I have always been interested in stories with airships, though I can’t recall what story first introduced me to such a concept, I remember many examples. By airships, I do mean something like Spanish flying galleons, whether by magic or some complex steampunk technology. There are many famous examples to examine, such as the entire Fantasy Final franchise, which always features airships of some kind. Hayao Miyazaki films never seem to disappoint when it comes to air travel. There is, however, a pitfall to airship stories, it is not wise to build the story around the technology used. That is why, I believe, Steampunk as a genre has not really taken off, too much love of tech. So, I picked up Mr. Beaulieu’s book, the first in a yet unfinished trilogy, with an airship prominently displayed on the cover, I was not expecting much. I was pleased to find that while the story needs more development, it is about people not tech.
There are three main characters in Mr. Beaulieu’s first novel, Nikandr Khalakovo, who is a prince and struck with a wasting disease. Atiana Vostrama, Nikandr’s betrothed from a rival family, who is quite talented in riding the aether, something the woman of powerful families do. Then there is Rehada Ulan al Shineshka, a member of a what is essential a terrorist group and Nikandr’s lover. The story, revolves around these three people and a mystical boy named Nasim and what they do to save each other, Nasim and stop the all the powerful people from killing everyone. While easy to follow the story doesn’t provide enough detail to truly become apart of the world. At this point, I will not entirely hold that against the novel. Many fantasy novels take more than one book to fully explain their plots, which can equally be a negative and a positive. In the case of Khalakovo, I am not sure yet.
There is a rift in the aether of this world that is causing the wasting disease that has inflicted many, including Prince Nikandr. It is somehow related to three people, long since dead and gone, but reincarnated in the novels current time. One of these reincarnations is in the boy Nasim, and he can either heal the rift or use it to destroy the world. This is why a group of Aramahn, known as the Maharraht, who are the terrorists that Rehada is a member of, want the boy. The Landed don’t understand this connection, but Nikandr does. The story is played out well through the relationships Nikandr has with Rehada and Atiana and includes a few airship chases and battles, complete with muskets and cannons, and elemental spirit attacks. All over the saving of this boy who everyone is trying to either capture or kill.
The world that Mr. Beaulieu has created is quite intriguing. It is a grouping of large islands that hold two different kinds of people. The first are the Landed, a group patterned after late Czarist Russia. They are the Landed for they have settled tracks of land on the islands and tend to remain there, building societies. The next is the Aramahn, who are a mix between the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and flashes of Arabian culture. Even though these people have villages within the controlled area of the Landed they are more want to travel around somewhat like nomads, yet they tend to do this individually. These two groups have a rocky relationship as the Landed are very ordered and like to control things as well as look down on the Aramahn. They also hire the Aramahn to help fly their airships, because they Aramahn can control elemental sprits that move back and forth from the real world and their world around the islands. It is these spirits that seem to keep the airships afloat. The Aramahn are for the most part peace loving people who are too free spirited for centralized control and deeply spiritual, believing in reincarnation and forgiveness of those who have wronged them.
There are several aspects of this world that are unclear. While I don’t believe every last detail needs to be clarified to enjoy a story, sometimes certain aspects must be to help convey the impact of what you are reading. The spirits that the Aramahn bond with are not well defined. Why they manifest as they do is not fully explained. Why the Aramahn can bond with them when others can’t is not fully explained. Even their importance is not fully explained. This leaves the importance of the rift and the boy Nasim in question. The three godlike beings that caused the rift as well are a big question mark, even after Nikandr is exposed to one of them. It is not clear how the rift was even caused and why Nasim can fix it.
There is also the aether, which was a cleaver invention of the author that involved a slightly erotic and understandably vulnerable ritual undertaken by the aristocratic women of the story. This is where Atiana’s natural aptitude shines, when she ‘takes the Dark’. However, it is not fully explained how the aether is connected to the world or why these women can do this when men can’t, which takes away from Ataina’s gifted use of it. So, again, while very entertaining the impact is lost.
The relationship between the Landed and Aramahn is unclear as well. So, the distrust and sometimes dislike between them doesn't provide enough of a emotional motivation to be believed, especially when they work so close together. That calls into question the airships themselves. These people live on islands, so water going vessels should be common, and they are, but mostly only as fishing boats. So, why did the Landed take to the air with the help of their distrusted neighbors, especially when they have technology to make ships that would rival Napoleonic aquatic warfare? Only an arms race would explain this, but that level of tension between the Landed kingdoms is only hinted at.
While there was many well written dramatic scenes played throughout the story many fell flat for me as I wasn’t convinced of the importance of the players or the setting or some other aspect. The battle scenes and chase scenes while having potential were too civilized to have the raw emotional effect that they should. The relationship between Nikandr and the women in his life was a bright point. The affections between them where very different with both women and for different reasons. Although, the intimacy between Nikandr and Rehada made more sense, as it there was more history between them that allowed for more relationship building moments that humans naturally experience. While his relationship with Atiana seemed predestined, it was not explained by what.
Nikandr’s connection with Nasim, though strong, is another aspect of the story left unclear. The Landed, at least the aristocracy, wear amulets that are connected to their life force. Nikandr’s is dim because of his disease. Somehow Nasim helps him through the stone he wears, but it is not clearly explained how or why. Nikandr develops an undying loyalty based on only what he suspects Nasim to be, because Nasim can’t talk, or just doesn’t most of the time.
All in all The Winds of Khalakovo was an entertaining read, and easy to breeze through. The world has the beginnings of a steampunk fantasyland that could at some point, with more development, become a highly detail playground for readers. The main characters are easy to like, I just wish that there supporting cast was as more developed as they are. The first book in The Lays of Anuskaya is an easy and fun read for when you want to be entertained yb a rich world. With more attention to detail Mr. Beaulieu could make this story something for the imagination to reveal in rather than leave it guessing. This is only the first book, so perhaps patience is needed to see all Khalakovo can offer.