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Book Review: Dawnbringer by Samantha Henderson

Genre: Forgotten Realms, Sword and Sorcery, Fantasy, Shared World
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date: May 3, 2011
ISBN-10: 0786957948
ISBN-13: 978-0786957941
Author Website: Samantha Henderson

The story of Dawnbringer by Samantha Henderson begins with an allusion: “Two Households both alike in dignity…break from ancient grudge into new mutiny…leaving even angel’s hands unclean.” says the back cover using a famous line of Romeo and Juliet to set up Dawnbringer’s tale of warring families in the Forgotten Realms world.

The tale opens with the histories of the two houses founders. In a short story encompassing the first seventy-eight pages, Henderson relates the origin story of the Jadaren and Beguine merchant families and the event that precipitated the rift between the former allies.

Beginning at page seventy-nine, we skip forward in time several hundred years. Both families are now widely successful merchants know far beyond the borders of Turmish, the country they both call home. Each has committed atrocities upon the other over the years, but now the two family scions have struck a deal to marry their children and stop the endless feud that would have done the Hatfields and McCoys proud. But at least one Beguine does not approve of the match, and will use his sorceries to end the Jadarens once and for all.

But while these particulars are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s most famous play, this story is not a romance. Our primary protagonists are actually two devas, angels sent to Toril to serve in mortal flesh the needs of the gods that sent them. Lakini (the female) and Lusk (the male) have known each other for a long time. Serving at a sacred site of respite and holy men, they have protected the sanctuary of Shadrun-of-the-Snows for centuries. But Shadrun hides a secret unknowingly, and there are malevolent forces working behind the scenes that may destroy both devas and the two rival merchant houses.

Henderson’s novel is quite complex. She has two plots going, with numerous subplots, a lengthy origin story, and a panoply of character perspectives. This keeps the plot interesting, as the reader stays abreast of the different characters’ motivations and how each moves within the others’ plotlines. Multiple villains mix with multiple heroes, each working separately and at times together. There is no strict good vs. evil in this story, only competing desires and expectations. What is amazing is how smoothly Henderson keeps the story flowing considering its complexity and relatively short length. It was as easy to become attuned to and interested in disparate (yet integrally connected) stories of the deva Lakini, the pirate Gareth, and the star-crossed lover Kestrel. None of them fail to entertain, and none of them are so unsubtle as to be one-note characters.

Henderson eschews simplistic characterization. Kestrel Beguine is a worried young lady who does not know if her Jadaren husband is someone she will like, but is also a confident bookkeeper. Vorsha, Kestrel’s mother, is enwrapped in an illicit affair, but is basically a good person, as one of her final acts reveals. Sanwar Beguine is motivated to evil by good motives, and it is only a chance encounter with true evil that pushes him over the edge. Lakini is heroic but conflicted and Lusk torn up inside by events long past. Even the most simple of characters, such as merchant army commanders, are not throwaway roles under the pen of Henderson. Her story is about people and the varied complexities of their relationships, each one affecting the other deeply.

The focus in the novel is on building characters and character interaction. That does not mean there isn’t any action (one particularly awesome deva vs. werewolf fight scene comes to mind) but readers looking for epic action sequences won’t particularly enjoy this Forgotten Realms novel. When Henderson does write fight sequences, they remind the reader of some of the great scenes R. A. Salvatore has constructed, but there are not a lot of them. Henderson’s great strength is a complicated plot with strong, interesting characters, and for that reason Dawnbringer is a worthy read.

Some readers are not going to like that Henderson takes a good bit of time to get to the meat of the narrative. The first seventy-eight pages are given over to a story about characters that we will not see again except in their effect on their descendants. It is certainly an entertaining story, but I know that at the moment I realized we would be jumping centuries away from the first introduced characters I was a little upset that I had invested myself in a third of the novel and characters I would never see again. Thankfully, later characters in Dawnbringer have just as interesting stories as Gareth, Ivor, and Jandi.

This is also probably the raciest Forgotten Realms novel I have read to date. Henderson includes one particularly titillating scene between Sanwar and Vorsha where a breast is cupped and a nipple hardens. It was a surprise to me as a long-time Forgotten Realms reader, as that sort of material has never, to my memory, ever been a part of the novels set in this shared world. That being said, this is the only such instance of that kind of description in the entire novel, and it is fairly tame for the average adult reader, but those readers who may share these books with younger readers may want to be cognizant of its appearance in Dawnbringer. I wasn’t offended by its appearance myself, just surprised, and of course I am well aware I am pointing out this one instance when there is talk of chopping heads off and running people through with swords throughout the novel – the violence is certainly more pervasive than an “raciness” in the novel.

I also found the sequence describing Lakini’s transformation excessively long. Henderson, while being suitably mythic and experiential in the writing of Lakini’s changes, overdoes it a bit. I enjoyed Henderson’s description for itself; I just felt that it dragged on overlong for the novel as a whole. It’s a reader preference thing, as I’m sure other readers will enjoy the poetic nature of Lakini’s rebirth.

For all the books supposed flaws or oddities of construction, I have to admit that I have rarely enjoyed a Forgotten Realms novel more. The book is easily read by anyone unfamiliar with the Realms, is entirely stand-alone (so far) has exceptional characterization and a complex but easily followed plot. It borrows plot devices from Shakespeare while also being full of sword and sorcery pulp action. I highly recommend Samantha Henderson’s Dawnbringer.