5 September 2013

Antigua Vamurta, by Lluís Viñas Marcus

Igor Kutuzov (alias of Lluis Viñas Marcus) was kind to send me the first volume of the Vamurta's saga. It's has been from that... I don't know, more than a year and a half maybe. I read the novel and left me wanting to know about what happened later. The resolution to this intrigue came in march of this year 2013, when the author announced the complete edition of the saga in one tome. Hooray! Or something like that I thought when the email from mister Viñas promoting this work reached me. It was even better that he offered it free for a few days through Amazon and I was quick enought to get one digital copy. Let this review of Antigua Vamurta La Saga Completa be my payment to so many books on the house.

Antigua Vamurta (Old Vamurta) has been a curious matter to me, maybe due to my lack of literarian exposition to works of its kind. It's epic styled fantasy, but I have perceived it as something more than that. The world of this short saga feels complex, wide, realistic and, more important, believable. Realism applied to a fantastic text demands skill; wrongly done can be a real disaster. Not in this case, since it gives the book a character of its own. The attention paid to certain details, technological as well as cultural ones, gave me for a while the feeling of being reading an historical text more than a fiction. It sounds exagerated, but about this appreciation (and everything else) I'll explain myself later. Another distinctiveness is the difference that exists between the two volumes that make up the saga. In the first part magic or supernatural events hardly appear, while in the second gain a lot of prominence. That and other nuances make each book interesting in their own way.

The first Antigua Vamurta book, when it was published by Grupo Ajec, it had a luminous and suggestive cover. Is the one you can see next to this lines.

That fortified city doesn't fill the description given by Viñas from the capital that titles the work, but at least hints the reader about what will find in the text. Moreover, the ochre tones reinforce the scent of aged story, something that I think is attractive to many people. On the other hand, the cover for the Vamurta's complete edition is a different animal (the one heading this post). Dark, almost sinister, and with a young girl of cracked skin who can lead to think that the main role is someone like her. Far from the real deal, although its not that what happens in Vamurta isn't terrible. Is a long story of wars and harsh survival where the important characters go through quite hard times in diverse and hazardous situations. Nevertheless, neither its that gloomy nor the absolute leader of the narration is a woman. Therefore I think that this other cover, which is not bad by itself, isn't a good reflection of all what's inside of Antigua Vamurta's pages.

Since I only have the digital edition of this work, I won't say anything about the quality of the paper version. But I can talk about the text itself and the fact is that I've found several times with errors of the same type: missing letters in some words. It looks ugly but it doesn't block your reading. Something a bit more serious is another mistake I found two times in all the book: writing the name of a race when the author is talking about another one. It shocked me so much that among the notes I took through my reading I wrote down the pages where it happens. This slip is understandable, since the author make use of many different species through all the narration. A focused reader knows how to get over this problem perfectly. All these errors spoil the final product but I guarantee you that they don't hinder the reading's flow, they are more like small bumps on the road.

A last detail to deal with about the edition of this book is the author's decision to offer the two tomes together, without giving the possibility to the people who bought the first one to get the second on its own. I've read some comments about that, but I suppose Kutuzov didn't saw it possible because he updated the first part's text to correct and fit it better to the second. Unfair? Undoubtely yes for the ones who acquired the paper edition, many more times more expensive than the digital one. Still, this is not something rare. A good example is the Tolkien's case, who had to change The Hobbit to make it suit better to the Lord Of The Rings story. And by then there was no other option but buying the physical book again...

"The hopes of the gray men vanish little by little. Vamurta is under siege. The nations from the west secure their power and the new lands are fought over by many races. Old frontiers which crack, howling gods, reappearing wizards, women who are holders of great power.

By distant paths and cities a handful of warriors, without flag or land to defend, go more and more into the unknown. They look for a dream to believe in, they long for their once lost paradise.

At side and side of the Sea of the Anonymous the swords will be unsheathed and the arquebuses will bellow. Grey men and women, murrians, vesclans and sufons desire a better tomorrow, a peace that never comes, a rest which fades away in each sunrise of iron."

Important warning, Antigua Vamurta is not a fantasy of sparkling heroes and princesses, of essentially monstruous enemies to beat or ridiculously epic and bloody battles. There are no straight good or bad roles, nor treasures to pursue. Is the story of the evolution of a world not that different from ours, a change experienced by several characters who quicken it with their own acts.

