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This little book, with its unassuming solid purple cover is my first bound galley. I use it as a personal justification for trawling other people's friends lists, because that's how I ran across someone giving away their copy (thanks tinachristopher !). The purpleness, the reading it five months before publicationness, all this makes me happy.

What makes me less happy is that this was another one of those reviews I had finished and all ready to post when my computer crashed.

Stop it, Fish, it's not the book's fault.

Nya's little sister is a healer. She can take pain and illness out of a person and dump it into pynvium, a metal that can't hurt like people. Her sister's got a cushy position as a League apprentice, but in the aftermath of the Baseeri conquest, Nya's getting by on odd jobs and petty theft, because while she can take pain out of people, she can't put it anywhere but another person, and they can hurt.

But when League apprentices start disappearing, Nya’s strange, useless talents become the key to getting her sister, and maybe even her nation, back.

This is one fun book! The chaotic, frantic adventure, Nya’s snappy first person narration, the high stakes of a nation boiling over with resentment at its conquerors’ hash treatment, all of it gels together into a deftly written, action-packed,good time. I read it in one afternoon.

There’s a bit of a chick lit feel to Nya’s narration that meshes very well against the epic, secondary world fantasy background. I know I probably scared you dear readers by talking about Nya’s special abilities (and she has a touch of the cursed with awesome about her, true) but her powers, while unique, aren’t the only strange powers popping up, and the rest of the characters don’t treat her like she’s wonderful or special, and she’s delightfully fallible. Nya’s willingness to flirt, joke, explain, tell relevant, funny family stories, and freak out kept me wanting to follow her through the story instead of go off on little hypothetical fantasy world explorations, despite the fact that there was a sad lack of political maneuvering (though there is some corruption, wait I’m not supposed to tell you that).

Hardy takes the classic fantasy trope of magical healing and makes it into a national resource. Healers are kidnapped by both sides in conflicts and forced to heal until they burn out. In Nya’s home after the conquest, the only place where her people can really be treated as important and valuable is in the Healer’s League because healers are so needed. Healers and healing are used as a tool of war, as it truly is. Nya’s unique abilities, which make her a direct weapon of war instead of an indirect one as most healers are, just serves to underscore this point. Centering the magic in the story around it and deconstructing the trope really really works in this particular adventure. Granted, the way everyone in the story, even non-healers focus on the League and healing is a bit over the top, but part of that is who exactly we’re meeting, so it’s not that noticeable.

Hardy’s South Florida raising and Georgia living is obvious in the way she treats the rivers in her book as a place of danger, full of crocodiles and choked with weeds. Replace crocodiles with alligators and it sounds really familiar to me. For once it was nice to see a fantasy world geographically like the one I grew up in (except the mentions of mountains) that wasn’t Xanth. The way Hardy wove the climate into the world’s resource base and I cheered a little bit when she talked about coffee plantations and other tropical farming and crops. That’s some fresh world building.

What isn’t quite so fresh is the way despite the fact that Hardy didn’t fall into the trap of writing Northern European geography and climate, she did recreate Northern European feudalism and culture. Given how much geography and history shape culture, highly improbable. Furthermore, the people that populate this country are pale skinned with straight fair hair, and the people who conquered them are curly black haired white people. So the good guys are pale whites and the bad guys are darker whites... Have we seen this before?

To make up for it though, the Baseeri don’t just have an ethnic hatred of the Gevegs (Nya’s people), complete with oppression, suspicion, and ethnic epithets, (obvious enough, or should be anyway) and likewise, the Gevegs aren’t all purity and sunshine either, with brutal, strong arm rebel groups and a deep hatred not only of the Baseeri Duke and officials but of the Baseeri people (yay!) but also have a tendency to see other conquered people as competition, and so treat them with suspicion and resentment. More, the Gevegs are eager to treat even more recent Baseeri conquests with the same contempt with which the Baseeri treat them, proof that there is always someone who is at least lower down than they. Hardy gets this right. She gets ethnic relations of this sort so right and so believably right, and weaves them in so adroitly that I had to stop, not to question my own assumptions, but just to question Nya’s.

Probably what I liked most about The Pain Merchants was Nya’s sheer fallibility. She doesn’t just screw up and get things wrong and have to fix them, she’s prone to taking the path best for her, even if it’s not morally right, and then has to go back and repair that. Best of all, I loved the way she remembered with such fondness her former place as the daughter of aristocrats. She longs for a system that probably wasn’t much better for the poor of Geveg than the Baseeri, and remembers it as right, because she was on top. It’s not the inequality she minds, and were she somehow to become a Baseeri aristocrat, she would probably put her considerable wits to maintaining the status quo, but her place within it. No, what I like best is the way I can’t help but like her anyway.

The Pain Merchants
, titled The Shifter in the US (Which is really sad, because The Pain Merchants is a way cooler title), book one of The Healing Wars, comes out October 6, but I got to read it all the way back in May. Suckers. Oh well, it means I have longer to wait for the sequels.

Janice Hardy can be found at her blog, The Healing Wars.