D’Shai is a wonder. The book is named for the country, and a magnificently realized country it is: Asian flavored, without beating a reader over the head with it, and with its own wonderfully unique system of — everything, from magic to language to time-keeping. (Rosenberg had fun with the latter, replacing the traditional Japanese hours with his own innovations. The Japanese hours are Hare, Dragon, Serpent, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Cock, Dog, Boar, Rat, Ox, Tiger; no Octopus there … ) There are 52 Ways, meaning 52 vocations for which some are born, for which some have an added ability. A kazuh runner can, once kazuh is raised, run for hours; his only limitation is the endurance of his body, and while in the state of kazuh that doesn’t matter to him: he can and might and will run until his bones break and his muscles snap and he dies.
A kazuh acrobat, therefore, is something spectacular. It is also something that our hero and narrator, Kami Khuzud (which means Eldest Son Acrobat), is not: acrobat, yes, because he was born into a family of (mostly kazuh) acrobats and he has been trained since infancy; kazuh, no. What else he is: of the peasant caste, yet not quite: he does not work the land, so peasants don’t own him, and he certainly isn’t bourgeois, much less one of the “beloved ruling class”. He is part of the best acrobatic troupe in D’Shai, though, and Lord Toshtai enjoys acrobatic troupes, so his status is not as lowly as it might be. Still, being in love with NaRee, a daughter of the bourgeois class, is a generally very bad idea, because there isn’t anyone besides the two of them who are going to be in favor of that…
And very far from favor, this romance leads to terrible things. Kami Khuzud has a rival, and the rival is much higher than he – and the rival does not take well to being or having a rival. Tragedy ensues – and it is down to Rosenberg’s great skill that what happens is truly a terrible thing. Kami wangles himself an order from Lord Toshtai to investigate the death, and in doing so discovers he can raise kazuh after all – just not as an acrobat, or any of the other 51 Ways known for centuries. He becomes something new: Eldest Son Truth-Seeker. When he is in the zone, he can match Sherlock Holmes – and he does, working his way through the scanty available evidence and his new-found abilities to bring the book to a satisfying – and surprising – conclusion.
I’ve seen this called a light fantasy mystery, and I suppose that about covers it, but it’s more than simply that. It could never fit into the typical “cozy mystery” category. It is very much a fantasy, and it happens to have a good mystery built into it; the lightness comes from a great sense of humor built into the narration, not from the sort of slapstick/madcap comedy of most cozies.
I love this book. It is wonderful when old favorites surpass expectations upon being reread: this did. I remembered loving it long ago, and have been intending to pick it up again, and finally did so when prompted by word of Joel Rosenberg’s untimely death in June. I wound up raising my rating from four to five stars. It’s a beautiful book. With utter confidence Joel Rosenberg set the story in a thoroughly new milieu, and taking the reader in via the first-person narration he never sets a foot wrong: we always know what we need to know, because both Kami and Rosenberg know everything. Kami is young, a little dense at times though very intelligent, honest with the reader and himself even when he’s not being honest with others, and generally what used to be called a boon companion. I like him a lot – and I dearly wish there was more than one other book set in this world with Kami Dan Shir.
One thing I have to say going back to the unique structure of the world: as I mentioned, it is given an Asian feel, down to people eating with “eating sticks”. But they are called “eating sticks” – never chopsticks. While elements are recognizable, there are no jarring and out of place references to anything readily identifiable as specifically Chinese or Japanese or Korean or otherwise terrestrial: everything is unique to and part of D’Shai. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so well done, outside of Guy Kay’s work.