Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Rafen by YK Willemse
Maybe I need to give some backstory. A writer myself, I’ve regularly had friends approach me with the request to read and critique their work, not realising that I have very high expectations for my reading matter and tend to get a little wild-eyed when it doesn’t measure up.
YK Willemse, known to her chums as Yvette, is one of these friends. I think it must have been nearly ten years ago that we traded manuscripts. She got what would later become Pendragon’s Heir and was then admittedly a mess. I got what would later become Rafen, and...well, I was not particularly impressed either. And yet, in the providence of God, fast forward to 2015, and not only do we get a wonderful, though brief opportunity to reconnect in person when I travel through her country, but both of us publish both of those novels.
Reading Rafen in its new form, after so many years, gave me a thrill I never expected. My friend has grown wonderfully as a writer. Her book has grown wonderfully as a story. And today, she introduces the world to a new and intriguing fantasy novel...
Rafen is the story of a boy growing up far from the light of day, in the brutal and grinding helplessness of a slave in the mines of King Talmon of Tarhia. Rafen is different from the other slaves though. For one thing, he has a name. For another, he has drawn the attention of the ghastly Lashki Mirah, the being of extraordinary power and corruption whom King Talmon serves. And for another, there is the dream of the Phoenix and its feather...
When King Talmon kidnaps the princess of a far-away kingdom on the Lashki’s orders, Rafen’s only friend Phillippe urges him to help her escape in the hope of getting away to the outside world and finding refuge far from Tarhia. But Rafen is beset by doubt. Would his cruel masters ever allow him even the slightest chance of escape?
And if he did, would the outside world be any better than the horrors he already knows?
Rafen is the first of a multi-book series, and I have to say that after this first one, I’m intrigued about where YK Willemse will take her story next. In some ways, the book runs along familiar lines: scruffy down-and-outer rescues kidnapped princess, and they fight (fantastic) baddies. In other ways, the story surprises and startles. Rafen starts out as a slave, maltreated in various horrible and age-inappropriate ways (the main characters are aged 12 and 11, but don't let that fool you--Rafen is intended for an older audience), so that reading the first half of this novel was a bit like reading Unbroken—you understand and appreciate the realism, you just wish it would let up for a bit.
I found plenty to like. Willemse's best characters are wonderful. They don't stand on their dignity; even the noblest ones have flaws, while even the some of the worst earn our sympathy. There are also some interesting philosophical quirks inherent in the story. I can't recall the last time a novel reminded me so forcefully of Plato's Cave. And as the plot develops, a thread of allegory weaves into the story, suggesting some very interesting future developments.
I had a few criticisms. Though most of the time it flowed nicely, I can see some room for improvement in the writing style. While most of the characters were sympathetic and well-developed, I found a couple of the supporting characters, towards the end, rather flat. Names like Arlene and Bambi were a little distracting next to names like Rafen and Talmon. I found the drama leaning over into melodrama for the first half—and I have never appreciated protagonists who yell at people who are trying to help them in italicised capslock.
(Which are all complaints I had about the Harry Potter books. So Yvette's in good company).
So I wasn’t swept away by this novel. But I did find it a solid effort, and I am intrigued about watching YK Willemse as she continues to mature as an author. Most of all, I was delighted by Yvette's writerly boldness. She pulls no punches, whether it's the often very realistic abuse and trauma suffered by her main character, or the joy and gusto she shows in constructing her larger-than-life characters. True, not all her punches connect, but every so often, she hits home, and one is able to stop and bask in a wonderful bit of nobility, hope, or pathos. YK Willemse has thrown herself into this book unreservedly...and perhaps the best description of it is the one she gives on her own website: in Rafen, "outrageously busy fantasy fiction wallops you in the eye." And the result, though somewhat scattershot, is nothing if not engaging and lovable.
Rafen releases today in ebook form and paperback. Find it on Amazon or (for readers down under) on Wheelers, Fishpond, or Amazon.com.au.