Storm Dancer by Rayne Hall was my first ‘book on the beach’ this vacation season. It’s a dark fantasy full of despotic rulers, political jockeying, and poetic language. But there’s more. It’s the ‘more’ that makes this book thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable. It’s a story about redefining ethics. It’s a story that explores the very personal question of when the needs of the many outweigh the needs, or even rights, of the individual.
Dahoud is a man with a demon. He’s an ethnic Samili, discounted and despised. He’s also the child of a prostitute, abandoned in youth by not only his mother, but by every woman he’s ever met. His desperate childhood fueled an ambition that allowed him to rise to the level of a General, but there was a price. He’s had to give himself over to the djinn inside him, and this djinn has bought his success on the bloody ground of terrible deeds. Terrible deeds that Dahoud has actually enjoyed. In Storm Dancer, Dahoud tries to starve out his djinn, to weaken the darkness inside him. He vows to protect and defend women, to trust them and give them kindness instead of pain and humiliation. He strives to lead a nation by using diplomacy and cunning rather than the might of his sword. But right and wrong are never black and white, and he discovers there are times when the fury of violence is inescapable. He discovers there are some women not deserving of trust or kindness.
Merida is a diplomat with a humanitarian mission. She will work her magic to bring rain to a backward and barbaric people, and perhaps lead them by example to embrace her enlightened path. Her condescension crumbles when she finds herself kidnapped by a sadistic tyrant and tossed into his harem. Merida finds she must bend and break the rules that are the very foundation of her morals to survive. And then she must break them further to ensure the survival of others. A seer advises her to lose her scruples, but Merida’s journey is more about choosing her scruples. The choice her family makes in the beginning of the book to put the needs of the group above the needs of the individual is the very choice Merida makes for herself in the end. Because there are some things worthy of sacrifice.
Don’t be put off by all this heavy stuff though. You can still enjoy Storm Dancer and not delve into intricacy of philosophy. The descriptive language is colorful and in the style of the Persian poets. There’s action, there’s scheming, there’s a nation of people, fighting to remain independent in the face of constant war and the threat of starvation. I dug my toes into the burning sand and felt right there – in the parched desert of Dahoud’s homeland. There is some romance, but it’s more about trust and partnership than fireworks and roses. There is violence, and sometimes that violence might not be in keeping with what some readers expect in terms of moral values from a hero. It wasn’t excessive or overly graphic, and I felt it was necessary in terms of the overall plot and theme. Four stars.