Children of Chaos by Dave Duncan. Review by Mervi Hämäläinen
Children of Chaos is the first book of a duology and establishes well the world and the characters in it. Dodec is a dodecahedral world where the habitable Faces are surrounded by ice and mountains, which makes moving from one Face to another difficult at best. Although the customs of the peoples living on the different faces are different, they worship the same deities and seem to have the same Classical World equivalent technical level. The twelve Bright Ones are worshipped openly and people can either pray to them all or dedicate themselves to just one god or goddess. Each god has his own sphere of influence. For example, Anziel is the Goddess of Beauty, Ucr the God of Prosperity and Wealth, Veslih the Goddess of Hearth and Home, and Weru the God of Storms and Battle. The deities bless their followers with special abilities. There is also Xaran, Mother of Lies, the Goddess of Death and Evil who the people fear.
The bloodlord Stralg Hragson conquered first his own Face, the Vigaelian Face, and then continued his march to the next one, the Florengian Face, which had little choice but to crumble. The Florengians didn't worship Weru the same way as the Vigaelians did, and so the Florengians didn't have Werists who can turn themselves into animal-like warbeasts. Mere humans cannot beat warbeasts. However, the price is very high: Werists will slowly turn into animal-like monsters and their thought process is apparently slowed. On the Vigaelian Face, the Werists are the ruling warrior-elite and any apprehensions about the consequences of the battleforms are suppressed.
Stralg conquered most of the Florengian Face fifteen years ago and is now fighting against rebels who are mostly Florengian Werists originally trained by Stralg. The fight seems to go poorly because the former trains of slaves and loot from Florengia to Vigaelia has turned into demands for more fighters. His brothers and sister are ruling the Vigaelian Face in his absence. They rely on the seer abilities of the followers of Mayn, the Goddess of Wisdom. However, the seers, or Witnesses as they are called, are in an unwilling pact with the rulers and are now also starting to rise against them.
The main characters of the book are the children of the doge of Celebre, an influential Florengian city. They were taken as hostages when they were very young and the surviving children have either little or no memories of their birth city and parents. All of them have issues with why they were given away. The eldest boy, Benard, is a warm-hearted and romantic artist who is also a favorite of his goddess, Anziel. The second boy, Orlando, is fanatically loyal to the Vigaelian leaders and wants nothing more than to be initiated into to the cult of Weru and kill the rebel Florengians. The girl Fabia has grown up as a pampered daughter of a rich merchant and has no knowledge of her roots. They each live in different cities and do not know each other. When the old doge of Celebre becomes ill, Vigaelian rulers turn their attention back to the hostages. One of them must be chosen to rule after their father and the others should be killed so that they cannot become rivals.
Despite the background of war and the presence of bloodthirsty Werists, the book centers on intrigue and has only a few fight scenes where the fighters try to end the conflict as quickly as possible. In addition to the hostages, the point of view characters include the rulers of the various cities and other important characters.
Even though Duncan has to give a lot of back story and introduce a whole, complex world to the reader, the story itself is fast-paced, not too cluttered with information but neither does it leave the reader in the dark. The characters are more complex than it would seem at first glance and there is no clear good or evil despite what some of the characters say. They act because of their motivation and not on some abstract notions of good or evil. The most stereotypical character is the arrogant and stubborn Fabia who is a bit too quick in her choices, which change her whole worldview. Orlando's fanaticism is handled more believably.
The world-building is very good. Religion is important to these people and it shows in their speech and actions. Piety to the gods and loyalty to the family are the central themes of the book.
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Mervi Hämäläinen is a long-time reader of fantasy, mystery, and science fiction. She's currently working as a freelance translator.