I've been seeing promotional cards for Colette Black's novels at conventions for years, but somehow never managed to track down one of her books. So many authors, so little time! However, those cards kept her name in my mind and when I was given the opportunity to read a couple, I leapt at it.
'Fourteen' was something of a shock, because it doesn't feel like a self-published book and those of you who read enough of them will know what a compliment that is. Sure, Drapukamo Publishing of Higley, AZ, doesn't seem to have a website of its own and there's the recognisable final page of a CreateSpace imprint, but the usual self-publishing problems are kept to a minimum. The use of smartquotes is inconsistent and there are a few odd typos and layout errors that should have been caught in proofing, but that's about it.
Instead, it has an original and stylish front cover and a good layout; it includes a couple of minor features that I'd like to figure out how to copy; and it's written in a comfortable writing style that suggests that there have been many million Colette Black words written before this book was ever begun. In fact, even with some flaws that I'll shortly go into, this is that rare self-published novel that could be sold to a major publisher. I could also see it adapted to film, as the majority of it is very cinematic indeed. Nominally young adult fiction, it's too edgy for Disney (when Disney start including nudity in films, I'll know I'm in the Twilight Zone) but it could play well in the right directorial hands and with the right budget.
The plot is relatively simple: most of the book, the first volume in the Number Prophecy trilogy, is a chase scene, albeit one set in a complex and fantastic world with a feel for history and an eye for romance. Four characters are rather keen to get away from a fifth, as their lives depend on it, and they spend most of the book trying to do so. I presume the first sequel, titled 'Thirteen' and due in mid-2016, will slow their motion away and begin a very different journey back in.
The characters are well-delineated and well-drawn, if somewhat predictably, and we cheer and boo accordingly. Their development is handled very well, but we know how they're going to change before they realise it themselves. While we do care about them and want to see that change happen, the plot revolves around danger and there just aren't enough characters to set up a George R. R. Martin environment where it doesn't matter how much we care, the writer can kill them off anyway.
The villain is the all-powerful Emperor Beht Han, perhaps the ruler of his entire world, but he's by far the least interesting of the bunch because he's the standard Ming the Merciless type, which has never been sustainable. He's so utterly in control that the slightest deviation from his command or failure to achieve his goals can be, and usually is, punishable by instant death. He racks up quite the body count in three hundred pages. The only change he's likely to get will be his inevitable downfall, but I presume that's two books away. The story isn't about that eventuality, it's about what happens on the way to it.
The most important character is the Fourteen of the title, so named because he's the fourteenth of the emperor's numerous children. That isn't a nod to Charlie Chan, it's a means to dehumanise them for reasons we soon discover. In the early chapters, this focal point vies with three of his siblings to succeed him. However, succession isn't quite what they expect, the truth hinted at by the fact that the emperor's children are all sons physically identical to him, and when Fourteen discovers what's really going on, he rebels and runs, moving in one stroke from number fourteen son to public enemy number one.
Fourteen, or Gabrick, as his mother apparently named him before her own murder, has every bit of the story arc denied to the emperor. Sixteen years old, he's spent his entire life being trained and educated in the Numbers Compound, being readied for a potential ascension to the throne, but, as this life is the only one he knows, he doesn't realise that he's been living in a luxurious prison. He aches to see the world beyond the walls, but finds the reality of it not remotely as comfortable as the one place to which he now can't return.
What's more, his sheltered upbringing extends to people too. Every person he's ever met is deferent, polite and subservient because, hey, he's the emperor's son. He has a servant of his own, the curvaceous Aednat, and he surreptitiously visits one of the Emperor's many concubines, Esterelle. It's no surprise that a man trained from birth to become an Emperor is full of self-importance, but going on the run is the biggest wake-up call he could ever get. Especially when it comes to people, the world outside doesn't remotely mimic what he's used to and he finds that his real education began the moment he stepped beyond the walls.
Aednat is the second of the four running from the wrath of the emperor and she's the weakest of them by far, serving mostly (pun not intended) as a constant reminder of where Fourteen came from and what he's left behind. She exists primarily to highlight the changes in him as he experiences the world and finds that what he always wanted isn't necessarily what he wants now.
Smitten with Aednat, he wouldn't suggest that he wants Mariessa, but it's pretty obvious from the outset that they're going to end up together. Her story begins with her violent sale into slavery to become one of the Emperor's mothers, one who will give birth to one of those identical sons. As the voice of rebellion in the story, she resists immediately and, somewhat like a feral creature, continues to resist throughout. She grows too, realising that some people are the way they are because it's all they know and that it is possible for them to change of their own accord. She also finds that she changes more than anyone else, after discovering that she's of sorceress stock and her small body contains a vast power.
If Mariessa has grounding in a world unfathomable to Fourteen, Master Chid Den, professional man of danger, has even more. While he may be the closest thing to a friend that the emperor has ever had, that's no friend at all, and he patiently waits for his opportunity to take him down. He sees it in Fourteen, his young student, so whisks him away from his fate at the emperor's hands to freedom in the world outside and we gradually realise that his act has the potential to fulfill a prophecy. It also helps that he's also protective of Aednat, though in a fatherly way. Mariessa is the only wildcard to him.
If these are decent, if not too surprising, characters, the greatest success of this book is that they're thrown into a fascinating world. Colette Black never tells us whether this is an alien planet or an alternate Earth, but it's an eerily familiar place, crafted out of Chinese culture, colonial arrogance, the Indian caste system and a host of other very Earthly influences. While I do want to follow Fourteen's destined journey and see how it all plays out, I especially want to discover more about the world that Black created here.
Society is very structured, with every human being except the Numbers, the emperor's children, belonging to a tier which reflects their status. As that tier is tattooed onto them soon after birth for the world to see, movement between the many classes is hardly commonplace. Growing up in the sheltered Numbers Compound, Fourteen never saw a single soul below tier five, who were the servants. Yet, outside the palace, he discovers that the world is full of people occupying tiers as low as ten and that they're people too. His inherent arrogance is constantly checked by the reality he experiences and it's fascinating to watch it broken.
It's not difficult to see that such a ruthless authoritarian system is ripe for the tumbling (isn't that what they have to do in prophecy trilogies?), but it's highly refreshing to see such care and attention devoted to the art of worldbuilding as we move towards that eventuality. 'Fourteen' runs over three hundred pages in length, but it focuses almost entirely on four characters, with the emperor an omnipresent threat to them all and a few others waiting in the wings for a moment or two of their own. The real supporting character, though, is the world of Dixho itself and I look forward to watching it grow over the next two books in the trilogy.
I enjoyed 'Fourteen' a great deal, even if it was less for its story and more for its world and the writing of Colette Black. I'll certainly look for 'Thirteen', when it's published, and wonder about the title of the third and last book in the trilogy. ~~ Hal C F Astell