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Posted by -Slamel- On Wednesday, June 30, 2010

SASHA, by Joel Shepherd, was kind of a surprise for us. We knew Joel's work from his Cassandra Kresnov series, but we didn't quite know what to expect from the first novel in his A Trial of Blood and Steel. While there were a few issues we took with the novel, we actually enjoyed what was offered and look forward to the sequels. Read on, slaves and loyal followers, to find out why.

Sasha, the titular character, is a Lenayin Princess, who decided to embrace the culture and religion of the Goeren-yai, instead of the Verethane, studied the ways of the serrin, to become a psuedo Nasi-Keth. If you're wondering what any of that means, join the club. SASHA is full of foreign terms, which aren't really clarified. By about the middle of the book you'll probably have a grasp on what the terms mean, but it takes forever. It doesn't help that the naming syntax Shepherd used was extremely narrow, resulting most of the names sounding, and looking, very similar. We appreciate the cohesive nature of his naming scheme, but a little diversity really would have helped this book. For example, when a guy named Udys and a guy named Usyn are talking to each other, it gets muddled. While this has obvious drawbacks, it is also just as salient that the world Joel created is detailed, and he was very thorough (or at least it seems so) in his creation and presentation of it. There is a high learning curve here, but as usual with that kind of curve, it has its rewards.

Back to the story though, at it's heart, SASHA is about a princess, uninterested in her royal blood, that becomes an apprentice to one of the greatest swordsman ever known. Her experiences have colored her view on life, religion, and kingdom in a very different light than the rest of her family, and most of the nobles. Eventually this disparity brings her to lead an army against her father to resolve the political, cultural, and religious problems that have arisen.

For a book in a series called A Trial of Blood and Steel, there is actually very little violence. Most of the content of the book's narrative is the characters talking, arguing, yelling, etc., back and forth about their policies and beliefs. If you read Joel's SF series, this shouldn't really come as a surprise to you. In this fantasy series, rarely is all the talking effective either. We were reminded very strongly of the dynamic that would be created in a family divided between Democrats and Republicans, with both sides trying to convince the other they are right.

The only reason we were OK with this occupying the majority of the novel, was that Joel has made all of the characters incredibly detailed. Their beliefs and motivations are clearly understood and fortified with the real depth each of the characters show. Sasha may, at first, appear to be the cliched naive, hot-tempered princess, who loves nature, does things her own way, and spurns her background. We come to find out that while she is those things, there is so much more to her. She is a fantastic lead character. Similarly, each of the other characters start out as pretty ordinary, but Joel turns our expectations on their heads and makes these characters real, and easy to care to about.

In addition, the dialog is immaculate. Simply superb. Combined with the aforementioned character depth, SASHA is a paragon of what authors should do to make readers connect to the protagonists, and even the antagonists. We rarely get to see character development perfected to this level. This is the area in which SASHA completely shines and makes a more than worthwhile read.

However, since the majority of the book is the banter between the characters, some may find it to move slowly. In all honesty, SASHA was well past the obligatory time period that readers typically give a book for the plot to grab them. It was nearly 100 pages in before we really started to get into the book. Its pacing doesn't increase either. The book doesn't run at break-neck speed, instead it carries a measured pace and caters to the readers who don't mind slowing down to examine the political and cultural ramifications of two very different ideologies smashing into each other. Nick liked the book more than Steve did for this reason.

The resolution was very well done. Thank you Joel for giving us something to look forward to, yet wrapping up the novel nicely. The series is a quartet, and most authors, it seems, would use that as an opportunity to leave us hanging or only give us part of the story (As is becoming a recent trend. Yuck). SASHA wraps up the immediate plot threads and gives us plenty to anticipate in the sequel PETRODOR. This is another place authors could turn to as an example of a fantastic way to do things.

There is another item that we want to touch on that doesn't actually reflect on the writing at all. Though really, most of you have come to expect it of us anyway. The cover art. Really, we must admit that our expectations from Pyr are extremely high, and realistically can't be met all the time. SASHA is one of the rare occurrences where we were pretty disappointed. The cover, with all respect for David Palumbo the artist, was very bland. If we saw it on the shelves at a bookstore, it's not likely we would have picked the novel up for closer inspection. It just doesn't do anything to grab the reader's attention.

SASHA, while not a thrilling read, was extremely enjoyable and we can't wait to get started on PETRODOR. Don't let the slower pace of the book, and the bland cover fool you. Within this book is a brilliant story eager to be read.

Recommended Age: 16 and up content-wise, but realistically 18 and up for enjoyment's sake.
Language: About 1/4 of the way through we were surprised the characters started to curse. There wasn't much before that. After that there pretty much what you would expect from a Rated-R movie.
Violence: Surprisingly very little. What scenes there are, aren't very bloody or graphic.
Sex: Nothing really of note.

If you are looking for some pretty solid SF novels, give Joel's Cassandra Kresnov novels a try. Also, go check out Joel Shepherd's site:


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