Sometimes you just want to find your place in the world. But what if that place proves to be a quest to help someone regain their memories? And that someone can also turn into a tree? Such is the dilemma of the protagonist of Awakenings, the first novella in a new series by Claudie Arseneault. I received a copy in exchange for a review.
Horace, described in the dramatis personae as an “embo extraordinaire,” has had several apprenticeships in the city of Trenaze—and e has failed all of them. Desperate to find eir calling, e is settling into eir first day as a market guard when disaster strikes. The shield dome around Trenaze flickers, just for a second, just long enough for several of the mysterious Fragments to enter and terrorize the population. Horace witnesses a stranger somehow stop the Fragments, and e later befriends this person and joins them as they leave Trenaze behind in a quest for their home and their memories. Rounding out this gang is Rumi, trader and proprietor of a semi-sentient wooden wagon. The three (four?) of them head out across Nerezia, searching for Aliyah’s home, for their memories. But, as is often the case, they run into trouble along the way….
From the start, Awakenings is a delight. Arseneault plunges us into the action, introducing us to Horace and then wasting no time in having disaster strike. It’s predictable, actually, what happens—which makes it all the more satisfying. As Horace wins over first Aliyah and then Rumi with eir guileless sincerity and charisma, e wins over the reader too. I haven’t read a ton of so obviously telegraphed embo/himbo/bimbo characters—Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove is probably my generation’s gold standard, and Horace is an earnest nonbinary equivalent.
Indeed, let’s take a moment to marvel at Arseneault’s choice of protagonist. Most authors, especially for adventure-fantasy stories such as this, these days tend to go for the wisecracking, slightly world-weary rogue. Maybe it’s the writer’s own biases for a clever, word-wise narrator. Maybe it’s to avoid the gee-gosh atmosphere of one-too-many young, farmboy Chosen Ones from the eighties and nineties. Suffice it to say, writing a protagonist who lacks much in the way of life experience, who is so uncertain of eir place in the world, is challenging. Arseneault makes it work, however, mostly by committing to the bit.
I particularly love the slow-burn nature of the worldbuilding. The Fragments are a devious concept, full of potential. Horace casually mentions them early in the book because, from eir point of view, they are simply a part of life in Nerezia. Slowly, Arseneault divulges a little more—but not much—exposition. Given the length of Awakenings and the number of titles listed in the front matter of this book, it’s safe to say that the overarching mystery of this world will unfold gradually indeed.
So what of the plot here and now, Aliyah’s quest and Horace’s companionship and Rumi’s reluctant involvement? If you are expecting a full-throated, epic fantasy, then you will likely be disappointed. This is a novella, and the set pieces are limited in scope and number. That made it the perfect first read for me of 2024, something easy and bite-sized to start my year right. There is plenty of action and combat in Awakenings, but there is also a lot that is cozy about this book in a way that feels like a necessary and powerful antidote to the grimdark stories that inundated the past decade of the genre. Two of the most memorable scenes in this book are not combat sequences but rather when Horace teaches Aliyah how to play a game. Both scenes are masterful examples of characterization and how to write relationships.
It should go without saying but, because we live in the world we live in, doesn’t: this is a queernormative book with characters of diverse genders and sexualities, and the conflict does not in any way involve around them struggling with those things. The focus on platonic relationships instead of romantic ones is also something I, as an aromantic reader, appreciate—but to be clear, readers of any background can enjoy the friendships forged here.
Awakenings ends with the main quest unresolved. This leaves the reader wanting more—yet it does not leave one unsatisfied! That’s the true magic happening here; Arseneault manages to tell a cozy tale replete with mysterious memory loss, identity crises, and combat against husks driven by eldritch objects. It’s wonderful and wild and maybe shouldn’t work, yet it does.