Chaz Brenchley is the prose-lover's fantasist. He first hit the American scene with his six-volume Outremer epic -- Outremer #1: The Devil in the Dust (Outremer, Book 1) -- which stood as quite the peculiar fantasy series. Mixing myriad heady themes with a vastly exotic locale and challenging, not exactly likeable characters, it didn't quite gain the overnight fan base the man deserved. Having enjoyed all six of the Outremer books myself, it was nevertheless easy to see why so many (at least so many American middle classers) failed to share my admiration.
It's an unusual fantasy, by-and-large a re-imagining of the Crusades and the trials faced by the people therein, although while most Westerners think of Merry Olde England, knights and shining armor and holy grails and little else besides whenever "The Crusades" is mentioned, the truth, however, being that England was simply where knights set off from and came back to. The actual Crusades, (i.e. the actual warfare/struggle) took place in the Middle East, and the only other work of modern fiction I can think of to placed the Crusades inside its actual, natural habitat, was the movie Kingdom of Heaven...and we all know how wonderfully that flick went down (it tanked). Add to this already-doomed-to-failure set-up a strong seasoning of poetic prose, and not just purple prose, which fantasy lovers are (unfortunately) more than accustomed to and willing to accept, but rather a high-brow and personal sense of word-play that, honestly, I've yet to discover in full outside of Brenchley's own, singular wordsmithery, and it's understandable why he's wasn't an overnight sensation.
But wait, isn't this post about Bridge of Dreams? Yeah, it is, so let's get to it: with no peer support group for my love of Outremer, over the years I lost track of Brenchley and failed to discover his newer works. Recently, however, I was once again took the plunge, this time into the author's first US-before-UK work, the duology Selling Water by the River, the first book being the outstandingly-conceived Bridge of Dreams.
Whatever reservations anyone may have had when sampling Outremer, I can unabashedly say: Bridge of Dreams is by far a superior work. The world herein is remarkably well rendered, filled with a cavalcade of wild ideas and concepts though tightly focused upon to see a smaller, personal tale. It's about two neighboring countries: the ruling Maras and the ruled-over Sund. Maras marched into Sund long ago, due to crossing an unbridgeable river by crafting a Bridge made out of magic, out of children's dreams. The Bridge, being a bastard thing of wizardry, poisons the water it touches, and the result is an impoverished land peopled with deformed mutations, including one small boy who develops an ability that just might turn the tide in Sund's favor once again. Alternating between this particular Sundian boy and a new bride for the Marasi Sultan, the worlds of both states are explored in full, developing the characters with a leisurely, natural pace, and resulting in a sweetly slow-burn rise toward an unavoidable climax.
Brenchley isn't a pulpy writer: there'll be no cliché banter or overused metaphors here. He's quite meticulous, though also, I think, intuitive in his prose. Rhythm seems as important to him as word choice, developing sentences as crafted and unobtrusively sing-song as:
--"She had spent all morning in the temple, being washed and oiled, censed and scented, perfumed in the gaze of heaven to make her fit for marriage on earth. There had been prayers, hours of praying, herself on her knees before the altar and prayed over by a rota of indistinguishable priests while her eyes drifted where they could, her mind further."--
And so on and on, each clause a perfect counterpoint in length and meter to the last. It's a marvel how well the prose works, page after page, though its fluid qualities often find the reader slipping over lines without taking in their actual content (it's easy to be lulled into the cadence and lose the meaning). Nevertheless, an extra touch of concentration gives more than ample reward, with a story that works in every way that it should.
Perhaps my favorite part of Brenchley's dialogue style: he utilizes a clever way of packing all necessary information as necessary without having the actual speech of his characters feel forced: by switching silently between actual quotations and out again.
--"That's right," Issel insisted, "that's what I'm saying. The people he sells his blessed water to, they can go out and use it against the Marasi if they dare to, but then it's innocents who die," chance's hostages who just happened to be living in the street or passing by or selling fruit by the wayside when a patrol was attacked. "And it's the master who's at fault, twice as much at fault, because he keeps twice the distance between himself and the risk."--
By moving between actual speech and prose, without pause or breath, Brenchley fills out his characters, their motivations, their meanings, and his own intentions in swift order, and allows it to all to unfold well-told, an effortless read, easy to fall into and nigh impossible to emerge from, poignant, insightful, introspective, never dull. The best kind of entertainment fantasy has to offer.
Just do yourself a favor and have a copy of the sequel and conclusion, River of the World (Selling Water By the River), close at hand. You won't to wait long after reaching BoD's final page!