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Book Review: Sasha by Joel Shepherd

# Genre: Historical Fantasy, Epic/High Fantasy
# Paperback
# Publisher: Pyr
# Publication Date: October 27, 2009
# ISBN-10: 159102787X
# ISBN-13: 978-1591027874
#Author Website: Joel Shepherd

In the Cassandra Kresnov trilogy, Joel Shepherd created a strong heroine with a powerful personality. The pseudo-historical epic fantasy Sasha continues Shepherds trend by introducing the reader to Sashandra “Sasha” Lenayin, former princess and student to the greatest swordsman the nation of Lenayin has ever seen.

The tale begins many years after Sasha decide to leave her family and become a warrior in the tradition of the serrin, a race of people who have given themselves to rationality unlike the rest of the tradition bound, spirit-and-god worshiping lands around them. Lenayin, a land much like post-Roman, pre-Norman Britain, is religiously divided between the spirit worship of the original Goeren-yai inhabitants, and their overlords, the god-worshiping Verenthanes. Sasha is caught, because although she is a Verenthane by birth, she loves the Goeren-yai, while at the same time seeking the rational tradition of the serrin and the Nasi-Keth. But Sasha’s uniqueness is going to serve as a catalyst for great change in nation very close to civil war, and it will be up to her – the bridge between two worlds – to save the old traditions and their symbols while at the same time bringing them into peace with the Verenthane beliefs, many whose followers feel themselves superior.

Shepherd has created a court fantasy similar to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Though not as complex as Martin’s incomplete work, Shepherd has produced a work that relies heavily on the suspense of politics and religion more so than fighting or battles. Though there are some, (Sasha is a warrior of the highest skill after all) much of the action really occurs in the machinations of the Verenthane overlords and the Goeren-yai freedom fighters.

Sasha is completely caught up in all this. Her greatest desire is to avoid politics, to be only just another warrior in a land of warriors. But her royal birth and unusual beliefs make this impossible. The novel primarily tracks Sasha as she grows from a well-trained but naive warrior into a brilliant tactician and leader of men in a male-dominated society. Shepherd has created a new Joan of Arc tale in a secondary world, one which posits success for Joan rather than bringing at the stake. (Though this still could happen, as this is the first book in a trilogy does not complete Sasha’s story arc, only concludes a chapter of it.)

Readers looking for a magic system in this book will not find it. Sasha reads more like a historical novel than a standard fantasy, and there are no dragons, elves or dwarves. The only unearthly beings are the serrin, and even they are human enough to interbreed with humanity, and have no other distinguishing features about them other than unusual philosophy and great martial prowess.

For all that much of the plot hinges on the beliefs of various parties, Shepherd does not do a very good job at fleshing out the religions. Verenthanes are analogous to a pantheistic version of the Catholic Church, the Goeren-yai believe in spirits in a Celtic fashion, and the Nasi-Keth (serrin) are rationalists and pragmatists. But these are generalizations, and for all the talk of tradition and belief, very little of it is actually fleshed out. Shepherd could have done more to make the belief systems a little vibrant and more real, since they are such a large part of the motivations of many of the primary and secondary characters. The story is about a religious civil war, but the religion part of it is the least understood of the whole novel and it sadly damages the effectiveness of the tale.

However, Shepherd does make up for that by creating a couple of intriguing and complex characters. Of course there is Sasha, whose naivete-to-leadership growth takes many twists and turns. She is human and foible, often rash, but always seeking to do right. There is also Jaryd, who changes from proud Verenthane into something else completely after some time spent with Sasha and some sad losses. And there are secondary characters that don’t change much, but are good examples of honor and villainy, but not in some over the top cartoonish sort of way.

On a side note, I also appreciate Shepherds lack of overly sexualizing Sasha. Though she is occasionally referred to as pretty, the character is a warrior first and foremost, and it is that aspect of Sasha that Shepherd keeps front and center. A look at the cover chosen for the Pyr edition (which I read) shows what I mean. Sasha is not some overly sexualized, large breasted, scantily clad Amazonian. But rather a woman dressed for a battle in practical clothing, short hair and a sword and dagger. Sasha is martial, a leader and a fighter. This is to be appreciated in a genre that sometimes makes caricatures of warrior women. Sasha’s character is a breath of fresh air in a subgenre with too many Xena’s.

Ultimately, the story of Sasha, though long and occasionally slow, is still a good epic fantasy that focuses more on the epic than the fantasy. Sasha is excellent reading for fans of character driven stories. I recommend it.