* * * * (4 stars)
The Plains of Kallanash takes us into a world where magic once existed but was lost in a great Catastrophe. The Plains at the heart of the world are now peopled by a civilization ruled by a mysterious, powerful, and omnipresent religion, which enforces a highly stratified social order governed by strict rules and customs. Group marriage is the norm among the nobility, or Karningholders, and the men of the Plains are engaged in a never-ending but carefully-regulated war against rampaging barbarians beyond their borders.
Quiet and gentle Mia, her sister-wife Tella, and their co-husbands Jonnor and Hurst enjoy a comfortable, stable life despite Mia's feelings of unrequited love for Jonnor, who has taken Tella as his primary wife, and Hurst's for Mia; as the junior partners in the marriage, they are forbidden to consummate their relationship without permission from the senior husband. When first one and then the other of the senior couple die under mysterious circumstances, Mia begins to ask too many questions, and finds herself banished into a world she never imagined. When Hurst undertakes to discover the truth, the lies on which their civilization is based are gradually revealed, bringing Hurst and others to the unavoidable conclusion that everything they know has to be overturned.
This is a very long book, with a lot going on. It starts out at a good pace, developing the complex relationships between the characters and the original, and cruel and chilling, society they live in (among other things, when a member of the nobility dies, his or her Companions, something between an adopted sibling and a servant, are put to death alongside them). The mystery deepens with the deaths in Mia's household until the shocking revelations that come in the wake of her own punishment. From there, the pacing and conflict sometimes sags, though we do get to see some fascinating glimpses of the Plains' ancient magical history. Hurst's discovery of the truth culminates in a cleverly-plotted rebellion, which brings in more surprising revelations about the world. The climax of the book seems incomplete, a little too easy and comfortable, and some key events are told at a distance. I would have liked to be more in the thick of things as they were worked out, and for the protagonists to experience more tension and hardship in the process. After the climax, most of the story threads are tied up nicely, with just a few left dangling for future stories set in the same world.
The romantic aspect takes an unexpected turn, as Mia finds herself torn between two lovers (cue cheesy 70s pop song, or rather, don't). The unconventional solution proves satisfactory to all involved; however, I'm somewhat more conventional and straightlaced in my romance preferences and was a little taken aback. The book contains some mildly graphic sex scenes, including some menage-y bits.
The writing style is clear, smooth, and literate. The author doesn't over-explain the strange customs and other alien aspects of her world, but does give the reader enough clues to have a comfortable grasp of what's going on.
On the whole, The Plains of Kallanash is an enjoyable epic fantasy in a highly original setting combining echoes of an ancient magical past with surprisingly advanced technology such as skyships, with a mysterious history, likeable, engaging characters, and an unconventional romance. Recommended for fantasy readers who want something a little different.