Continuing in my young adult fantasy vein (see here and here), The Oracle Prophesies is yet another YA fantasy trilogy which caught my eye. Like The Water Mirror, and many other series it seems, The Oracle Prophesies comes to us from Europe, the UK specifically. The author, Catherine Fisher, is an award-winning Welsh author and poet.
The Oracle Betrayed is the first book in the series and Fisher’s first book published in the US. The story revolves around the religious and political crisis of a desert country known as the Two Lands. Two Lands comes off as a mix of ancient Greece and Egypt. It is a land of mystical faith, dominated by religious ritual and symbolism. It is also devastated by drought. In desperation they look to their gods for rain.
The religious rituals centers around the Oracle. This is the place where their god(s) speaks to them. The Oracle is attended by the Speaker – the one who translates the god’s words for the people – and The Nine – nine young women who attend to her and the Oracle. The lead character Mirany is surprisingly chosen to be the Bearer-of-the-god, the lead attendant to the Speaker Hermia. Mirany is a meek, insecure young girl (the other girls call her “mousy Mirany”) from another island but she is forced into high level intrigue when the Archon (a mortal who represents the god-among-men) is sacrificed in the hopes of bringing rain. Before his death by scorpion bite he gives Mirany a note accusing the current Speaker of being corrupt and betraying the Oracle (hence the book’s title). The military leader of the Two Lands, General Argelin, is working with the Speaker to seize control by substituting their own choice for the next Archon. With control of the Oracle, the Archon, and the military they will control the symbolic and literal power of the Two Lands. Mirany, despite her doubt and fear, decides she must try and stop them.
What follows is an exciting adventure and one of the more memorable alternate worlds in recent memory. What sets Fisher apart is the way she creates a setting that is both familiar and yet fantastic. Anyone with a little knowledge of history is aware of the ritualistic nature and class hierarchy of ancient societies like Greece and Egypt. Fisher takes elements and symbols from these cultures mixes in her own imaginative take on them and creates a fascinating and gripping world.
The role of the Archon in particular is fascinating. The Archon is a powerful symbol for the Two Land culture. In fact, their culture is built around these gods among men. Each Archon is ritualistically buried upon his death within intricate coffins of gold and with all of their earthly riches and servants. The resulting City of the Dead is a monument to these powerful symbols.
While the symbolizing surrounding the Archons seem to point to a Pharaoh like ruler, it isn’t clear how much political power they actually have. In this series General Argelin and Hermia the Speaker have obviously aggrandized power at the expense of the Archon. The Archon is kept in his own palace but prevented from being seen or heard by the ordinary people. His role is almost strictly to be ready to sacrifice himself for the people should the Oracle (via the Speaker) decide that is required.
What also isn’t clear is whether the Archon is God – capital D – or more like the gods of ancient Rome and Greece. It is pretty clear we aren’t in monotheistic territory here. The Archon, however, does seem to have supernatural powers and knowledge, but it makes one think of the Dali Lama rather than Zeus. Somehow the spirit of the god is passed into a young boy when the previous Archon dies. Each Archon can speak telepathically and leave his body in a sort of teleportation. The result is a mix of searer and mystical spirit; a humble yet powerful force for good yet not an all powerful omnipotent deity.
As you can see, the theology isn’t real clear. The Archon seems to have a sort of twin brother deep in the tombs of the dead gods. Plus, there is the enigmatic Rain Queen who chooses the true Archon and brings the life giving water the Two Lands so desperately needs. It is a complex mix of mythology and symbolism reflecting the unique mix of East and West one often sees in the history of the Near East.
But this doesn’t detract from the story, rather it gives it a sense of mystery and depth. This is an ancient and complex society. Everything isn’t easily explained or understood. The best stories make the reader feel there is more to the story than what they are reading; that there is a deeper history to the place and time. Fisher achieves this by weaving her own unique mythology and history.
Admittedly, the writing is spotty in places. The characters are constantly licking their dry lips and the oppressive heat is described in myriad over-the-top ways far too often. But outside a few over-written spots, the writing is readable and crisp. Fisher does a good job of capturing the sense of desperation the drought brings and the tension and fear Mirany feels in trying to fight those in power. Granted Mirany moves quickly from mousy to scared but brave and decisive, but it worked for me.
As is frequently the case with YA, the characters aren’t always drawn as deep as one might like. But in the case of a series with reoccurring characters like this one, this is less of an issue. Readers can follow the characters development as the adventure continues and so don’t necessarily need deep psychological explanations. It’s an adventure story after all.
The Oracle Betrayed does have a variety of characters and their personalities and motivations are dealt with in interesting ways: Mirany the insecure young girl forced to rise above her doubt and attempt great things; Seth the desperate young scribe who will do whatever it takes to help his family but who has a soft spot for Mirany; Oblek the former musician and servant of the Archon who has fallen into drunkenness and despair; and The Jackal a dangerous tomb thief preying upon Seth’s desperation; not too mention Alexos the young true Archon who speaks to Mirany and promises to bring rain to the Two Lands.
All in all, The Oracle Betrayed is an excellent start to a intriguing new series in young adult fantasy. Any time an author can create a fascinating and complex alternate world, populate it with interesting characters, and use it to tell a tension and adventure filled story, they have my attention. Fisher has done just that and raised some interesting questions about the nature of faith, trust, and courage along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed The Oracle Betrayed and can’t wait to read the entire series. I would highly recommend it to readers young and old.