When I read the first book of the Lays of Anuskaya, The Winds of Khalakovo, I was struck by the authors world-building skills, first and foremost. The influences taken from our world were not the typical medieval European flare, but were more fitting for the Silk Road trade route during the time of the Great Game in the late nineteenth century. I loved the blend of Russian and Islamic cultural influences as well as the use of gunpowder technology. I enjoyed that Mr. Beaulieu could use such a technology and not have the whole story leave the realm of Fantasy and become a steampunk novel. I like the characters he gave to his readers but at the time I didn’t become overly attached to them, except perhaps Rehada. My biggest compliant was a lack of full disclosure. I felt that so much of this lush world was being held back by a story that wasn’t fleshing out as it should be. As if there were blinders on the side of my head keeping out the rest of the world. Due to the gracious nature of Mr. Beaulieu I was able to read his second book, The Straits of Galahesh. My earlier complaints have been dealt with.
I stated that the characters, while likable, had never given me much to become attached to them. That changed with this publication. Nikandr, who was kind of wishy-washy before, has become a hard man of principle. He possesses his own moral compass and becomes a bridge, unwanted at times, between the Maharraht and the Landed (people from Anuskaya) they despise so much. His captain skills are well tested in this novel, giving him the more heroic air of master and commander of his vessel. Atiana, who before was only head strong, actually became strong. Her skills at taking the dark, a sort of out body technique that allows one to manipulate worldly events, becomes as great as Nikandr’s mother, Saphia. Her willingness to put herself in danger gives her a self sacrificing nobility. She thinks fast and charges faster. She becomes a true threat to her enemies and asset to her allies, which explains why devious powers within the story try to use her to their advantage. Nasim, who was a disturbed untalkative boy and therefore was more of a prop in the first installment, has become a young man exploring his power and destiny. Nasim wages a long and complicated intellectual and spiritual battle with the two remaining Al-Aqim, Muqallad and Sariya, who are semi-immortal beings attempting to force upon the world enlightenment, this is actually not a good thing. Nasim also drives himself to find answers to his connection to Khamal, the third Al-Aqim, which in part is found within a group of cursed children turned into demon like creatures. Doing this while trying to stop the other Al-Aqim paints him as an intellectual hero, who pits his life as well as his sanity against the powers of the Al-Aqim.
In this second volume the world of Anuskaya is expanded, it covers a much larger territory and introduces more players for the stage Mr. Beaulieu has created. There is a large empire, Yrstanla, that lies to the west of the Islands of the Grand Duchy. Imagine a Russian culture on multiple small islands similar to Iceland having to face down an Ottoman Turk like empire based on the mainland. Yrstanla mirrors such a Turkic Empire, in that it is organized well and has great technology at it’s disposal. It possesses Janissaries, which like the Ottoman version, are highly organized and of one mind, as opposed to the Grand Duchy whose troops come from the different houses of the islands. It possesses more windships, more guns and more people then Anuskaya does. They pose a great threat to Nikandr and Atiana’s homeland.
There is also more information given concerning the Maharraht, what their motivations are beside a hate for the Landed, as well as identifying different factions with in their ranks. The Aramahn people, whom make up the members of the terrorist group the Maharraht, believe that people are capable of attaining a state of enlightenment they call indaraqiram. Most peace loving Aramahn believe that this is an individual journey, while others, like the members of the Maharraht believe that all of the world could undergo this transformation, even if forced. Members of the Maharraht are forced to choose between supporting the Al-Aqim, who are/were Aramahn, or taking the sides against them. Helping them reach a decision is one of Nikandr’s most trying tasks.
The Al-Aqim are really a new aspect to consider. While they were introduced in The Winds of Khalakovo, their importance to the story was not clear. In The Straits of Galahesh they become the main enemy of all things living. The Al-Aqim, including Khamal, are responsible for the state of the world. The rifts that are identified in the first book which are causing disease and famine are a botched attempt at an experimental religious ritual they initiated centuries ago. This ritual was to bring the whole world into the state of indaraqiram. Muqallad and Sariya, newly escaped from the island prison Khamal left them in, insist on finishing what they started, which will destroy everything.
The main focus of this second installment is to stop the Al-Aqim from finishing their experiment. Muqallad and Sariya manipulate the kingdoms to achieve their goals and it falls to Nikandr, Atiana, and Nasim to stop them from doing so. The way they can do this it to keep the last piece of a powerful stone, called Atalayina, out of the Al-Aqim’s hands, but they have to do this in the middle of a war that has started between Anuskaya and Yrstanla. Amidst air battles with cannons and elemental magic these three separated heros must find a way to end up at the same place and time as Muqallad and Sariya.
In The Winds of Khalakovo there were plenty of blood pumping battles taking place, between airships and musketeers. I found this style of combat refreshing for the fantasy genre, and was very pleased to see that Mr. Beaulieu added even more in The Straits of Galahesh. This time the battles are bigger, more encompassing, and more exciting. One of the main reasons for this is not just the windships and the descriptive nature of Beaulieu’s writing, but the fact that all of his characters are vulnerable. Each of these heros could die, each has fears and weaknesses, they are not the perfect warriors. Atiana tends to be too smart for her own good, over thinking some things. This leads to her falling for traps set by Sariya. Nikandr is always too trusting, putting himself and many of his crew in the hands of potential enemies. Granted, Nikandr does all this in the name of peace, but the risks still seem foolish. Nasim struggles with his confidence. He doubts himself when faced with questions posed by Muqallad. He second guesses his closest allies and places rifts between himself and them at the worst possible times. With each conflict I began to wonder if these scattered heros would survive. Not to mention that the elemental magic featured in the first book is used once again with great effect, giving many of the characters an almost Last Airbender feel and upping the danger factor. The ability Mr. Beaulieu has to convince you that he might kill off his leading roles helps make for good reading.
The Winds of Khalakovo kept the reader on the Islands of the Grand Duchy, never letting you see beyond the sea that surrounds them. The Straits of Galahesh open up that closed door to reveal a more detailed world. Mr. Beaulieu planned this world unveiling well by wetting your appetite with the first book and then providing a much bigger sequel, for the gravity of the conflict becomes greater with a larger world on the line. I am very pleased to have continued reading this imaginative new series and would recommend it to anyone who loves a good rich fantasy world. I think a few steampunk fans might like it as well. Also, like any good fantasy series, you can’t start with the second book. So, If you have not read The Winds of Khalakovo go and get a copy and get caught up. If you have and are wondering if you should continue reading the series let me help you decide that, do it.