I was utterly amazed at how wrapped up I got in this book, although I probably shouldn't have been. It's definitely my sort of thing -- reading The Naming is a bit like coming home for me. My first reading love is fantasy and though I've been reading a wide range of things lately, The Naming is where my love of reading started: a strong female protagonist on a fantastical quest to save the world. And I must, before I go any further, thank Darla wholeheartedly for introducing me to this series because I hadn't heard of it, and would probably have overlooked it for far too long otherwise. I highly recommend reading her brilliant review of this book - reading her review again after I'd finished this one, I realized she covers things I don't, and noticed things I didn't, which is part of the fun of book blogging!
Maerad (pronounced, Croggon tells us in a handy pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book, as MY-rad) is a slave, sixteen years old and facing a lifetime of bonebreaking labour and beatings in the small and repulsive "village" of Gilman's Cot. She is an orphan, and her only solace is music -- she is permitted, and forced, to play her mother's harp for the entertainment of Gilman and his cronies. Until one day, a stranger shows up in the cow barn -- and she is spirited out of the Cot and into a new adventure, one that will see her facing enemies she didn't know existed, finding friends she didn't know existed, discovering her history and her heritage, and yes, saving the world.
And yes, that is a fairly standard fantasy plot. It's a plot I actually really like, if done well, and Croggon more than does it well. Within the first few pages I was attached to Maerad, and I think Croggon's biggest triumph is in her characters. It's not just Maerad we grow fond of -- it's the supporting characters around her, even those who seem to flit in and out of the story such that we hardly get to know them before they're gone again. These characters are brave, smart, kind people we care about, who are about to be put through hell. But Maerad is the glue of the story, and she's a wonderfully courageous, practical, and intelligent character. She's also a little uneven in the way a sixteen-year-old would be expected to be uneven, with slightly irrational moods and angers, which peter out just as quickly. And she's mature enough to know when to cut it out. It's very well done.
The action is exciting too. There are battles and councils and desperate flights in the middle of the night; the reader, like Maerad, just gets a chance to catch her breath and then we're off again. This pace is fast, although not completely breakneck such that it was uncomfortable, and it's punctuated by respites that made Maerad's quest all the more urgent so that those gentle, beautiful respites could be the norm and not the exception in the future of her people. The 466 pages of the story flew by, though I'll admit to being a bit daunted by the size of the book before I started. There's a twist towards the end that I only half saw coming (I suspected one part of it, and completely did not see the other - very satisfying) and any events that might have seemed a little deus ex machina in the hands of a lesser author were skillfully woven into the plot such that they were believable. And rather than being completely thrilled with these events, the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that there is going to be a price paid, if not immediately, certainly in the future.
Though I'm tremendously enthusiastic about this book, it is a little uneven in places. There are occasionally bits of writing that are a bit jarring -- Maerad and other characters gasp an awful lot, for example, or things seem a little blunt-object-obvious. These gripes are fairly few and far between. The other thing is that though the world is well-described, with a rich and varied history, it's unfortunately in places very reminiscint of Tolkein. I say it's unfortunate because to me, Croggon doesn't quite stand up. The historical background sometimes just seems a little thin, or pulled directly from Tolkein or other fantasy masters, or expected and therefore bland. But something Croggon does pull off extremely well is poetry.
I usually hate poetry in fantasies, particularly when it's poetry that's supposed to be part of the oral history of the book's inner culture. Tolkien I could usually bear, although not always. Other authors often leave me feeling that it's boring, or bad, or at its worst completely and utterly mortifying to read. Croggon's poetry, her ballads and verses and so forth, were really good, and became something I looked forward to reading in the book, and that is a reversal I was really pleased to see. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess, because I understand that Croggon is a poet first. And I think, with the aid of her poetry and another book or two to get into the history, I will probably find that my feeling about the history changes. I expect the history will deepen, and feel richer, the more I've steeped myself in it.
As a testiment to how much I enjoyed this book, I am still considering turning right back to the beginning and reading it again, because I'm pretty sure it would be better a second run through. I'm going to control myself, though, and wait until I've read the full series, and then read the whole thing through again. They will be my own copies, because though I got this out of the library I am going to buy the books to keep for myself. I know I'll read them multiple times. Next in the series is The Riddle, and I'm expecting it to be at my library when I get there for my Friday shift...