Plot: D.G. Valdron's bold, funny, fast-moving fantasy The Princess of Asylum follows quick-witted actress Dae Zea Lors after the destruction of her city. Dae survives in the wasteland by improvising a series of increasingly outlandish lies and personae, convincing bandits and orgus and more that she's, variably, a princess, or an expert in jewel magic, and eventually a priestess. The story's scope is epic, with airships and military sieges galore, but its tone is light and its perspective intimate, always tied to Dae. Inevitably, the hero's lies make her a leader, and she's surprised to discover herself caring about people beyond herself. The novel opens as a picaresque, with Dae bumbling from encounter to encounter, but by the end, as the plot takes shape, readers will actually care for Dae's world and companions. The sense of urgency that powers the novel's final third, though, is sometimes missing in the book's middle, especially in the occasional cases when the balance between comedy and fantasy storytelling proves uncertain.
Prose/Style: Valdron excels at both the narrative perspective of his protagonist, a savvy actress who finds being on a fantasy adventure something of a comic imposition, and at the demands of epic fantasy storytelling. His worldbuilding is memorable and unique but communicated to readers in Dae's offhand observations; his descriptions of the fantastic or terrifying are quick and powerful. Much of the novel is driven by dialogue, as Dae improvises new selves and lies to stay alive; at times, the characters she's hoodwinking, such are written as if they're willing participants in a comedy routine, such as the tyrant who apologizes for scheduling conflicts with her upcoming execution. The novel's pleasures and occasional problems rise from the same source: the tricky balance between the comedy of Dae's improvisations and the threatening reality around her. For the most part, though, Valdron aces that balance.
Originality: It is rare for a fantasy novel to center on such an exciting new character and idea. Besides the strength of the premise and Dae's general delightfulness, the world of The Princess of Asylum is itself original, wrought with care, and revealed in tantalizing glimpses.
Character Development: There's no doubt about it: Dae is a character readers will love, and her wit and sensibility drive the book. She faces hard choices, makes surprising sacrifices, and movingly comes to care about more than her own life. At times, especially in the novel's middle, the complaints and patter of Dae's inner monologue cut against the narrative urgency, especially when she's joking or crabbing about the book's cast as if they're all in a play together rather than continually facing their own deaths. At such moments, she seems not to have grown during her adventures, reverting to being a comic type rather than a fully-shaped protagonist. That makes the novel feel long, even as it's entertaining: If she's not taking the situations seriously, readers will be tempted to join her. The saps, villains, monsters, and occasional upstanding folks she encounter also prove memorable, driven by their own coherent but interesting motivations.
Blurb: A fast-talking actress makes her scrappy way across the wasteland, surviving by her wits -- and shaping empires with her lies. Imagine a vivid high fantasy, full of beasts and sieges and cults, narrated with the wit of Anita Loos.
Date Submitted: August 14, 2020
Just a quick note
Princess of Asylum has made the quarterfinals and now the Semi-finals of the Booklife Prize.