A Warrior's Path, by Davis Ashura
A Warrior's Path by Davis Ashura is the first in a series of High Fantasy novels, The Castes and the Outcastes. It follows multiple characters as they try to navigate their public and personal lives against the backdrop of a deeply regimented society - oh, and a God who has gone mad and wants to kill them all!
The story's main male protagonist is Rukh, who we meet just before a huge battle with the demonic Chimeras, monsters created by the mad God Suwraith to destroy mankind. Rukh is young, and this is his first venture outside of the city of Ashoka. He is also a phenomenally skilled warrior, and is accordingly the toast of the town.
So far, so fantasy.
However, things take an unexpected turn when we learn that the Chimera are not as mindless nor as evil as they are thought to be, and Rukh finds himself in the position of not only sympathizing with them, but realizing he and the other humans may have got it all wrong.
Rukh must question the 'facts' his society has always held dear, as well as his own status as a warrior - does he really believe that killing is the answer?
In fact, the main theme of this novel is one of realization and awakening. This is most clearly played out in terms of Rukh and the Chimeras, but there are a number of engrossing subplots that run through the novel also on this theme.
Mostly notably is that of the fate of the Outcastes, human beings who have been turned out of the city for breeding outside of their Caste (an allegory for race), and were expected to die in the wilds, killed off by either the environment of wandering Chimera.
Jessira, an Outcastes, is one of the main female protagonists. We learn from her experience about life outside of the Caste system, and are offered an outsider's view on the social strata of the main human city, Ashoka. Jessira is open-minded and proud of herself and her heritage, making no apologies for herself when she eventually meets Rukh and travels with him. When she is patronized, she speaks up for herself, when she is in danger, she fights.
But unlike some 'strong female characters', Jessira is not a male proxy - she is thoughtful, kind, and shows at times greater understanding of the rules of Rukh's society than he does. She is also flawed, and at times I found myself wanting to take her off to the side and have a strong word with her! This is, I think, a sign of a great character.
As the novel progress, we learn more about this world and the rigid Caste system that governs humanity, and how such hierarchical processes both help support the survival of the human race but also lead to prejudice, marginalization, and rebellion. While Ashura does not write in a way that paints the social situation in A Warrior's Path as black and white, there is a clear critical commentary on the problems of seeing people firstly as their Caste and secondly as themselves.
We see this dichotomy through the eyes of multiple characters, though perhaps the most interesting way that this is explored is through Bree and Jaresh.
Initially, Bree tends to align with the more conservative aspects of her society, but as her understanding grows and she is exposed to both supporting and contrasting views, her own ideas become more complex and nuanced. This is especially interesting when considered in terms of Jaresh, Bree's (and Rukh's) adopted brother, who is not one of their Caste. This is unheard of, and Jaresh suffers first hand as a result. Both Bree and Jaresh occupy a position of flux, and their relationship as brother and sister is often at odds with their desire to fit in with the social norms around them.
The fact that Ashura does not hide away from these complex issues and topics is definitely one of the strengths of this novel. As more complexity is introduced, and with it more danger, the plot ramps up and the lead characters, Rukh, Jessira, Bree, Mira and Jaresh, are all placed in highly volatile, dangerous situations. And all the while, the mad God Suwriath is planning her attack, and a mysterious spate of murders have Ashoka on the edge... All of this makes A Warrior's Path an engrossing and original read.
I do have some criticism of this novel, however. For me, it takes too long to get started, and suffers from an overabundance of description, background information and general world building in the earlier chapters. Ashura has created a complex world, so I can understand the difficulty he must have faced in communicating all its intricacies to his readers in the early stages. However, there were times when I found myself skim-reading through paragraphs of descriptions. However, once Rukh meets the Chimera the story picks up pace, and I found myself totally engrossed.
A Warrior's Path has also won a lot of awards, according to the Goodreads bio: Winner 2015 Beverly Hills Book Awards for Fantasy! Bronze Medal for General Fantasy in the 2015 Reader's Favorite Awards! Finalist 2015 International Book Awards for Fantasy! Finalist 2015 Indie Excellence Book Awards for Fantasy. Davis Ashura is on twitter, @DavisAshura, and Goodreads.