Jennifer Roberson returns with a new trilogy set in a brand new universe. The world of Karavans was introduced in a short story Roberson published in DAW's 30th Anniversary Fantasy Anthology. Sancorra is a nation threatened on two fronts. They've recently been conquered by the barbaric Hecari. And if that weren't bad enough, the country is home to an evil, sentient "deepwood" called Alisanos with a nasty habit of moving around on its own and transforming any poor chumps who enter it into demons. Alisanos has long lain dormant like a volcano, but the recent turmoil in Sancorra is stirring it up again.
Many Sancorrans are now refugees from the brutal Hecari, traveling in enormous karavans — exactly what they sound like, similar to the caravanserais of history — in the hopes of starting a new life elsewhere. Among these are Davyn, his wife Audrun, and their four (going on five) children. Several soothsayers have told Audrun her baby must be born in a neighboring province, so the couple's urgency to leave Sancorra is strong, if not fully shared by their oldest children.
To get away, they join (with some difficulty) a karavan led by the strict but fair-minded Jorda. Among the karavan's vast population is a palm-reader and diviner, Ilona, and two members of the nonhuman Shoia race. Rhuan is sympathetic to humans and driven by a sense of duty. He is one of Jorda's karavan guides. His cousin Brodhi is arrogant and deeply bigoted towards humans, and works as a courier; the idea is that the invading Hecari need some of Sancorra's infrastructure intact, and couriers are part of that infrastructure. There are unanswered questions aplenty about these two, fully intentional on Roberson's part. The one nifty trait the Shoia possess is the ability to resurrect themselves six times before dying for good; as the book progresses we know that Rhuan has used up at least half his lives.
Roberson's approach here is far more serious in tone than in her Tiger and Del novels. To be blunt, Karavans is so serious it's almost dour. The pacing is leisurely to the point of distraction. For the longest time very little really happens. But this is one that you need to stick with. It does deliver the goods at the end of the day. Structurally, it's reminiscent of Sword-Dancer, another novel that kind of toddled along until going all-out at the climax.
Roberson's attention to character development is meticulous and deeply sensitive. Still, some details are muddy, especially regarding the relationship between Rhuan, Brodhi, and the two demons who accompany them. Ferize is a shape-changing demoness actually married to Brodhi; for most of the book she remains elusive to the point of being annoying, as she just pops up here and there, acts all mysterious and seductive, and disappears again. Darmuth is another one of Jorda's guides, and no one but the two Shoia cousins know he's also a demon from Alisanos. We learn, in bits and pieces, that the two cousins are on some sort of personal "go and find yourself" quest required by their fathers, referred to as the "primaries". (It kind of sounds like the Amish tradition of rumspringa, in which their teens are turned loose to run around and experience the sinful secular world for a few years.)
Rhuan's desire to be among humans is profoundly distasteful to Brodhi, who wants nothing more than to ascend and become one of the primaries himself. Ferize and Darmuth fulfill what might be called "confessor" roles to the cousins. It's all very murky for most of the book, and even though some explanations are offered near the end, there is still more unresolved than not. Why, if he's from Alisanos, is Darmuth not only not working on its behalf as Ferize clearly seems to be, but actively trying to dissuade Rhuan from guiding Davyn's family down a shortcut that will take them dangerously close to the deepwood? Hazy motivations here. Of course there are ways to keep secrets from your readers that help build dramatic tension. But those aren't the ways employed by Roberson here. It's more as if she's doing a little narrative Mexican hat dance around crucial plot points when clarity would be most helpful.
Yet this lack of clarity doesn't make Rhuan or Brodhi less interesting, and the rest of the cast is admirably fleshed out as well. Karavans is far more character-driven than plot-driven on the whole. It is the story of a disparate group of people who come together for their basic survival. Even on the small scale — the stubborn denial of Audrun's oldest daughter, who clings to a dream of returning to their old home and reuniting with a most-likely-killed-in-battle boyfriend — their plight is moving.
But Roberson's best idea is Alisanos itself, and I'm happy to say it comes a cropper in a bravura finale that erases any irritation at the chapters of slowly-paced buildup that have preceded it. For most of the story Alisanos remains in the background, a metaphor for evil as an unpredictable force of nature that pounces on the innocent and guilty alike with equal caprice. You never know where or when it will strike, which is what makes it scary. The payoff at the book's climax certainly does justice to the concept. Not your typical epic fantasy by a long chalk, Karavans may not succeed at everything Roberson attempts. But it ends up a worthy introduction to a new series that, once all the kinks are ironed out, looks like it's really going to roll.