Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan is not a small book. It’s the first part of a trilogy and is a massive 650 pages. The first hundred or so of these pages made me feel that finishing it would be a chore. It didn’t turn out to be, but I can’t say it turned into a real page turner either.
Priestess of the White is an epic tale of religious war between the good White and the evil Black sorcerors from the south. Problematic. I tried very hard not to draw conclusions about who was supposed to be good and evil, but in the end I was left with the idea that the author was deliberately employing stereotypical symbolism. White equals good, kind, just, true and right. Black equals evil, trickery, cruelty, lies and wrongness. These days I’m not comfortable with these racist constructions.
Compounding this are the inevitable religious parallels. Again through the use of familiar symbolism White is associated with christianity (good) and Black with paganism (evil).
I don’t know if this was deliberate on the part of the author or whether this was a case of lazy worldbuilding. Much fantasy is based on historial societies and transfers the insitutions, economics and social dynamics wholesale. Done well (e.g. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch) this can provide a solid base for a recognisable and believable world. I think that a lot of care needs to be taken that the fantasy world is more than a thin veneer.
Done badly, it becomes hard for the reader to immerse themselves in the fantasy world. I was wondering if it was meant to be allegory and thinking that if it was, it wasn’t clear what Canavan was trying to say.
Characterisation was okay, in some respects quite superficial but better than some stuff I’ve read recently. The same goes for the writing. It was unsophisticated but not the worst I’ve read lately. It did pick up as the story got going. By and large, Canavan avoided big chunks of exposition, which was nice. Overall, I felt that it lacked depth and in a book of this length that’s a real problem.
I think I will read the rest of the trilogy at some point because there were some ambiguities in the ending that suggest that Canavan is preparing to subvert and confound the assumptions she’s set up. I would really like to see that.
The non-fiction interlude was Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World by Simon Garfield. This was fascinating, full of lots of interesting things to know and less of a biography than an exploration the impact of the discovery of synthetic colour.