I’d never heard of Flesh and Spirit, or its writer, Carol Berg, before it was strongly recommended to me by a friend who reads Fantasy perhaps even more than I do. When I ordered it, I was in the middle of a half-dozen other books, most of which I’ve since finished and reviewed. I opened it, read a few pages, and then put it down (as seems to be my habit), only returning to finish it a year later.
The prose in Flesh and Spirit takes some getting used to. In particular, most of the dialogue has a certain old-timey feel that serves as a hurdle when first starting the novel. It feels exactly like what it is: a modern writer mimicking the sounds of Middle English, borrowing curses and expressions almost directly from the mouth of Shakespeare. Berg does better at miming the rhythms of our ancestor tongue than many (Looking at you, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), but it still feels like tuning a guitar by ear, and hearing one note stubbornly remain just barely out of sync.
Her choice in language is fitting, because Carol Berg takes her influences from Renaissance Europe very seriously. From the war of succession that drives much of the plot, to systems of religion that draw direct comparisons to those in our world, even to her use of Latin as a foundation for many of the names and terms throughout, the real world feels just behind the veil. This adherence to our own history lends an automatic authenticity to her worldbuilding; I could see the streets that Valen walks because I have seen those streets in movies and in paintings.
My personal preference in Fantasy is a world one step further removed, one step stranger, than the one in Flesh and Spirit. I prefer a slightly steeper learning curve from a worldbuilding perspective. However, as the novel goes on, the world gains shades of complexity. And because she bypasses the thousands of words of worldbuilding necessary for much secondary-world Fantasy, she can spend those on character. She takes absolute advantage of that.
Valen, our narrator throughout, is my favorite character since Jorg from Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. Every page reveals more depth to Valen’s character, both from what he says about himself and from his actions, which often suggest that he is two different people. On nearly every page, Valen’s actions feel driven by his personality, by his wants and needs, by his fear and his defiance.
Valen is a con artist, a philanderer, and a hedonist. He’s in it for the pleasures that he can get out of life, avoiding as much pain, annoyance, and boredom as he can. And yet, as the novel continues, we find an underlying sweetness to him, a courage that drags him kicking and screaming–and cursing–into trouble.
The world feels lived in, primarily because it feels as though Valen has drank, danced, and dallied in every inch of it. And our care for Valen makes us care for the world. Valen is unforgettable. He makes this novel work.
The premise of this novel is clever: Take an irreverent, immoral scoundrel, dump him in a monastery, and let the sparks fly. Better yet, the monastery stinks with secrets, and the scoundrel quickly becomes determined to root out each and every one.
However, there is one major problem with the plot, and this problem kept me from becoming completely invested.
Every hundred pages or so, something will happen that pulls the rug out from under the entire story so far. This isn’t a simple revelation of a mystery or large character moment. This is a redefinition. “This is what the story is REALLY about.” Previously-important plot threads get reduced to sub-plots, and then to side-plots. By the time you get answers to questions from early in the novel, it can be hard to care.
Not that there are many answers or resolutions to these previously-established plots, mind you. Often we get the introduction of a plot point and perhaps a reminder along the way, but nothing in the way of real development aside from a whispered promise that there will be development…later. Flesh and Spirit is part of a duology, and I would be shocked to hear that it wasn’t outlined as a single book and split in two after an early draft proved too long.
Because of the short attention span of the plot, the second half of the novel lacks the drive that is so distinctive of most books this good. And it hardly builds to a satisfying climax. I put the book down, twenty pages from the end, and didn’t feel an urge to pick it up until my next bus ride. The ending was a reasonable continuation of what we’d seen before, no more and no less.
I’m ok with cliffhangers and endings that demand you read the next novel, but Flesh and Spirit has no resolution whatsoever, twisting my arm to buy the other book in order to make this book feel more complete. It will probably work, but I’m not above being a tad resentful to a piece of fiction.
This is where I say whether I recommend it to readers of the genre. If you write, Flesh and Spirit can teach you a lot about building a character so charismatic that he alone pulls you through a story.
If you don’t write, the question is a bit harder to answer. Right now, I can’t say for sure whether the second book gives enough satisfying payoff for all the buildup in the first. If you’re willing to take that risk, I can guarantee that following Valen around is a lot of fun. Otherwise, wait for my inevitable review of the sequel to get a satisfying answer to this question.
Random (non-spoiler) notes I couldn’t find places for in the main review:
I love that Valen’s world has no judgment of sexuality that I can tell. In a world not based in our own religion and politics, it’s unlikely that something like gender, or sexuality, or race, would be a source of the same prejudices as on Earth. For the most part, Carol Berg ignores any morality attached to these things as they exist in our world. That lack of assumption is great.
Despite time spent in the military, Valen is not much of a fighter. It’s such a fresh, interesting take on conflict. He doesn’t think his fists will solve anything, and will often continue trying to talk his way out of problems that are turning into physical confrontations.
Come to think of it, the problem I describe in this book’s plot is a more exaggerated version of the problem I had with Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles so far. I feel Rothfuss never juggles so many disparate plots, and does better keeping you connected and reminded of them, but it is the same problem.