and a half if they were lucky) and played it for all they were worth. I got fairly sick of Ryan’s inferiority complex and Lyelee’s hubris well before the half-way mark, for instance. Now, I’ll reiterate: blunt, but effective. Ryan’s arc is a recognizable and satisfying one, and Lyelee’s hubris makes her one of the more interesting and surprising characters to watch, especially as the book goes on. I just wish they’d had a bit more to work with.
I can’t think of how to say this without sounding kind of awful, so here goes: not enough characters die. Early on, a promise is made to readers that The Broken Lands are full of horrors and dangers and that many, many of those who travel there will not leave it again. This is fine as a premise so long as it’s followed through on, and in this case I was unsatisfied with the body count. Consequently, the ending was a sort of limbo between thinking it was nice that so many characters lived, while also not really caring because I didn’t bother to get attached in case they died.
In conclusion, I was whelmed by this book: it succeeded at transporting me into its world, I thought a lot of the details were very original and interesting, and I’m glad to have read it, but some of my hopes for it were not completely fulfilled. A few tweaks of characterization would have put it over the top, but that shouldn’t be enough to discourage anyone from reading it.