Read Secrets of the Sands
It’s a sad fact but a true one—some of the most interesting books today are being published by small presses, but they remain the most difficult to find on your chain bookstore’s shelves, or in the ever-shrinking book review pages of your local newspaper. Leona Wisoker’s (the usual note of disclosure: the author is a friend of mine) debut fantasy novel, Secrets of the Sands, is a perfect case in point.
Wisoker has created an elaborate, well-crafted fantasy world that doesn’t feel like the too-familiar pseudo-Celtic Medieval Land, and a complex desert society that doesn’t feel like, say, Dune or The Arabian Nights. She’s created a logical and consistent language that feels exotic but (despite the ubiquitous apostrophes) doesn’t feel like Klingon or Tolkien’s masterful Elvish. She manages to use her language to make her world seem textured and real, but still keeps her dialogue fresh, lively, and yes, even contemporary. Secrets of the Sands is a fun read—it’s delightfully original, and it deserves attention.
Secrets of the Sands tells parallel stories. The first focuses on the desert lord, Cafad Scratha, whose entire family was murdered when he was a child, and the orphaned street thief, Idisio, who like most of Wisoker’s characters is more than he seems. The other follows the young noble woman Alyea, who must navigate a perilous journey and a maze of deadly politics to become a desert lord and hold the Scratha fortress for her king. Both characters carry deep wounds from the past that drive their actions, and both stories ultimately connect in a surprising manner that satisfies while leaving you wanting more.
While I generally prefer the longer, door-stop tomes when choosing fantasies (or, well, novels of any genre), I found Wisoker’s brisk, relentless pace refreshing. Trials and the learning of skills pass quickly, but never seem effortless or unearned. Revelations come fast, but we never really miss the deeper dives into motivation that bog down so many longer works. The focus always remains right where it belongs, on the primary characters and the rather profound changes that are occurring around and, more importantly, within them. It is the characters, after all, that make the novel.
The book is filled with subtle and delicious wit. For example, one character, when discussing a whore, replies “tartly.” Wisoker’s book is also distinctly, and even anachronistically, American. Village Inns have front desks, for example. Those touches made me smile while reading, and set her world distinctly apart from the generic worlds so prevalent on the shelves at your local Mega-Barnes-a-Zillion.
I have only one real complaint. Wisoker has done an amazing job of creating a vivid, breathing, original world—but more than a few chapters pass before she slows the action enough to describe it, leaving us to fill in the gaps from the shelf of clichés we all keep stored in the attics our brains—with images from, well, Dune or The Arabian Nights. When we have to revise those mental pictures later, it’s jarring and pulls us out of the story. Thankfully, the characters are rich enough to pull us right back in, and leave us eager for the sequels when the last page is turned.
I hope you’ll give Secrets of the Sands a try. Since the small presses are the ones taking real chances in this market, they deserve support. Even if they don’t have the budgets to buy space on the tables at the mega chains, and, yeah, even if you have to make the effort to seek them out.