The Winds of Khalakovo is the first novel in the series titled The Lays of Anuskaya by author Bradley P. Beaulieu. The series is planned as a trilogy and is the first foray for Beaulieu into full-length Fantasy novels. He has written several stories published in diverse publications before Winds.
Among inhospitable and unforgiving seas stands Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands, its prominent eyrie stretching a thousand feet into the sky. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the crossroads of world trade. But all is not well in Khalakovo. Conflict has erupted between the ruling Landed, the indigenous Aramahn, and the fanatical Maharraht, and a wasting disease has grown rampant over the past decade. Now, Khalakovo is to play host to the Nine Dukes, a meeting which will weigh heavily upon Khalakovo's future. When an elemental spirit attacks an incoming windship, murdering the Grand Duke and his retinue, Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, is tasked with finding the child prodigy believed to be behind the summoning. However, Nikandr discovers that the boy is an autistic savant who may hold the key to lifting the blight that has been sweeping the islands. Can the Dukes, thirsty for revenge, be held at bay? Can Khalakovo be saved? The elusive answer drifts upon the "Winds of Khalakovo"...
As you can figure out from the blurb, there's a definitive influence from Russian names and lore in Winds of Khalakovo, the latter making the book quite distinctive. That presence is not simply felt in the names of the inhabitants of Anuskaya or the locations but also in the definition of clothing or choice of beverage (vodka) and in denominating some concepts, like the kind of 'elementals' from a parallel world, which I'll get to later. Russian names are not part of the easiest anthroponomy to follow. Even more when they are applied to various specimens of hezhans (hava, dhosha, suura, etc...). On the other hand, the names of the characters become familiar easily enough since there's a nice diversity in them.
The only aspect of this choice of "language" that I didn't like is the use of "Da" and "Nyet" in place of yes and no. That's the only element of the Russian language that is actually applied and it feels weird (more so in italic) or out of place.
I could speak further of the names but what is capital is the protagonists to which they are applied. We mostly follow Nikandr, the young Prince of the archipelago of Khalakovo, his lover, Rehada, who is an Aramahn part of a terrorist group and Atiana, the daughter of the duke of Vostroma, his betrothed. Nikandr is a dedicated man, conscientious and adventurous with a strange illness in link with the state of the world trying desperately to find a cure and in love with flying on his airship. His role takes more importance as the story slowly unfolds and aside from a couple of dubious moments when his actions are driven by god knows what, he usually stay true to himself. But then, I think I would have liked him better if he eventually had blown a fuse or two.
Concerning the two other PoV, the feminine ones, I was fascinated by their decisions and path of action in the face of what they have to live through. Nikandr is straightforward, an exemplary heroic human being, while some of his male counterparts from other duchies are dumb, spoiled and mischievous. The women in Winds of Khalakovo are more subtle. Rehada is haunted by her past, in search of retribution she thinks will permit her to feel better but not at any cost. When you're part of a group of hidden extremists, you have to manage truth is many cunning ways. Her part is what makes the story more profound. The conflict between the whole duchies and the Landed (the 'free people') is one of the main theme and she make's it more captivating.
As for Atiana, she feels both fragile, frustrating and tenacious. She's the character through which we can glimpse the experience of touching the aether, another concept at the heart of one of the book threads, 'world-endingly so'. However, as for Nikandr, the author sometime chose to make her perform some extraordinary tasks without the knowledge of them, it felt fortuitous or astounding depending on which occasion. By the way, the three of them have special talents inherent to the magical or fantastical elements of Beaulieu's book.
Other elements in the book catch the eye rapidly, right off when you look at the cover. The windships are a great idea, formed from windwood, piloted by Aramahns connected to wind spirits and driven in aether 'currents'. Their complexity was probably not easy to put to words and above all, they create mythic battle scenes, which were somewhat hard to imagine. Recreating fighting in the air with ships was risky, potentially entertaining but mostly confounding.
The battles involving the 'elementals' (hezhan), are less evasive. Although the hezhan have difficult names to follow and are based on the usual elements (air, fire, water, earth, spirit), they bring more dimension to the tale. Along with a couple of more magical concepts like the kind of soul-stones, it all makes up for many fantastical features. The world feels richer for it but the story is also encumbered. This approach makes me think of Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks. Some portions of the book are defined by this instead of being enriched by it.
The author's writing is smooth, slightly polished with a slow cadence. Usually, the chapters are short, creating a great rhythm. Sadly, there's a weird presence of PoV switches in the middle of the action that make the prose more complicated for nothing. To his credit, I think he wrote an intricate story with several storylines that may not always fit perfectly well together but that are essentially compelling. Dukes are fighting for power, the world in on the verge of complete destruction, love is blossoming and everyone wants to play his part in it. I'll definitely read the follow-up, The Straits of Galahesh.
Technically, I really love the cover chosen for the Night Shade Books edition of the novel. The "four-side-masted" ships are such a good concept for his world that seeing it represented on the cover is wholly justified. Two maps are included along a nice Dramatis Personae. The paperback edition of the book stands at 354 pages.
The Winds of Khalakovo review score :
Characterization............. 7.5 /10
World building............... 9 / 10
Magic system................. 8.5 / 10
Story.............................. 7.5 / 10
Writing........................... 7.5 / 10
Overall (not an average) 7.5 / 10
Bradley P. Beaulieu's page