This book came as a surprise. As always, praise be sung to the Goodreads community for their recommendations. This is the first book I've read by Janny Wurts and I'll surely look for more of her works.
To Ride Hell's Chasm is uniquely written, and at first I struggled with the complex phrasing, the subtle choice of words, and the masterful descriptions. Yet the plot, carefully unwinding in the first part of the book, and the compelling characters, fully rounded and intriguing, did not fail to make me feel for this great book, and devour page after page, craving more.
The book opens with the sudden disappearance of the princess of a small and secluded kingdom on the night of her betrothal party, and the captains of the city garrison and the royal guards are tasked with the investigation. The first is Mykkael, a mysterious foreigner and an unrelenting commander burdened by a heavy past, whose fighting prowess and integrity of character divide the opinions of both his men and his employers. The second is Taskin, the long-serving right-hand of the king, a man of high moral values: just, stern and stalwart, a warrior born and nourished in a sheltered kingdom, but thanks to his intellect, not hidebound. The world-building is powerful, truly evocative in both the urban and the wilderness backdrop, and the fascinating, multifaceted magic system plays an important part in the story.
The carefully tended cast of characters is a real gem. I absolutely loved the main characters interaction, they take center stage so smoothly that I think I related to the investigation through them, and got frustrated along with them at the inevitable clash of cultures and prejudices.
Taskin didn't despise or destroy what he could not understand and I think his reliance and growing relationship with Jussoud (or the fact that he acknowledged the qualities of a foreigner in the first place) is a consequence of that: he cannot understand Mykkael but he perceives honesty behind his behavior and cannot blindly dismiss him; even when the evidence seemed to prove him differently, Taskin coherently keeps probing, and he starts to change by small degrees during the story as reaction to the events and to Mykkael's unyielding convictions. He's solid and loyal and very human: his stubbornness and hesitations were aggravating but greatly in-character for a man whose core beliefs were being so badly shaken, all things considered he behaved admirably.
I resonated with this pair and the secondary characters, while the mystery tightens and the tension grows, and then when I thought all the carefully laid details and pieces were going to click into place I was in for big surprises instead, as Taskin and Mykkael get entangled by more layers of intrigue, collisions and sudden turns of events.
The whole story unrolls in a few days, the first part set in the city and immediate surroundings, the second mainly set outside the capital city of Sessalie, and it is indeed a race against impossible odds, where there is no hewn line of action and the reader is thrown off-balance in his certainties.
I was engaged in reading about both the princess and the warrior riding in Hell's Chasm and the warded in the castle growing to realize the truth behind the disappearance of Anja, and slowly coming to the understanding that only concerted efforts can save the kingdom from doom.
I couldn't help comparing the differences in the story as the main setting changes from urban to wilderness, but I enjoyed every page of the book, and most importantly, the epilogue with its intensity, its coral quality, the possibility that selfless courage and acceptance still retain the power to redeem a tormented soul in a intense denouement. Personally I would have liked that things could have gone differently, but as they were coherence demanded no less and I appreciated the author didn't offer a complaisant solution; endings are a vital linchpin of a good story and can make the difference between a book I like and I book I love thru and thru and which will always be a favorite, like To Ride Hell's Chasm. I was left with a bitter sense of void when I reached the last page, and a slight vexation at knowing the story had truly reached its end.
I empathized with the pair Taskin and Mykkael as they tried to delineate the circumstances of the princess disappearance and the suspects parties; I enjoyed the second part of the book as well, more action-packed and fast paced, and the denouement, which, while entirely coherent, left a bit of hurried aftertaste and a longing for a less steep epilogue, particularly after the care deployed in the urban-set part of the book. I liked the princess as well, and she is not wanting for intensity, but I missed the balance of uncertainties and the keen undertones of the Taskin/Mykkael conflict.
Janny Wurts' writing style features an incredibly focused vocabulary and she literally paints the story with carefully evocative words and studied linguistic structures. Her deep poetic style is of great emotional impact, and for me it became an element in its own right, which added an uniqueness to the events narrated, the pace set and the characters portrayed, and was not only a medium of ancillary importance to convey plot and images. That's what I felt with Hell's Chasm and that is probably why I related so strongly at once, to that engaging complexity that just pulls you in and doesn't let you go (also, being English a second language, had I found this choice a simple exercise of style I would have had no motivation to go on: the language must needs fit the story). I agree it is a matter of taste and expectations, and this kind of writing may not be to everybody's taste, but I was glued to this book from start to end, and the style enhanced my reading experience.
Adult fantasy at his best, wonderfully written, thought provoking, with unforgettable characters, involving, entertaining and unpredictable. Warmly recommended.