Wheel of the Infinite
by Martha Wells
Having thoroughly enjoyed The Books of the Raksura by Martha Wells, and going through a bit of withdrawal from reaching the end of the series, I checked out an older book of hers and am extremely glad I did so.
I love stories that involve gods and godlike powers and the difficulties faced by both the people who struggle against those powers with just human strength and the gods who struggle to avoid unintended consequences. (Some of my all-time favorite books deal with these issues: Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny, Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, Nameless Magery by Delia Marshall Turner.)
The world-building here is amazing particularly as it comes to the rules of magic and religion, and we get it from two perspectives:
Maskelle is The Voice of the Adversary, a highly ranked priestess, but she was exiled (rightly so) for murder and treason some years back. She has been summoned back to the Imperial and religious center of the land by the request of the Celestial One to help regarding a problem with the Hundred Year Rite, in which the Wheel of the Infinite recreates the world. (A problem with the re-creation of the world is, rather obviously, quite a problem.) But she approaches the people and the magic with deep familiarity and deep discomfort given her past.
Rian is a bodyguard from a far distant land who ran away from an unpleasant situation, and manages to fall in with Maskelle on her return trip, and sees the political and religious situation with fresh eyes.
And that is the premise. From there, stuff happens: after all, there’s a problem with the ritual that recreates the world. Stuff. Happens. I love the exploration of the world that is inherent in our main characters’ investigation of what has happened.
In addition to the amazing world-building, I also just love the characters. Rian’s culture shock is somewhat hilarious (especially as it mirrors the reader’s own shock at this culture). And Maskelle’s deadpan practicality, even as she struggles with her own issues, is a delight.
Another thing I appreciated about this book was that Maskelle was middle-aged and black. The book is high fantasy, in an entirely different world, so clearly she’s not African or African-American, but she and her whole culture are dark-skinned and her hair is in braids. Scifi and fantasy, for all their alien species, tends toward the homogenous white humans, in both writers and characters. (The one exception to this that I can think of off hand is Octavia Butler, but her books tend to be both excellent and extremely hard hitting. Wheel of the Infinite is readable purely for fun.)
The first chapter of Wheel of the Infinite is available online, so you can get a taste. I highly recommend this book.