Review: Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman

The Breath of the Sun eBook: Rachel Fellman: Amazon.com.au: Kindle ...

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It is thrilling, to be so far up. The very quality of the air is different; it conducts less of the sound of your voice, and its shallowness, its thinness, infects you. It is a small spike in your cold throat. In that narrow air, looking down over the misty land in the last few minutes of sunlight, you hear your own heart like a slow bass drum, and feel the anticipation of a good song beginning, somewhere in your bones, the percussion of the joints and the slur of the blood.

The Breath of the Sun is another confirmation that an instinct that a book will be great is never to be ignored. I have waited over a year to be able to get my hands on the paperback and in the end, it was absolutely worth it.

With its gorgeous prose, unique concept, experimental structure, queerness, and complex relationships, it shot straight to my favourites and I’d even put it on the same level as The Gray House or The Winged Histories. I can’t praise it enough. If you’re looking for literary fantasy that’s unlike any other you’ve read before: that’s the book for you.

Lamat is a renowned author and mountain climber. Now hiding in the anonymity of a big city, she tells the truth of what really happened at her last expedition to the summit of an impossibly high mountain and her entanglement with the charlatan/priest Mother Disaine to her lover, Otile. Who leaves footnotes with little comments and inserts the odd section or two of Mother Disaine’s diary into the story.

I’m more than a bit of a sucker for the framing device of “you think you know the truth but this is what really happened” and at all points the story refused to go where stories usually go. It’s not about triumph, nor a tragedy. It’s quiet and slow and introspective and very, very queer. I don’t want to go all “not like other books” – but the general tone of it is rather hard to describe. It felt very literary and it not as much avoids fantasy clichés as sidesteps them, unaware of their existence.

The writing is absolutely beautiful, too. I cursed my decision to go for a paperback, because I wanted to highlight so many passages. But my favourite part aside from the loving descriptions of the mountain and climbing, were the paragraphs about love. I adored how none of the characters is attractive – Lamat is missing parts of her nose and cheeks due to frostbite, Otile has a face not even a mother could love, and Lamat’s former lover Courer is no beauty either – and yet.

I had always been shallow in love, had always been drawn to a certain clean, conventional beauty, a masculine beauty. But with Courer it was different. I simply underwent a process by which the things I found ordinary or ugly in her – her dirty hands, her bony nose and lantern jaw, her dry skin and pinched way of looking – became sweet, became like the things that were ordinary and ugly in my own body.

(Plus avoiding the old dead horse “tragic gay” narrative by making it very clear from the start that Lamat has a loving partner now? Awesome.)

The worldbuilding is minimalistic, more deep than wide. There are only about two cities and the mountain mentioned, so the world did feel a little small for someone who is used to expansive fantasy worlds, but it works for the purposes of the story. Besides, I have always preferred cultural worldbuilding. The author more than made up for the laser-narrow scope with all the little details of cultures and religion – and the latter felt especially realistic. The way it explores faith is not something I have often (if ever) seen in fantasy, and it was deeply fascinating. Another detail I liked is how science and magic coexist in this setting and the relationship between them.

It also made me think how we should let the whole fixation on “strong female characters” go already. Reword it into “complex female characters,” perhaps. Lamat is not the most assertive of people, not a fighter in any sense of the word. But she is flawed and resilient and complex. Her relationship with Mother Disaine, who is the type to go and get what she wants no matter how much lying and cheating and using people it takes, was fascinating, though again, hard to do justice in a review. It would be easy to label one “weak” and the other “strong” but with all the value judgement those two words carry, both reductive and wrong.

Seriously though. The Breath of the Sun is, pardon the pun, a breath of fresh air. Go read it.

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: those looking for something new, fans of literary fantasy with amazing prose, anyone looking for: realistic fantasy religions, mountain climbing, queer stories, complex relationships among complex people or ugly people finding love
Not recommended to: those who like big, expansive worldbuilding

Content warning: abuse, miscarriage

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