~Werbung / ad – Thank you to Ian Gregoire for providing me with a copy of this book. All opinions are my own.~
Ever since The Exercise of Vital Powers was reviewed and praised by Booktuber Kitty G as part of SPFBO 2017, a contest for indie authors hosted by author Mark Lawrence, I was very intrigued by the premise. However, the cover didn’t really appeal to me and might have been the reason why I didn’t pick it up immediately. The next time I checked, the book was no longer available on Amazon since the author wanted to revise the book and publish a second edition with a brand new cover. I was lucky enough to participate in the cover reveal in May. Since the new edition is available now since the beginning of July, I was finally able to read the book and share my thoughs on it with you.
The Exercise of Vital Powers follows Kayden Jayta, a highly talented but rather arrogant apprentice of The Order, which is an institution to train and control the people who are able to use magic. But her vast talent and unapproachable character are the reason the headmistress of the campus, Fay Annis, has been taking notice of Kayden and takes her to The Order’s headquarters and its founder Ari Shinadu. He alone can decide Kayden’s future and the role she might play in the future of The Order itself.
One of the things you should be aware of if you want to pick up this book is the fact that it’s very character-driven and slow-paced. The story itself focuses on three crucial, life-changing days in Kayden’s life and a sidestory featuring Fay Annis. This is one of the reasons we don’t get to see much of the world of the Nine Kingdoms and its bordering countries. Unfortunately, the map included at the beginning of the book in the paperback edition has a rather poor quality and I had to look up certain countries or places on the kindle edition’s map instead.
The magic system in this story is very interesting: Here, magic itself is called Zarantar and is thought to be emanating from ley-lines crisscrossing the world. There are three manifestations of Zarantar which results in three different factions. There are the Jaymidari, a sisterhood who can only use the power for beneficial purposes. On the other side there are the Saharbashi who taint the power by using blood sacrifices and inflict evil. And finally, there are a group of people called Sanatsai who are born with the power within them and don’t need to access the ley-lines. This third type of power can be used for good and evil, so the people wielding it need to be trained sufficiently. The Sanatsai are also the people The Order was founded for. Everyone whose powers emerge can decide if he wants to have them bound or if he wants to join The Order and train to become a full Sanatsai.
I liked that Gregoire chose to give every spell a certain name, which is always mentioned whenever Kayden or any magic wielder uses it (for example Sinjaydan is used to create illumination orbs). Although this was rather challenging in the beginning since I didn’t know what either Zarantar or the spell names were, it was explained gradually as the story progressed, which is something I highly enjoy in books overall.
Kayden is a very intriguing and multi-layered character. Her fellow students think she is rather arrogant and unapproachable. She is aware of her strong powers and thinks the school can’t teach her appropriately. Her high ambition and attitude stem from a deeply buried secret from her past that she doesn’t want to talk about with anyone. Social interaction and making friends would only get in the way of acquiring more knowledge and thus are neglected. Not only is she hated for her success and talent, but also in parts for her heritage. She strongly resembles an Asian complexion with her black hair, fair skin and almond-shaped eyes.
It’s evident that the reader isn’t supposed to connect with Kayden at the start of the story. Kayden isn’t likable and she doesn’t want to be. But for me, this didn’t pose a problem since I like dark, at first glance unlikable characters often found in grimdark fantasy (Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence for example features such a main character). Kayden is the sort of character you either are intrigued by or despise completely from the get-go.
The other important character is Fay Annis, headmistress of the campus Kayden trains at. She is one of the most powerful and famous Sanatsai the Order ever had and nobody knows why she was assigned to a position completely below her abilities. At the start of the story, she is despised by Kayden for paying too much attention to her and presumably trying to have her power bound. But her intentions differ completely from Kayden’s fears and over the course of the story we learn a lot about Fay’s past that will also affect Kayden’s life.
Even though I wouldn’t categorize this book as grimdark it features some grim topics including sexual assault, racism and the loss of a family member. If this are triggering topics for you, I wouldn’t pick up the book.
I think this novel shows that Gregoire is very good at creating complex characters and an intriguing fantasy world. However, I feel like the story could have been a little bit less detailed in favour of more plot. We are told almost everything in precise detail that happens the day Kayden and Fay travel to The Order’s headquarters and I felt some of it could have been omitted without diminishing the overall story arc. Maybe these feelings are also the result of me wanting to learn even more about the world and read more stories about it. For example, Fay’s backstory or a more political plot surrounding the foundation of The Order would be very interesting to read about.
Even though I think Gregoire did a really good job at portraying Kayden’s character development, I couldn’t quite believe how immensely the change was in the end. Especially her behaviour towards Fay changes so drastically over the course of just one day that it’s hard to accept, even knowing the circumstances surrounding it. However, these are some minor quibbles I’m accounting mainly to this book being a debut novel and I’m certain Gregoire’s writing will further improve with time.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Ian Gregoire’s debut novel The Exercise of Vital Powers. I would recommend this book to fans of very character-driven stories with slow pacing, complex characters and powerful female leads. Gregoire decided to make this book into a series and I’m intrigued to see where he will go with it.