On Hymns and Pearls

The Hymn of the Pearl
Brian Niemeier
ebook $2.99

So my plans for the weekend have gone completely off the rails, but in a good way.  My son has spent the last week with my parents.  I drove over Friday evening to pick him up, and since it’s 3.5 hr drive, I planned on spending the night and returning home yesterday morning.  I hadn’t been here five minutes when my wife called and asked what I knew about my brother who lives out of state posting on Faceplant that they were coming to see my folks for the weekend.  Uhh…nothing.

Anyway, I’ve stayed over since I don’t often see this brother and his family.  What does that have to do with a book?  I purchased The Hymn of the Pearl yesterday morning and decided to read it while we were waiting for my brother to arrive.  Normally, it would go into the queue to be read when I got around to it.  I decided not to wait.

Good decision.

This novella/short novel is a stand alone fantasy.  Set in a world where a large empire has fallen, it concerns warring kingdoms and rival groups who practice competing forms of magic.  This isn’t the standard fantasy magic you see in most books.  Fate controls each person’s existence in five areas:  health, prosperity, honor, love, and life.  Think of strands or lines, much like a marionette’s strings, and you’ll have an idea.  Evil actions accumulate a karma like force called nemein.  Fate cannot be thwarted, but it can be transferred.

Soter is the last Advocate, an ancient priesthood who strove to prevent nemein from accumulating by transferring it to others, usually some type of animal.  The Advocates were overthrown by the Arbiters, who replaced what they called superstition of the gods by a science which essentially does the same thing.  Soter lives under a curse in which he carries the nemein of the Advocates about with him, and anyone who joins causes with him in any way joins him in his curse.

Manthus is an Arbiter who seeks Soter out.  They knew each other years ago.  Two kingdoms are about to go to war, and Manthus wants to stop it or at least diminish its effects.  The aggressor kingdom is sure to be defeated.  The Arbiters are supposed to be politically neutral, but money talks; they’ve been bribed by a faction in the aggressor kingdom to intervene.  He wants Soter to enlist in one of the armies.  In do so, that army will fall under Soter’s curse and end up defeated.  Meanwhile, the Arbiters maintain the appearance of neutrality.

Soter, who is the most honorable person in the story, is less than keen on this idea.  But he reluctantly goes along with the plan in hopes to minimize the loss of life.

I really enjoyed this story.  It takes place over a period of months.  Neimeier, to steal a phrase from another writer (Elmore Leonard?), leaves out the parts people skip over by not detailing any of the travel that doesn’t actively move the story forward.  While this approach felt a bit choppy in a place or two, it prevented the action from flagging.

The setting is clearly modeled on antiquity, which is a nice change from the medieval/steampunk/dieselpunk/urban fantasy settings that so many authors are using these days.  At times I was reminded of the work of K. J. Parker, but with less snark.  That’s a compliment in case you were wondering.

Neimeier is the author of three novels, one of which (Soul Dancer) won a Dragon Award.  I’ve not read them yet, but I’m going to.  The only work of his I have read was the short fiction “Izcacus“, which I loved.  “Izcacus” is currently free on his website, so check it out.  It was on the basis of recently reading that story on Neimeier’s website that I decided to jump right in on The Hymn of the Pearl.  He’s definitely a writer I’m going to watch.

If you want a good, character driven story, you should check this one out.

6 thoughts on “On Hymns and Pearls

    1. Keith West Post author

      You’re welcome. I wanted to discuss some themes I thought you handled well, but I wasn’t sure I could without spoilers. I opted for no spoilers, because that’s what I would prefer.

  1. deuce

    Thanks for the review, Keith! Brian is certainly a writer to watch.

    If you like fantasy in a historical Grecian setting, I’ve always been partial to Gene Wolfe’s “Soldier/Latro” series.

    1. Keith West Post author

      You’re welcome. I read the first of Wolfe’s soldier books years ago and really enjoyed it. I need to reread it and finish the series.

    2. deuce

      IMO, Wolfe does a great job with the supernatural/magic in the Latro books. It doesn’t just lay there and it’s not ho-hum/routine. It’s “other” and alien. You hear about “thinking man’s S&S” and “literary S&S”. I think Wolfe is one of the few who actually pulls that off.

      1. Keith West Post author

        Definitely need to reread. Of course, Wolfe is one of the few who can pull off almost anything he sets his mind to.


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