Arie Farnam’s The Soul and the Seed is a promising start to an exciting new fantasy series. I’m not even sure where to start for this review, because there were so many things I enjoyed about this book. I guess I should start by saying: put aside any expectations you have about genre before reading this book. Yes, there are elements that many would point to and say, ‘This is YA fiction,’ or, ‘This is another dystopia novel,’ but this novel transcends those labels. The Soul and the Seed is a well-crafted tale, full of dynamic characters and showcasing some of the best aspects of fantasy literature: world building and meaningful social commentary by way of holding up a fantastical mirror to our own world. This is modern fantasy, with no vampires or werewolves or inane teenage romance, and it succeeds where so many similar books fail.
The core of what makes this novel is its focus on characters, and the way these characters’ stories feel so real. It’s this attention to detail on the level of characters that makes it easier to fall into the world of The Kyrennei. Farnam creates characters that are flawed, full of emotion, and that invite the reader to consider the gravity of what’s at stake in the pages ahead.
The narrative starts with Aranka, a teenager whose inability to meld herself into what society expects makes her an outcast. When she and some of her classmates get pulled out of school, amid claims of a dangerous outbreak, Aranka discovers that she’s part of a new generation of the legendary Kyrrenei, an ancient race of people that was exterminated by their rivals, the Addin. She’s held as a prisoner by the Addin, who want to stop the reemergence of the Kyrrenei by any means necessary. When a member of J Company, a secret organization sworn to fight the Addin, comes to her aid, Aranka becomes part of a resistance fighting for the very soul of her people.
I was pulled into the narrative early by the sincerity in Aranka’s voice, along with her intelligence and humor. She’s a character with a lot of depth, both mentally and emotionally, that seems to be sorely lacking in many teenage protagonists. I cared about what happened to her over the course of the novel, and when I finished I couldn’t stop wondering what was in her future. I was especially fascinated by her later in the story, when the introduction of other characters’ viewpoints makes many of her thoughts and actions inscrutable to the reader. Some of her biggest moments are shown through the eyes of another character, and, in this case, I actually found that to be a plus: her actions spoke volumes about her character, and I didn’t always need to hear her interior monologue to experience her growth over the course of the novel.
The second narrator, introduced in the fifth chapter, is Thanh—my favorite character in the book. Thanh is a Meikan, one of the people whose ancestors were allies to the Kyrrenei in ancient times, but he has a hard time relating to the traditions of his people. Meikans live in very tight communities, and they’re forced to practice their ways in silence as part of an old treaty made with the Addin. Thanh doesn’t participate in prayer with other Meikans, though he does respect their devotion. He’s had a difficult life, full of tragedy and loss, and he struggles to understand his relation to the modern-day practices which Meikans continue to participate in as a way of carrying on their heritage. When he comes face-to-face with one of the legendary Kyrrenei, something he once believed to be a myth of his people, Thanh’s left with even more questions than he had before. I really enjoyed the chapters narrated by him, and I was fascinated by his reflections on religion and his place in the world as he’s struggling to adapt to the mythological made real.
The world building aspects of the novel were my other favorite parts. The plot moves at a good pace, but Farnam manages to inject pieces of the language of the Kyrrenei and their ancient oral tradition. Some of the most fascinating moments in the novel come when the reader is given a glimpse into the history of the Kyrrenei—even if it’s only a few lines of an old prayer or a brief dream sequence where Aranka sees into the past. These elements never bore the reader, and there’s never a point where the text is burdened by their inclusion. I wanted to see more of it, because it really added depth to the world of the story, but I got the sense that there’s plenty more of this to come in future installments of the series. One of my favorite scenes in the entire novel was when Aranka begins to have ancestral memories of the Kyrrenei and finds that she is able to recall their ancient verses, which had been lost due to the efforts of the Addin to erase the Kyrrenei from history. Speaking of the Addin, I did wish they’d featured in the story a little more. However, like I said before, I’m guessing that they’ll be expanded upon later in the series.
If I had one complaint about this book, it would be the rather abrupt ending. There’s still plenty to be resolved after you get to the final page, and some readers might be bothered by that. For me, this was a minor thing and didn’t really change my enjoyment of the novel at all. I don’t always expect to have everything wrapped up neatly for me, especially with a series. I’m just glad the next book is coming out soon, because I would have been going crazy if I didn’t know when to expect it.
I could go on, really. There were plenty of great character moments in the novel, I liked the dialogue, and I think it struck a good balance between fast-paced action and more evenly-paced character building moments. The bottom line on this one: it’s an impressive debut from an independent author, a story filled with genuine emotion, and it sets the stage for what promises to be an exciting, epic adventure. The Soul and the Seed isn’t a perfect book, but I’m giving it the highest marks because it presents a fantasy world that is wondrous in its own way, while still accomplishing the important feat of making us take a hard look at our own dark world.