Sunday, 13 November 2011

Review | The Hermetica of Elysium - Annmarie Banks

I enjoy historical fantasy. The clever twists, the fact that history is more interesting than much fiction, and the potential for contextual humour... Well, they're all things I enjoy in the subgenre (although in particular, about Guy Gavriel Kay). So when I was offered a copy of The Hermetica of Elysium, I eagerly accepted.

Before I review it, however, I will say this. It's no technically beautiful Kay novel, no Martinesquely intricate doorstopper - what Hermetica is is fun and entertaining, and a change. It's not brilliant - but it is solid.

Hermetica follows an unusual - and interesting - choice of protagonist. Nadira is not a warrior, but a linguist. Not professionally: she's a slave, but her skills lie in that direction. So when she is, uh, forcibly bargained for by Baron Montrose as a 'reader' for the titular Hermetica they're looking for, it's clear that this is what they need. The book, and its apparently mystical nature, are sought by - well, pretty much everyone in Europe! With the Borgia pope, the King of France, and Baron Montrose himself seeking the book, Nadira is going to need her wits about her to survive.

I'm in two minds about Nadira as a protagonist. On the one hand, it's refreshing to see a protagonist whose strengths do not lie in combat - and who is forced to other means. Essentially a translator, a rare fantasy profession, Banks could have taken this a long way - purposefully manipulative mistranslations, anyone? On the other hand, Nadira just seems a bit passive as aprotagonist. She relies on others for rescue, and seems to always play by the rules, doesn't improvise... To be fair, she does improve towards the end - that's development for you! - but it was the other characters who were the engaging ones. (Conti and William in particular).

The magic, on the other hand, was both poweful and limited enough to make a convincing addition to history - always a tricky thing. However, I did prefer the original conception of the Hermetica - a book simply of true knowledge, rather than of magic, and the way this was revised was never entirely clear.

Although the supporting characters - Conti, the briefly-glimpsed Pope and Cardinals - were more interesting than Nadira, I was never entirely continced by the relationship between her and Montrose. (It's stated on the blurb, so no spoilers here!) He's gruff, rarely talks to her before they get together... Perhaps a little out of place.

That said, it's solidly written: Hermetica will never be one of my top novels, but it certainly passes the time - and checks the boxes for conspiracy and intrigue. If it had done a little more with Nadira, this could have been fantastic: but, well, passivity isn't good for a protagonist. Hermetica is a worthy read, however, but probably not worth a hardback purchase.

Planning - or have - read this book? Comment and tell me below!


  1. I was sold at "linguist." lol. I'm so easy!

    Seriously, though, this does sound good. I don't know if I'll go out of my way necessarily to find a copy for myself, but I'll definitely pick it up if I see it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. "Martinesquely" lol nice... I'm reading Kay's "Sailing to Sarantium" right now and I'm absolutely loving it.. Not what I thought at all, and dammit the man CAN write wonderfully. So far it's living up to the hype...

  3. @Colleen: Hehe, yep - I'm always looking out for more interesting fantasy protagonists. (Just picked up Steven Brust, where the hero's essentially a mob boss...)

    @Cursed Armada: Totally agree - I love Kay as a writer, and the Sarantium duology is wonderfully written. It gets better in Lord of Emperors, though - with the interwoven stories following the series' main motif of the mosaic. Not to mention all the intrigue... Tigana's my favourite kay novel, though.