If you're interested, the author participated in a Q & A with me over on the blog.
There are few phrases sweeter to readers than "Stand Alone Fantasy." Sure, most of us really get into series, but the chance to dive into a world and know that there's a narrative conclusion just a couple of hundred pages away? There's something very appealing about that. Throw in a world pretty much like nothing you've come across before? Sign me up.
Drake brings us into a world of pre-Islamic Iran -- full of social mores that are just as foreign to Western readers as anything that the most imaginative novelist could invent, along with a magic system, a belief system, and a host of supernatural beings that are equally novel. Sure, there's apparently a decent amount of historical research undergirding the fiction -- but just coming up with the idea to base something in this world and to do the research will inspire confidence.
Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner for the King of Kings. A star-reckoner is a magic-user who can harness the power of constellations -- the power of stars -- to perform their magic. Primarily, their duty is to attack divs, demon-like beings at war with humanity. Ashtadukht (this name makes me so glad for copy and paste, incidentally) is a pretty capable (with some provisos) star-reckoner, but has a reputation for being a bit too lenient with some divs. She doesn't fight the reputation, but when you see the way she deals with a few divs, you start to wonder what it'd look like if she wasn't lenient.
At some point, her father becomes concerned for her safety and recruits her cousin, Tirdad, to act as her bodyguard. Before this, he was one of the King's elite soldiers and can do some pretty heavy damage to a div himself. I really liked Tirdad -- his growth throughout the novel, his character, his sense of humor, etc. -- I really liked this guy. You'll likely have a similar reaction. He and Ashtadukht have known each other since childhood and act like it -- they know the secrets, the tells, the hearts of the other in a way that only old friends can. It's easy to believe that he'll do whatever it takes to keep his cousin safe and successful.
The other part of their party is Waray -- she's a problematic character for some, but man, I liked her. She has some verbal tics -- running words together, defining things and people as "šo" this and "šo" that (and just uses the 'š' in place of an 's' -- see my Q&A with Drake for more). Ever since Gurgi in The Prydain Chronicles, I've enjoyed the annoying not-totally-human characters (especially those obsessed with food). I think she's a hoot -- and more, there's a darkness to Waray, to her past and present -- along with her loyalty and her penchant for odd pranks.
The banter, the bickering, and friendship between Tirdad and Waray is one of those things that will attract you to this book beyond the setting and plot. The three of them are a great team, a great found-family, watching their relationship is infectious and utterly believable -- you can feel the affection they have for each other, and don't need to be told about it. There are fantasy novels when you're told that the characters are old friends and you just don't believe it (or only believe it because it's mentioned every couple of pages) but here, you see it develop and grow and have no doubts.
The novel follows the trio all over Iran dispatching a div here and there, hunting for the killer of Ashtadukht's husband (a div) and struggling against her failing health. There comes a point where things evolve past the "monster of the chapter" structure and everything is really tied together -- but I can't get into it without ruining things. It'll leave your jaw inches from its typical place and the whole book gets more intense from there.
Drake almost never info-dumps, he drops you into this world and lets you figure out what a star-reckoner does, what a div is, etc. Yes, almost every question is answered eventually -- but by the time he spells it out of you, you've pretty much figured it out on your own. I loved that. There's a humor, a heart -- and some really disturbing violence -- throughout this book. The book is sometimes challenging to read, but always rewards the effort. It's not a perfect book -- but it is so satisfying that you overlook it's shortcomings. I can't say I enjoyed everything that Drake did in the last few chapters -- but I can't fault him for them. It's not the ending I wanted, but it's the ending the novel needed.
I'm afraid I'll overuse the word imaginative if I tried to describe what Drake has done here in the depth I want to. You haven't read a fantasy novel like this one before -- almost certainly, anyway -- but you should.
Besides, anyone who works a Samuel L. Jackson reference into a book about pre-600 AD Iran deserves a read, right?