The Ritual by Erica Dakin

The Ritual by Erica DakinThe protagonists of this high fantasy novel are members of an oppressed minority, their only options a life of crushing poverty or consistent crime. However – unlike the oppressed heroes of some fantasy novels – they are neither on a quest to right this wrong nor defined by their race. Instead Dakin has created characters who, much more realistically, do much of what they do because it brings personal benefit.

The story revolves around Chiarin, a half-elf thief, who fled the prospect of slavery to remain with her twin sister, Shani, a sorcerer. A chance encounter in the market brings her into conflict with Zashter and Mior, also half-elf twins and a thief and sorcerer respectively. Exchanging apprenticeship for help, Chiarin and her sister are drawn into the brother’s scheme to steal several powerful items. With Zashter alternately distant and very friendly, Chiarin must struggle with her growing attraction. A chance conversation reveals another scheme within scheme and the possibility that the brothers do not have their best interests in mind.

Although the plot of gathering several artefacts for a magician is a common one, Dakin successfully layers the individual plots for each item with longer plots for both the characters and the world as a whole, preventing this from feeling simply a series of narrative events.

The majority of the world-building is similarly well done, giving the reader enough detail of different locations to make them feel unique without losing the realistic feel provided by a single culture being broadly the same across its range.

The one area that seemed a little awkward was the legal oppression of all half-elves. Although it felt reasonable for both humans and elves to be socially prejudiced against half-breeds, both humans and elves enjoyed more rights than half-elves. Without a real explanation for why the elves hated their kin more than humans, the legal oppression seemed odd. However, this was ultimately a minor point in an otherwise clearly realised world, and does successfully avoid loss of momentum to long historical exposition.

It is a testament to Dakin’s characterisation that two sets of twins, each comprising a dominant thief and a more laid-back sorcerer, did not seem either unlikely. Apart from the occasional mistaken identity moments, without which the reader might actually feel cheated, the protagonists have distinct personalities and backgrounds that each justify their current career and personality.

Unlike some romance plots, Chiarin’s mix of attraction to and rejection of Zashter feels entirely plausible, with the danger of both their lives and possible plot within a plot supporting heightened emotional reactions and preventing her from taking the sensible course of leaving before a bond forms.

Whilst this novel is the first book in the Theft and Sorcery series, it resolves both the plot arc and immediate character arcs completely, preventing the reader from feeling that the end has come too soon.

I enjoyed this book. I recommend it to readers looking for high fantasy with proper morally ambiguous protagonists.

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