A guest review by Jenre
This fantasy story combines intricate world building with solid characterisation and a complex plot to make this an interesting read, despite some problems with pacing.
Duiem, the Land of Earth and Fire, is doomed to destruction unless a prophecy requiring Kaji, the king of Duiem, to bond to one of royal blood is fulfilled. But fate sends an escaping slave stumbling into the ceremony, and Kaji ends up bonded to a total stranger. Shy and withdrawn Aniol is an exotic enigma, a puzzle for the impatient and headstrong Kaji to solve amidst growing chaos: His world is a shambles. His people are at war. The prophecy is lost. And he is inexplicably and passionately drawn to his new bondmate.
A painful betrayal forces Kaji and Aniol on an impossible quest, guided only by a myth that tells of a gate leading to the Land of Air and Water. Though facing incredible danger, they must find that mystical gate, for its keeper holds the key to both Duiem’s salvation and the secret behind Kaji and Aniol’s growing love.
Gatekeeper begins well as we meet Kaji, the young king of Duiem who has just ascended to the throne after coming of age. Today is his wedding day and he is to be wed to the daughter of the head of the church as was prophesied at his birth. However, Fate dictates that things go very differently than expected when the wedding is interrupted by a young beggar, Aniol, who falls onto Kaji at the crucial moment thus making Kaji wed to an unknown man. Events take a further turn when it is discovered that Aniol is not just a simple beggar from the streets, leading to Kaji and Aniol searching for the true reasons why they seem fated to be together. Along the way there are a number of characters who seek to help or hinder the heroes in their quest.
There were a number of things to like about this book. My favourite part by far was the sheer breadth and imagination of the world building in the book. The descriptions of the setting are lush and evocative, and it’s obvious that careful thought had gone into the social and political structures of Duiem and its parallel world of Careil. The vivid descriptions of the country itself also added to my enjoyment of the book as the two heroes journey across Duiem looking for answers.
Another part I enjoyed a great deal were the characters who appear in the book. In many ways, the two heroes were the least interesting as they conformed to the sometimes clichéd roles of protector and protected. Kaji, the protector, is strong, fiery tempered, and overly protective of what he sees as his. Anoil is small, slight, delicate and given to weeping wherever he is under stress. There are legitimate reasons why Aniol is as he is, but I found him to be perhaps the least engaging character in the book, despite having perhaps the largest role. Kaji, at least, matures and develops as a character as the book progresses, and I enjoyed seeing him change from being a selfish, spoiled, bad tempered young king into a man I felt would be able to rule effectively. What I did like though were the secondary characters who shift in and out of the story, both friends and enemies of our heroes. This was especially the case for Rogue, the assassin and Arian, the ruler of Cariel, both of whom were well drawn. Other characters too added to the complexity of the story by adding their own paths to that of Aniol and Kaji.
I said earlier that part of this book’s charm was in the intricate world building. Rather than have the history of the Gatekeepers, Wardens and the worlds of Duiem and Cariel interwoven in the plot itself, the author has chosen to begin each chapter with a three paragraph except from what seems to be a history book. As each chapter progresses, so does the history lesson until by the end of the book the reader has been fed all the information we need about the history of the two planets. In some way I can see why the author did this, it avoids having lengthy sections of explanation during the main part of the story. However, I found these short history snippets at the beginning of the chapters rather annoying. It pulled me out of the story each time. Each chapter is very short – about 5-8 pages – and so instead of being immersed in the story, each time there’s a break for a chapter I was jolted out of the story so I could read the history lesson. I considered skipping these parts and just continuing with the main story, but I was afraid I would miss something important. As a result I found the pacing of the story to be very slow and choppy. Instead of being compelled along by the action, which may have happened if the chapters didn’t have these opening paragraphs, I found the reading stilted, which is a shame really because without those headers I think this could have been a much faster paced book.
Another aspect that wasn’t to my taste is that some of the prose is a little overblown, almost edging on purple on several occasions. The characters over-think everything and we get many shifts in points over view during a chapter – leading to a fair amount of head-hopping. Take this example of lengthy prose from the beginning of the book where Kaji is trying to discover who Anoil is:
Aniol licked his lips, trying to figure out the answer to that question before shaking his head in defeat. “I don’t really know.” He whispered the response, true and honest. His entire life lacked definition, lacked learning, and lacked all that most took for granted. What he recalled was cold, loneliness, and rough demands for visions and predictions of the future… none of which he could grant.
“Look at me.”
Aniol was compelled by that voice, but not because of its tone, nor because of its orders, but because of something far more subtle. He sensed a slim strand of uncertainly and pleading in that tone, and that was what drew him to obey.
This slight fussiness with the prose also slowed down the pacing of the story.
Overall, despite the prose and the slow plotting, I would recommend Gatekeeper to fans of m/m fantasy books. The world building and the scale of the ideas in the plotting makes Gatekeeper a rewarding experience to those readers who like such things in their books. I certainly found it an interesting story.