I started reading the paperback I bought at World Fantasy Convention 2011, but I soon switched to Kindle, when that edition was offered up for free (as a promotion, not the author's gift to me for review). In the interest of full disclosure, I will also point out that I know Brad, a little. I met him at WFC because we have some mutual friends, and I first fell in love with his writing after hearing him read from the sequel to this novel.
Now, all that being said, none of it affected my enjoyment of this book, which is one of the best fantasy debuts I've ever come across.
So, it's been about two weeks since I finished this book, and I needed that time, because it was a lot to absorb. I was a huge fan of epic fantasy when I was young--Tolkien was my first love, but authors like Eddings, Jordan, Brooks and others filled my shelves as a teen--but of late I've read very little of it. George Martin is really the only fantasy I've read this decade, and I can't even call A Song of Ice and Fire, High or True Fantasy (not that I mean that as a slight, George's books are phenomenal, just very nontraditional, in a good way). Bradley's book is incredibly similar in its inability to fit into a tidy little box.
There were some things that struck me about this novel as the levels through which I was introduced to it expanded.
- The cover. It's a steampunk-ish, alternate world, air-ship orgasm of a cover, and yet it's painted with such an air of mystery, it's clear this is no juvenile manga-style tale of another world (not that I don't love those too, but I digress)
- Brad's reading from what was then probably a third stage draft of the sequel. Brad's voice, tone, diction, and resonance probably played a part, but for me it was really the richness of language and culture that drew me in. I heard him read from the sequel before I read the original, but it gave me enough of a taste for the world that I knew I would have to return.
- The cultures. I don't want to attribute every fantasy I ever read to Tolkien, because as much as I wish it did, it doesn't work that way, and another thing that makes Winds stand out to me is the fact that is does not borrow Orcs, or Elves, or Dwarves. It includes the landed of the great duchies, who are only very loosely based on Tsarist Russia, who I thought were mostly pretty cool, except for amazing standout characters like Nikandr, Atiana, and Victania, but more importantly it included the fascinating Aramahn, a culture that was part Indian Hindi, part Arabic Muslim, and part Japanese Buddhist, whose religion, or more specifically, spiritual system of beliefs, was what really drove this story for me. It's key characters were the morally conflicted Rehada, the vaguely autistic Nasim, his guide and elder Ashan, and the clearly devout, confused, radical, and yet still sympathetic Soroush. The Aramahn really made this book for me, and I look forward to the subsequent volumes in which I hope they will explored even more deeply.
If I had to make one complaint, it would be that the pacing dragged a bit for me in the middle third. However, I suspect this was only due to the fact that I'd been reading so many 60,000 word YA novels lately, and I doubt that most fantasy readers would take issue. People who read a lot of high fantasy understand that a world this rich takes time to build, and you can't just dump it all on the reader. Regardless, the final third of the novel made it all worth it. There were almost sort of two separate climaxes, both of which I thought were done very well and thoroughly enjoyed.
I would recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys fantasy, but also for anyone who is looking for something truly new and unique.