Dashing soldier of fortune Valentine Strange, late of his Majesty’s 21st Benhali Lancers needs money. Happily, the wealthy Holy Orders of Harappu are desperate to retrieve the diadem of the Goddess Purya from an ancient temple deep in the White Mountains–a dangerous territory Strange knows well. The pay is too good and the job sounds too easy, but Strange is not in position to refuse.
When Master Aleister Grimshaw, a dangerous witch with a traitorous lineage joins the expedition, Strange begins to suspect that more is at stake than the retrieval of a mere symbolic relic. Grimshaw knows an ancient evil surrounds the diadem. The same evil once hunted him–and still haunts his dreams. However, experience has taught him to keep his suspicions to himself or risk being denounced as a madman. Again. Harried by curses, bandits, and unnatural creatures, Strange and Grimshaw plunge onward. But when a demonic power wakes and the civilized world descends into revolution, their tenuous friendship is threatened as each man must face the destruction of the life he has known.
Major Valentine Strange is a soldier of fortune and a gambler. Strange’s gambling debts at the tables and polo are quite considerable and he knows he must find a way to repay them before his creditors make an example of him. Things are so bad that he’s even considering marriage to the lovely Lady Isabella Hyde, his major creditor, as a way out of his difficulties, but Brahman Ehimay Warrick makes him a proposition in the nick of time that he can’t refuse. His quest? Find and return the diadem of the Goddess Purya, thought to be in a monastery in the Benhali Mountains aka the White Mountains, and the Church would pay him, in advance, a prince’s ransom for his troubles. Strange, who is barely one step ahead of his creditors, is only too happy to take the job despite the dangerous trip to find the diadem.
Strange’s main problem is he has been assigned a companion on his trek into the wilds – a true blood witch by the name of Master Aleister Grimshaw, the youngest son of a once noble family that had been disgraced when his father and grandfather supported the Inborn Mutiny against those in positions of power, and they were executed as traitors. Aleister is also not pleased to be told that he would be accompanying Strange as he is still smarting over the fact that his former lover Ehimay had chosen the priesthood over him, and it seemed that Ehimay had now decided to get rid of him by sending him on the expedition with Strange.
Once on the road to the White Mountains it soon becomes clear that rather than being of assistance to Strange, Aleister is more of a burden because his mind is fractured by memories of his childhood. To complicate things, because Aleister is a witch he can see past events through scrying and he doesn’t trust Strange. Aleister spooks the marls (or bearers) who were hired by Strange for the trip, which causes trouble in the camp. Strange and Aleister have to fight off all kinds of danger, including bands of marauders who seem to know instinctively where to find them, and they are also betrayed, so they had to band together during the perilous journey in order to stay alive.
Eventually they arrive at the monastery and gain entrance a few days later by using guile but Strange soon realized that the Crux or head of the Order, and Stork another monk, are rivals, which could play into their hands. The power struggle between these two factions does play a crucial role in recovering the diadem, but not before Aleister succumbs to the white spice, a powerful narcotic which makes him almost catatonic.
On the return journey the danger accelerates and Strange wonders whether he will die in the mountains since there did not appear to be a way out. Aleister is in his own world, seemingly taken over by a strange demonic possession. Just when things were getting interesting their luck takes a turn for the worse and Strange is fast coming to the conclusion that their journey may be for nothing. To compound his troubles, he is also becoming attached to Aleister which doesn’t please him because it would spoil his plans to marry if he can’t find another way out of his financial difficulties. And this is only half way through the story ……..
Strange Fortune is a tour de force that demonstrates this author’s superb writing skills and imagination in a story that is so engrossing and layered that it reminds me of such fantasy classics as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein which, although flawed, remains fresh today almost 50 years after it was released. Lanyon was able to get this reader to care about his two flawed protagonists, one of whom is not exactly the kind of character that would endear himself to me, but Aleister is so sensitively drawn, so delicate, losing his mind right before my eyes, that it was impossible not to care about him. The other protagonist, Strange, is charming, resourceful, someone with an eye to the main chance who is not above manipulation to achieve his objectives, yet he too sneaked into my heart . Josh Lanyon built an incredible alien world in such wonderful detail and proportions in this book that it seemed real and I wondered at times if the magic that wove through the story was being used to seduce me.
In Strange Fortune the reader enters a civilization steeped in tradition where the past is as relevant as the present. Some of the action sequences, especially towards the end, are horrific and involve powerful dieties who have their own agendas and are blinded by power. You will have to have a strong stomach for the big ending, but if you love adventures, especially of the epic variety, you will definitely love Strange Fortune. As always, even though the plot is complex, Lanyon’s strength is in his characterizations and he excels here as the characters are all well drawn – from his two protagonists, Valentine Strange and Aleister Grimshaw to Aleister’s faithful old retainers Priti and Jishu, to crafty Brahman Ehimay Warrick and everyone else in between.
This book is definitely a huge risk for Lanyon as it’s the first fantasy novel that he has ever written, and many of his fans may not “get” Strange Fortune because the logical mind that’s attracted to detective stories is not necessarily open to imaginary worlds and the strange creatures that inhabit them. Would some of Lanyon’s more traditional fans enjoy Strange Fortune? My answer to that question is, it depends … on the extent to which they want to remain earth bound. Fantasies are all about letting your imagination soar with no safety net.
Strange Fortune is not perfect. There are a few small flaws and the pace slowed to a crawl a couple of times, particularly during Strange’s and Aleister’s stay in the monastery, but this is a small criticism for such a brilliantly written book and I’m amazed that Lanyon was able to do such a great job in an area where he was previously a neophyte. My opinion is, of course, coloured somewhat by the fact that I’m a long time lover of fantasies.
The wonderful characterizations, excellent prose and world building in Strange Fortune made me wonder why it took Mr. Lanyon so long to enter this new realm. Highly recommended!