Curt Benjamin,
Lords of Grass & Thunder
(DAW, 2005)

In his Seven Brothers fantasy trilogy, Curt Benjamin constructed a unique, mesmerizing fantasy world steeped in the lore of mediaeval Asian cultures and populated with all manner of gods and men. Here, magic and sorcery are decidedly real, gods take on the most unassuming of forms, and war is a way of life. Having greatly enjoyed the Seven Brothers trilogy, I was exceedingly happy to learn that Benjamin's next novel, Lords of Grass & Thunder, promised a return to that universe and a reunion with some of its unforgettable characters. The trilogy followed young prince Llesho as he escaped a life of slavery, reunited with his lost brothers and eventually waged a successful war against demonic forces in the land. Among those who rode to war at the side of Llesho was young Prince Tayyichiut of the nomadic Qubal clans, who left home as a boy -- he now returns as a warrior.

Whereas the events chronicled in the Seven Brothers trilogy played out on an epic, legendary scale, Lords of Grass & Thunder tells a story of political intrigue and personal jealousy. After Tayy's parents were murdered by a treacherous green bamboo snake demon (who assumed the appearance of the khan's new wife), his uncle, Mergen-Khan, reluctantly assumed the throne. A man of no great political ambition, Mergen-Khan overtly recognizes Tayy, upon his triumphant return from battle, as the rightful heir and plans to step aside as soon as Tayy is ready to assume the khanate. This does not sit well with Qutula, one of Mergen-Khan's illegitimate "blanket sons." As a loyal friend and companion of Prince Tayy, he is a recognized figure in the court, yet his father still won't even do him the honor of acknowledging him as his son.

With his increasingly jealous heart, Qutula becomes the perfect vehicle for the second-chance designs of the green bamboo snake demon. Only one person senses the danger that walks beside Tayy, an apprentice shaman who sees her own fate in the face of the young prince. This maiden, Eluneke, is much more than she appears to be. While her fate and that of the endangered prince are indisputably intertwined, she must learn the secret gifts (and endure the demanding trials) of her shamanic trade quickly if she is to save him from the tragic death she sees overshadowing his face.

Lords of Grass & Thunder is in many ways a better read than Benjamin's previous novels, largely because it plays out on such a personal level. There is seemingly intrigue to be found beneath every tent in the Qubal clan, and there is never a lack of action among these nomadic warriors. Yes, there will be blood. As the rift between Tayy and Qutula opens and grows, it threatens to tear the entire clan apart (and leave the Qubal wide open to attack from their traditional enemies). Tayy has always been Benjamin's most sympathetic, human character, and Eluneke proves equally engaging from the first moment we meet her. Even minor characters fairly leap off the page, as Benjamin is a true master in the art of characterization.

With this, his fourth novel, Benjamin firmly establishes a place for himself among the best writers working in the fantasy genre today. While many a fantasy writer basically churns out new versions of old stories (think of all the Lord of the Rings derivatives out there), Benjamin continues to blaze his own unique trail of creativity and originality. If you think there's nothing new or exciting in the world of fantasy, you obviously haven't discovered Curt Benjamin yet.

by Daniel Jolley
22 July 2006

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