The book has a strong beggining, telling the fall of Vamurta... In seven chapters. Grouped them all in the first narrative arc of the story, they're a key part to understand the feeling of loss and defeat of the main cast. The siege is the author's pretext to show us the county, its capital and the race who lives in it. Called gray men by the color of their skin, they had a thriving medieval way of life until their fast conquest by their main enemy: the murrian people. Through the reading of that last stand are found many of the distinctive features which give this work its own flavor. The scenes have their size tightly measured, they're never excesses of verbosity or overdone writing. Viñas narrates just what's needed to and with the beauty each paragraph demands, something that is welcomed in the battles and specially in the parts which could be more tedious (fleeing through forests, travels by sea, introspection moments). This moderation in the writing (extended too to the dialogs) helps too to imprint more realism to the text, and even to make the reading more greedy.

I've already mentioned a couple of times the realism that overflows this novel, and I haven't explained myself about it! Unforgivable! Is the factor that gives to Antigua Vamurta a great deal of its charm. It's noticed that the author has documented himself well or he has more than a decent knowledge about the middle ages and the change the introduction of fire weapons meant in the battlefields, among other aspects. This attention to details allows, for instance, the fights to get on with sense and without deepening in the morbidness of the slaughter, or the many cultures presented in the book to be solid and their customs understandable. Something I liked in particular is the care paid by Viñas to the troops' movements and how they fight. The individual heroic acts of the main characters have their place, but those are just another piece of the strategy unfold on each showdown. And that strategy is, for my limited knowledge of the art of war, very well thought. The worry about the training and the equipment of the soldiers; the use of specialized units able to do certain kind of attacks and movements; the handling of weapons, whether they're bladed or fire ones, and taking into account their limitations; the fortifications... A lot of aspects that need a good tuning job to make them work correctly in the narration.

So many details and else are worth nothing without characters who make good use of all of it. Antigua Vamurta have them, with enviable abundance I must add. Among them, there's one who'll raise as central: Serlan of Enroc, count of Vamurta. His journey is the main trunk of the whole saga, what gives it sense and so much of its interest. Then there is the girl who flees with him, Sara, and grows up to become into a very hardened woman by time and war. Both start as losers: they lose city, family and even the honor. Many years they'll have to struggle with the defining roughnesses of the medieval way of life lived in that world, until they turn into people very different to the ones they could have become if their county wouldn't had fallen.

Around that core appear other hefty characters with their own plots that help to healthily fatten up the pages of this bilogy. All have their reasons to be and are interesting to read, although inevitably some less than others. Among them there's a sort of second main story line which doesn't meet the Serlan of Enroc's until almost the very end, and just indirectly. When I deal with the narration's buts, I'll deepen into the problem that this and some other secondary plot have. About the cast I still have to point out that not everybody are grey men. Serlan of Enroc and Sara end surrounded by beings from different species and that will make them change, specially the count, their perspective regarding the other races populating that world. A separate mention I want to make about the murrian Aldier who, although he's a bit archetypical, gives the novel that cool vibe that can be expected from an epic antihero. It's not that the count doesn't show himself, but the murrian has the advantage of being the only one of his race among the already very particular members of Enroc's army. That and the little thing about how he dual-wields his two swords when fighting, a skill that truly shines in a battlefield. I should talk about other supporting characters of importance, like Leandra or the very mother of the count, but I hope you'll be satisfied if I just say that they're very well defined roles and have a suitable relevance in the story.

Oh, I cannot forget the magical elements which turn up in the novel. In the first part they hardly appear, while in the second they're used with a very notable prodigality. The author doesn't abuse magic, and he doesn't use it to awfully solve tight situations. He gives it space and satisfying limits to show itself without watering down the experience. Thanks to keep this control, the text doesn't lose its credibility.

The main subject in this saga is change, the evolution to new ways of living. From the very siege of Vamurta the author show us the differences between new and old technologies, between diverse fighting techniques and the shifts in the relationships among the species. Serlan, in his long voyage, makes his own the "renew or die" idea after assuming the backwardness in which his people was living in. By dealing with diverse cultures, he understands that the social, economical and political model in his land was obsolete and by not updating Vamurta it was seized easily. Therefore, he goes from being a noble by family inheritance to leader by his own merits and with an unique vision of the future for all the races he gets to know.

