Overview (No Spoilers):
Priestess of Ishana was easily one of the top reads from my SPFBO batch, as it has the rather unique feel of a crime fiction novel in a fantasy-laced world. While crime-based tales are not my genre of preference due to the suspense leaving me as overwrought as the main character by the end, the Priestess of Ishana eloquently manages this stress by volleying between several key perspectives and interspersing heavy doses of magic. Starkston even nails the typical pacing expected of a detective novel that intermixes helplessness along with an ever narrowing window of opportunity to save the day. The buildup was steady and evenly distributed, serving to keep the reader actively engaged without feeling exhausted before finishing strong with a finale that has its fair share of danger and intrigue.
While I enjoyed the plot of the Priestess of Ishana, I found myself yearning to know more about this world, the people, cultures, and just more details in general. For most of this book, the ‘bad’ guys are the Egaryans and the Paskans, who are portrayed as barbarians seeking vengeance due to being conquered. The true perpetrators and their motivations turn out to be much more complicated. There are key individuals who could have served more to expand upon these other cultures, e.g., Kety or ‘the Paskan’, but they are kept in mostly one-dimensional roles.
Starkston’s main characters have detailed motivations, with depth being added each chapter, albeit mostly for Tesha and Hattu. Marak and Daniti are two characters who were relegated mostly to the role of loyal sidekick, but whose complexity the reader could perceive just under the surface. While I liked Tesha’s strong resolve, convictions, and personality, her spoiled nature grew a bit tiresome and seemed to oppose many of her other redeeming traits. There are instances where she lied, repeatedly betrayed others, almost murdered a slave, and secreted away restricted information with no consequences and her reputation ever stronger. Although almost all of those examples could be explained away as a means of doing good and pursuing the truth, nonetheless Tesha hardly seems impacted by the contradictions. For example, Tesha almost kills a slave using a forbidden power when she jumps to the worst-case conclusion. When discovered and thwarted, she apologizes to the mentor who caught her, but never to the slave who she potentially caused irreversible harm. Also, the incident blows over within a paragraph or two as new evidence comes to light, without Tesha fully taking responsibility for the abuse of power.
These issues aside, Priestess of Ishana is a suspenseful, entertaining read that merges family expectations, sorcery, religion, and murder into a twisting roller coaster that will keep the reader puzzling over the evolving clues until the very end. Starkston has laid a solid foundation in book one of the Tesha series to continue building upon the magic and details of this fascinating literary world.
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):
- At one point, Marak makes a comment about what a strange habit it is that Tesha tugs on a strand of her hair because it must hurt. I can only hope that Starkston was making a subtle reference to Nyneve from The Wheel of Time.
- In the beginning, there had been such tension between Anna and Tesha that the sudden change from frenemies to trusted cohorts felt too abrupt, especially considering their significant past that they had to overcome.
- Would Daniti want to go with Tesha and the King? Tesha never tells her of her guilt regarding her blindness, even though it was likely not her fault. Also, Tesha hides things from her sister throughout this book and also betrays her to her father at least once. Daniti was nothing but loyal. Their relationship has to be strained. I kept expecting Daniti to return the betrayal as the stakes grew more dire.
- Will Daniti and Marak end up together? I feel as though that groundwork is being deliberately laid.
- What disarray will meet Hattu when he returns to his home?
- What are the Great King’s opinions on everything that has happened? He has received contradictory information in several letters. What will he think of Tesha?
- How long will Tesha be under the protection that Anna placed over her? What are the terrible side effects?
- Was Kety released from prison? What was the magic amulet he wore?
Libation: an act or instance of drinking often ceremoniously
Bitumen: an asphalt of Asia Minor used in ancient times as a cement and mortar
Effigy: an image or representation especially of a person
Clerestory: an outside wall of a room or building that rises above an adjoining roof and contains windows
Lascivious: filled with or showing sexual desire
Reprobate: an unprincipled or depraved person
Impious: not pious
Stultifying: to have a dulling or inhibiting effect on
Tamarisks: any of a genus (Tamarix of the family Tamaricaceae, the tamarisk family) of deciduous large shrubs and small trees native to Asia and the Mediterranean region and widely naturalized in North America that have tiny, scalelike leaves and feathery racemes of small, white to pink flowers