The Initiate Brother Duology, by Sean Russell, was originally published as two separate books, The Initiate Brother (1991) and Gatherer of Clouds (1992), but is really one large, rambling novel, and I’m glad I read it as one volume (published in July, 2013), because the first half of the duology (The Initiate Brother) ends rather abruptly.
It was the cover that first attracted my attention; and, although you cannot tell a book by its cover, I recalled reading a trilogy by Sean Russell years ago and finding it satisfyingly different than the norm and decided to give the Initiate Brother a try. The ‘duology’ is marketed as fantasy, but the only fantastical element is the concept of chi and its development and use by religious martial arts practitioners; in particular, by one of the main characters, Shuyun.
An interesting forward by the author is included with the edition I read, but I disagree with his belief that this duology was the first successful western Asian fantasy. I think he has either forgotten, or hasn’t heard of, the wonderful series by Barry Hughart, The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox; the first book in Hughart’s series, The Bridge of Birds, won the World Fantasy Award (1985, best novel), which makes it fairly successful, I think.
The Initiate Brother Duology transports the reader to the kingdom of Wa, a fictionalized, historical blend of Chinese and Japanese culture. I would guess that the author was attempting to paint a fictional combination of the Heian period in Japan, Imperial China during the Sung dynasty, the Mongolian Empire of Genghis Khan, Buddhism (referred to as the Botahist religion), and martial arts. As a work of fiction the novel takes many liberties with cultural history, and I assume it is not meant to be portrayed as historical fiction; rather, history has been ‘borrowed’ as a starting point for an alternate reality novel. The only inconsistency that bothered me is the anomalous reference to the Buddha’s Eightfold Path; in the novel, The Eightfold Path was represented as something similar to tantric yoga. The novel’s main religion is based on a fictional character, Botahara, who is reminiscent of Buddha, but The Eightfold Path in the novel is developed as an offshoot of Botahara’s teachings and is described as a sexual path. I wondered why the author would modify such a major historical, religious element, but I decided to accept the novel as an alternate reality and leave my baggage behind…
There are many characters in the story, but the core consists of Shuyun (a gifted Botahist monk), Lord Shonto Motoru (head of the ancient and powerful Shonto house), Motoru’s adopted daughter, Lady Nishima Fansian Shonto (the only remaining heir of the previous Emperor’s House), Lady Kitsura Omawara (Nishima’s cousin), Lord Komawara Samyamu (the young head of a once proud House), Akantsu II (the current Emperor, a paranoid ruler), General Jakku Katta (Commander of the Imperial Guard, the Black Tiger, a very ambitious man), and Katta Jakku’s brother, Colonel Jakku Tadamoto (a scholar and a fair man, but inappropriately loyal).
The story is filled with political intrigue, which I found interesting, but I tire of the machinations of politics quite easily (surely a weakness in my character). Although much of the story revolves around a few of the characters, I never felt I knew them sufficiently; I suppose that for a genre novel the characterizations were sufficient, but I prefer more depth. The book is driven by plot; political differences between the Emperor, Lord Shonto, and the leaders of the Botahist Orders (both monks and nuns), set against the danger of the barbarians who plan, and execute, an invasion from the north. There is some inner turmoil within a few of the main characters, and there is a rumour spreading that someone in Wa has become enlightened.
The author has included some poems that are meant to be works of high art, but I found it difficult to accept them as such; they are pleasant, and fit the mood of the story, but they are hardly the finely crafted works that would have graced the ancient kingdom he has created.
The mood of the story is at times mesmerizing, but it moves at a slow pace. I was comfortable luxuriating in the story, but the tension never reaches a high level and difficulties are resolved with relative ease.
The story, and particularly the ending, pleased my Buddhist sensibilities, but some may find the pace tedious, especially in the second half of the duology.