Lluis Viñas Marcus remarks the sensation which in that world things are changing thanks to the technological development showed by several species. Either by the tremendous superiority of fire weapons over swords and armors, the improvements in ships or the adoption of new fighting strategies given by those developments, its noticeable that changes are coming to those lands and they're unstoppable. I have to point out here that such transformation is accelerated too because of the growing menace of a feared and almost legendary race which lives in the north and is more technologically advanced than all the rest.

Quite curious has been to me the matter about chauvinism in this work, I mean, its low presence. The female soldiers who appear in the book are a minority but they don't have to hide their condition at all. Neither their leadership capability and personal initiative are denied. I won't enumerate the women or female (no all are of human aspect) who have a prominent role among their people, they're many. The funniest thing about this is that the impartiality (or veneration even) they're treated with is something not questioned, its just the way it is and if they have troubles is not due to be female of their race. Although this aspect could vary for each species in ways non-narrated by the writer, there are notorious exceptions to this: there's prostitution, a woman is offered in an arranged wedding to a powerful guy of another race, the capture and rape (just mentioned and later revenged by another warrior woman) of one of the main female characters or the remark about rapes expected to happen if a certain army ends conquering a city. Summing up, I've had the impression that both sexes are beated equally. Oh, and they don suitable combat clothing. No breathtaking looks in the middle of a battlefield with metal bikinis, disproportionately large weapons and wearing stiletto heels. Damned JRPGs...

Racism is dealt with too, but more as ignorance about what really is your neighbour and the usual economical and political conflicts. The gray men of Vamurta have always mistreated the murrians who lived near their frontiers, a racism exacerbated by the sensation of superiority and conquest that they had been dragging for too long. When the tide turns and Serlan of Enroc ends having as loyal partner someone who in other circumstances would had been his worst enemy, racism is revealed as mere incomprehension and stern ignorance about the other. This links with what I consider the core theme of the work, the change at multiple levels and, among them, the social one and the relationships among different civilizations.

Besides the mistakes that I've bumped into in this edition, I have some buts about the narration itself. They're not very big, mere appreciations regarding some of the subplots and the narration's rhythm in part of the work.

I'll begin mentioning the Dasteo subplot, Vamurta's elite soldier captured by the murrians. His story is long but it never crosses with Serlan's except in its last leg. It's biggest problem is that it has a bit bland ending for the extraordinary things that happens to him through his own adventure. I couldn't help but think that it has turned out a bit wasted.

In another subplot appears an army without connection with any faction and its origin is, at least, puzzling. They assault and prey cities under a name taken from something said by a raving Serlan of Enroc. Where they are from is not explained, not even who is their leader. They're just the excuse to introduce another storyline in the second tome and give protagonism to a character who started as a mere supporting character in the first. Something as strange as that happens with another supporting role who goes from being a prisoner to turning up free in the most unsuspected place. It's not told how he has scaped, or if he was freed on purpose, he just appears and after a time he becomes a key element in the war strategies of Serlan of Enroc.

And there's something else in that second book that could feel wrong to some, the big temporal jumps that Viñas have had to do so he can insert all the battles and relevant events he wanted to narrate. It's obvious that choosing to close a saga with so much to tell in only a couple of volumes, the writer has been forced to sum up and go over whole years even (something he does more in the second part of the final book) to reach the important moments. It's well done and it doesn't break the experience, but it hampers deepening better into the many major characteres who appear in the story. If the author had wanted to expand on, he would had found easy to generate content for another two books.

I've read Antigua Vamurta willingly, hooked through very long reading sessions. Its concise and well measured narrative is an example of how to write fantasy without overcharging it with words or endless descriptions. Even in the less intense moments it doesn't get boring and shows very interesting characters to whom Igor Kutuzov give enough lines to exhibit their potential. I don't hesitate to recommend this work, in particular to the ones who like to read epic fantasy but shy asay from vast monsters like the ones of Game of Thrones. A warning, it could make you wanting for more...

Title: Antigua Vamurta La Saga Completa
Author: Lluís Viñas Marcus (aka Igor Kutuzov)
Publisher: Self-published
First edition: March 2013
Pages: 766
ISBN-13: 978-1482713855


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