by Sonia Orin Lyris
Cover Artist: Sam Kennedy
Review by Sam Lubell
Baen Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781476781266
Date: 01 March 2016 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Seer is a traditional alternate world fantasy that is familiar enough to be comforting to most readers, but still puts an individual spin on the frequently told story of a young man from low origins who marries the heiress to an empire. The biggest twist is that this book is not really the story of the man who would be king; he's actually the villain, or at least, the antagonist, in the story of the seer.
The book opens with the title character, Amarta, as an innocent 12-year-old orphan. Her older sister, who has a baby, feeds the family by selling her body and by taking coins for Amarta's predictions. Late at night, a richly dressed man, readers later find out this is Innel, walks in and demands a prophecy. He is a member of the Cohort, a group of young nobles and others with potential who vie for the favor of Princess Cern, the heiress to the Arunkel Empire, and the approval of King Restarn. Innel is chasing his brother, another member of the Cohort and a rival for Cern's hand. Amarta tells him that one of the two will be dead before sunrise and tells him, "Don't hesitate. Because he will."
Soon after Innel returns to court with his brother's body, he becomes determined to control Amarta's prophecies, out of fear that a rival will use her. He hires an assassin to track her down and capture her. But Amarta, foreseeing this, has already fled. Most of the book is divided between Innel's struggles at court, first to get Cern on his side and then to obtain greater power, even blackmailing the king's doctor to weaken him, and, simultaneously, the efforts of Amarta to escape Innel's hirelings, gaining greater control of her abilities as she does so.
The book has excellent characterization. It would be easy to make Innel into a villain--he kills his brother, schemes to marry for power, and sends assassins after a kid. Instead, Lyris makes him sympathetic in many ways. He has plans to improve the lives of the common people including better sanitation and an end to the trafficking in children. He cares about his mother and sister, even when his sister attacks him for killing their brother. Even when it is in his best interests to cater to all of Cern's wishes, he tries to mitigate her sometimes cruel impulses, as when he saves the king's dogs when she wants them killed.
The assassin Tayre also demonstrates positive traits. He sees killing people as just doing his job and, when asked how to justify killing good people, asks who am I to decide who is good and who is evil? He persuades Innel not to ask for Amarta's death but instead to offer her a contract, so her foresight would not warn her of danger. Another interesting character is the mage Maris who becomes an ally of both Innel, and later Amarta, as she deals with an imminent conflict with her former teacher.
Unfortunately, the characterization of Amarta is weaker than that of the others. Perhaps this is due to both her age and usually passive power, but for most of the novel she is reacting to others rather than actively trying to reach her own goals. She is angry that her power, and the people who want to exploit it, forced out of one home after another and so does not try understand how it works or experiment to control it better. Perhaps as a result, the reader never sees a consistent picture of how Amarta's powers operate. At times it seems she can see details--while traveling she stops while a wild animal is hunting and only moves on when it has found a meal--but at other times she says she is still frequently surprised.
The book is well written, although it does not try to dazzle the reader. The prose tells the story simply, without getting in the way. The setting is sufficient to tell the story, although I did not get a sense of a living world beyond the boundaries of the story. Still, these are only slight imperfections. Considering that The Seer is a first novel, I was satisfied with both the prose and the world-building.
The Seer is neither a groundbreaking novel, nor a slavish follower of the usual fantasy formula. Its strength is how the characters seem like real people, not heroes or villains but characters with both positive and negative aspects. Even Amarta is willing to let other people die to protect her freedom. Readers who enjoy traditional fantasy, enjoy ambiguous characters, and want a book just a little different, but not too much, will enjoy The Seer.