This is a well written fantasy novel, the world building is very well thought out and presented nicely, the characters are well rounded and interesting. This book should have been catnip for me, and yet it was a chore to read. I was stuck in a blizzard and I still had trouble forcing myself to read this one. I just found myself so bored by it. I’d be reading a passage and my mind would start to wander to other things. I had the same issue with another of Gilman’s novels Staying Dead, and I DNFed that one at around the 30% mark. I made it through this one, because of those catnip elements, but something about the way Gilman constructs her sentences puts me to sleep. Plus there are a couple of things about the novel that really bother me, and the more I think about them the more they bother me.
Gilman was challenged to write a story about food based magic. She selected wine, and developed a magic system where wine is both magic, and the vehicle through which magic happens. It feels very much like potions, whether in Harry Potter or video games. Wine is such a variable substance, the flavor depending so much on the weather, the soil, the atmosphere, etc, and because of the malleable nature of wine, each of these spellwines has different properties. It’s a fascinating premise. There are vinearts who grow the grapes and develop the wine into magic potions useable by anyone. Jerzy is a slave in one of the vineart’s fields and is plucked from those fields to be trained as a vineart himself. However, all is not well in the world and there is an unknown enemy lurking in the corners and sending testing threats against various people. This is a far more standard fantasy trope fare, but because the world building is so unique the book does stand out from the crowd.
I suspect my main issue, and why I found it boring, is that the book has very little actual plot. Most of what happens occurs in the last 10-30% of the novel and then it’s plot explosion. Most of the rest of the novel is Jerzy learning (and thus the reader learning) about how spell wines work, intermixed with a few incidents of this unknown threat. I enjoy slow moving, slow build books. I even enjoy books that have very little plot. But this one hinted so hard at the plot and never got around to revealing it that I just got annoyed. This is definitely a set up book but I’m not sure I’ll be picking up the next books in this trilogy.
What’s most odd though, and why I’m just not sure about this novel, is that normally when something bores me like this, but doesn’t actively annoy me, I’ll give it two stars. It’s a meh book, it’s ok but I didn’t particularly like it and I didn’t particularly hate it thus two stars. And yet that feels really low for this book, because the world building is fantastic and the characters are very compelling.
I think I recommend this book. It’s an interesting novel and I’m not sorry that I read it, but it didn’t really wow me either.
I do have some slightly spoilery things I want to talk about below, so this is your spoiler warning….
The slave thing really bothered me. A lot. Vinearts are always drawn from slaves because apparently the brutal life of a slave is what allows the magic to come to the forefront. Which means that the whole world is built on the premise that the suffering of thousands is worth finding the few special magical individuals who have the vineart talent. I’ve spoiled myself for the third book, and apparently there’s an incident that makes me think Gilman doesn’t actually upend this premise and instead plays it straight. I mean, it’s a philosophy, it’s just a philosophy that leaves me cold.
There’s also a scene where Jerzy is talking about being a former slave with two other people and he basically claims that the slave life is a good one, because three meals and a bed to sleep in, and could they really say they were free to do as they wished? I wouldn’t have minded that, coming as it does from a person who is justifying his existence, except that it goes unchallenged by the other characters or the book itself. And yea….
And then there’s the gender issue. Vinearts are always male. It’s never outright mentioned that females can’t be vinearts, but all the slaves are always male, and thus vinearts are always male. It’s just a small world building detail that bothers me. The female characters in the book are decent, but you don’t see them use magic. They’re competent, and are actually the landowners in the world, but never vinearts. And I don’t see how the growing of grapes and shaping those grapes into spellwines requires a penis. Especially since the vinearts somehow loose all sexual desire as they come into their power, so the magic isn’t even a virility kind of thing. I don’t know, maybe it’s addressed in the later books. But given that one of the reasons I put down Staying Dead is that it suffered from Lone Female in Urban Fantasy Syndrome, I kind of doubt it.