SCRIBES by James Wolanyk
Reviewed by Shona Kinsella
Scribes is the first book in the Scribes Cycle from author James Wolanyk. Anna is a young girl, perhaps in her early teens, although we never find out for sure. The book opens with her running away from home with her younger brother who has been sold by her parents for reasons that are never really made clear. When they are trapped by a tracker, Anna reveals that she is a scribe – a person with the power to cut runes into another’s skin, conferring temporary immunity from harm. Anna agrees to go with the tracker if he will leave her brother alone. Things don’t go to plan but from here, Anna’s life just gets worse and worse.
This is an unrelentingly dark book. The world it is set in has faced war and civil unrest for all of the recent past and people kill without regret. Anna is convinced that by helping the tracker, she will be helping to restore her homeland and remove all of the ‘wicked’ men. Of course, Anna is barely more than a child and she has a child’s simplistic view of wickedness. There is only one character in the book who can really be described as kind; the herbman who takes care of Anna when she is injured and close to death. In the end, Anna repays his kindness by stealing away his adopted son, breaking his heart in the process.
I have some really mixed feelings about this book. First the bad.
The reader is thrown into the world with little explanation of how anything works or how things stand. While I’m not afraid to learn as I go, the problem was that some things are just never really explained. Like the conflict that drives the story – what are they fighting over? Who are they really fighting? Why does Anna have to save her home land? The author uses a lot of made-up words and at times it is not clear from the context just what they mean and this works against the author. For example, the soglav that the tracker has with him is presumably a terrifying beast, however it’s not really described so the reader doesn’t get any real sense of what it is. That means that the reader can’t be horrified by it, can’t connect with Anna’s fear of it and understand the threat it poses. This is just one example of a problem that continues through the book.
It’s clear that the author has put a lot of work into the construction of this world – I just wish he’s shared a bit more of that work with the reader.
The characters are hard to connect with. Most of them are unpleasant. Anna herself is in a horrible situation and attempting to come to grips with her powers but she is also selfish and weak. The tracker is awful but mostly disappears in the second half of the book. Bora is interesting but too enigmatic and abrupt to really form an emotional bond with.
Now the good.
The author has a beautiful way with words. Although some of the text is quite dense and takes a little effort to read, it’s well worth it for his use of language. Some really lovely turns of phrase and descriptions.
The book deals with some really big concepts: what it means to be evil and how that can change depending on where you’re standing, what it means to have power over life and death and the responsibility that comes with that, the damage that war does to everyone who has to live through it.
I’m glad that I had the chance to read Scribes and I’m sure that there are elements of the story that will linger in my mind for a long time.