Rosenberg, Joel -- D'Shai [re-read]

As good as I remembered it. The world of D'Shai is a wonderful creation: vivid, overwrought, over-the-top, colorful (for once Darryl K. Sweet is the appropriate cover artist). Influenced by mythical/historical Japan and China, but not a simple appropriation of either. Viciously caste-bound, but with enough social hypocrisy to make the rules dangerously permeable. Filled, top to bottom, with kazuh: the magic of skill, which builds on whatever you do (swordsmanship, juggling, carving wood, plowing a field) and raises talent and experience into genius and the splintering edge of human ability.

Kami Khuzud is a young acrobat -- a good acrobat, after years of practice with his itinerant troupe -- but not a kazuh acrobat. Acrobats are legally of the peasant class, but they entertain the nobility, which means they get to mix above their social circle. Mind you, being noticed by the nobility means you might offend the nobility. An offended noble can cut your head off; as can an angry noble or a mildly bored noble, for that matter. Kami Khuzud is something of a cynic about what he calls "our beloved ruling class". But the banquets are nice.

While entertaining the imposing Lord Toshtai, the Khuzud troupe is struck by tragedy. Kami Khuzud does not believe the death is an accident. Lord Toshtai, for his own reasons, declares that Kami Khuzud shall discover what really happened. Disappointing a noble is about as wise as offending one, so off goes the acrobat, poking his nose where peasants really shouldn't, if they value their heads.

If I try to list what's good about this book, I fall over in a burble: Lord Toshtai is awesome, Kami Khuzud's acrobat family is awesome, the juggling is awesome, the ironic formal customs are awesome, the food is awesome (oh powers, the food) (and the liquors too). The castle wizard and the castle swordsman. The aristocratic D'Shai culture, which is equally full of dung-footed peasants and lower-class boarding houses and bourgeois castle servitors. The fact that castle guards are required to have good singing voices, so that they can announce newcomers and raise alarms in four-part harmony.

The magic is brilliant -- I can't believe other writers haven't stolen the gimmick -- because what is either more numinous or more familiar than the moment of hitting the zone and doing it right?

On top of that, it's a formal mystery, with suspects and clues and motives and all that good stuff. One will not be surprised to learn that Kami Khuzud finds the murderer, and learns something about his kazuh along the way.

There is one sequel, equally good (The Hour of the Octopus). Sadly the series didn't sell well enough to justify further entries, and now the writer is gone, so two books is what we've got. Read 'em.

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