Did you expect 2022 to be the Year of Tanya Huff for me? Neither did I! But when Into the Broken Lands became available on NetGalley from DAW, I couldn’t not request it. I picked up some of her earlier secondary-world fantasy (Sing the Four Quarters) from the used bookstore but haven’t read it yet, so my experience with Huff has been limited to her urban-fantasy offerings. So I leaped at this chance to read a different type of fantasy from a Canadian author whose storytelling I enjoy, even if her writing hasn’t always worked for me. I wanted to see what she was like in a different element, and I got my wish.
In a severe case of Aerith and Bob, Ryan is the Heir of Marsan, whether he likes it or not. He has travelled the Mage Road for its requisite twenty-eight days from Marsanport to Gateway, a town built atop ruins. There, he hopes to embark on a quest into the—wait for it—Broken—I said wait for it—into the Broken Lands. With me so far? He’s got your standard group of warriors, rogues, mages (but they’re called scholars because mages got a bad wrap after breaking said lands), and even a tank in the form of Nonee, aka “the weapon.” As Ryan quests for fire—er, fuel for a symbolic fire that burns back in Marsanport—death visits the party because Huff is a mean DM. Oh, and there are flashback chapters to when Ryan’s granduncle, Garrett, did this all sixty years ago.
If my summary sounds tongue-in-cheek, believe me when I say that I enjoyed this book and am teasing it with love simply because it is so easy to tease! I seem to be on a fantasy kick at the moment with a lot of new books that attempt to recreate or pay homage to classic fantasy. As I noted in my recent review of The Oleander Sword, the best of these books do so in a way that improves on diversity and storytelling and makes it the author’s own while preserving the tropes of classic fantasy that make it so addictive to a reader like myself. Huff’s worldbuilding and cultural elements are not as refreshing as Suri’s, but I think she still manages to strike a good balance.
This book feels like a D&D adventure or an old-school quest narrative. The in-and-out structure makes it easy to follow, if a tad linear for my tastes. Huff tries to offset this with a dash of parallelism in the form of the flashbacks to Garrett and Arianna. These offer a contrast to what Ryan’s party experiences in terms of differing setbacks and hardships but mainly serve to establish the throughline of Nonee’s increasing sense of self and agency, which is arguably the most important and interesting part of the book.
Nonee was designed, shaped in the womb by a mage, to be a weapon. She has supernatural strength, endurance, etc. Ever since Ryan’s ancestors fled the Broken Lands and founded Marsanport, she has been with them, a potent reminder of a past filled with now-forbidden magic. Is she a person though? Most of the scholars and nobility who had access to her in Marsanport would have said no. When Ryan arrives in Gateway, where Nonee has lived for the past sixty years, he probably would have said no based on all the stories he was told. But we know better, of course, and Ryan soon learns better, as does much of his party. The question Huff actually wants us to ponder is a little more interesting than the simple affirmation of personhood; she wants us to ask, “Who is Nonee if she isn’t just a weapon?”
As we ponder this, we’re treated to an adventure narrative featuring monsters, traps, and the madness of mages of a bygone era. Huff delivers all of this in her usual expressive style, along with banter and humour among her characters that is familiar to me from her Gale Women and Keeper novels. There’s a little less focus on sex in this book, which I enjoyed, but don’t worry, there’s still some good innuendo and a fair amount of queerness here as well. Huff is very good at writing characters who are believably flawed, people like Ryan who are only trying their best, or Lyelee, corrupted by her thirst for knowledge.
I like how Huff sets up the general antagonism towards magic and mages as a function of the history of this world. It would have been cool to learn more about cultures outside Marsanport, like Shurlia, and their attitudes towards magic—we get tantalizing glimpses, but that’s all. It’s unclear from the marketing whether this book is meant to be standalone or the beginning of a series—to its credit, it can function as either; like so many chameleon novels, however, that makes it somewhat of a letdown as both.
See, I enjoyed this book a great deal—I was always eager to pick it up again after I had put it down—and it lived up to my expectations for it. But it only lived up to my expectations; it never once was in danger of exceeding them. Ryan’s quest is perilous, and at times its intensity becomes engrossing. Yet the resolution is about what I expected to happen. The characters develop roughly along the trajectory I expected them to develop. Nonee’s emotional journey she undergoes as she grieves for Arianna while simultaneously developing a grudging respect and camaraderie for Ryan? Par for the course.
This is a book that does everything it sets out to do with all the exquisite skill that a writer of Huff’s experience and talent can muster. It is a serviceable fantasy novel that scratches my itch for more classic epic fantasy. But it doesn’t swing big, doesn’t take advantage of the potential of the world Huff has created.
Would I read a sequel if one is forthcoming? Yes, absolutely. Huff and the book have both earned that much. Yet I don’t find myself clamouring for such a sequel quite as much as I need from other series. Into the Broken Lands is a fun, fulfilling fantasy adventure—but it just leaves me wanting instead of wanting more.