A couple years ago, I saw Carol Berg’s Lighthouse Duet mentioned on a list of outstanding female-authored epic fantasies that never got the recognition they deserved. After The Lighthouse Duet became one of my all-time favorites, I resolved to dedicate a good chunk of reading time to under-the-radar, female-authored epics. And another on the list was Berg’s own debut, Transformation, which opens her best-known fantasy series: The Rai-Kirah Trilogy.
Transformation is told in first-person by Seyonne, a former magic-user who has been enslaved by the conquerors of his people and had his magical ability burned out by a specially-designed regimen of torture. The book opens with Seyonne being bought by the cruel Prince Aleksander, heir to the conquering Derzhi Empire. But when Seyonne stumbles upon demons that threaten the Empire, he must work with Aleksander to stop the onslaught that could destroy both their peoples.
Published in 2000, Transformation fits well with fantasy of the late 90s and early 00s. There’s heavy description, lots of politics, world-ending supernatural threats, prophesied heroes, the works. Furthermore, it stars a beaten-down hero who must overcome his own trauma in order to save a kingdom from falling to dark magic, a formula later used by a pair of other excellent early 2000s epics, The Curse of Chalion and To Ride Hell’s Chasm. If you prefer a more contemporary style, this may not be for you. But I grew up on 90s epics, and if that style works for you, Transformation is definitely worth a look.
While you shouldn’t judge this book by the painful cover, the title lets the reader know what to expect here: Transformation is the story of the redemption of Aleksander, who must shed his cruelty and rash behavior to become the kind of man who can stand against the demonic forces that threaten the world. Although we never see Aleksander’s perspective, he feels like a co-protagonist with Seyonne, who serves as guide and ultimately friend to the unstable tyrant who could end his life with a word.
Berg does not hide Aleksander’s cruelty and caprice in flashbacks, but shows him ruining the lives of those who displease him from the first chapter, with every inch of his redemption a battle against the character he has built for himself. In doing so, she paints a compelling redemption narrative and simultaneously delivers one of the closest friendships I’ve seen in fantasy. Seyonne must guide Aleksander through his own internal struggles, and as the external threats mount, must fight alongside him as they seek to save the world from the demonic assault. The battles are exciting, but the relationship is where the book really shines.
While Transformation is heavy on descriptions and on politics, Berg does an excellent job of ending each chapter with a hook that made me want to read on. The book felt like the pace was on the slower side, but at the same time, it was tough to put down. This allowed her to take her time in diving into the characters while keeping my full attention throughout, making for a really enjoyable read. Additionally, though it starts a trilogy, it ends on a satisfying note and could easily be read as a standalone.
It is a debut, however, and not everything worked as well as I’ve seen in Berg’s later work. Seyonne has survived decades of slavery by keeping his head down and not rocking the boat, and it’s hard to believe a man with such discipline would make the sort of challenges that start his master down the road to redemption. Similarly, there are times where magical abilities seem to expand or contract as needed for the plot–for instance, a person who can always recognize lying manages later in the story to be deceived. While these wobbles didn’t prevent me from really enjoying this book, they did break my immersion a couple times and keep me from putting it on the same pedestal as The Lighthouse Duet. Neither of my complaints should affect future action, and I’ll be interested to see how the storytelling progresses as the series continues.
Recommended if you like: 90s/00s epic fantasy, redemption arcs, tight friendships.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.