Review: Ashamet, Desert Born by Terry Jackman

ashamet cover

Sometimes, you open a book and it’s just not the right time for it. That happened to me six months ago when I looked at the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 of Ashamet, Desert Born. I saw odd names, references to non-Earth physiology, and thought, “I don’t have the mental energy for this”. I put it aside and went on to other books that I was both reading and writing.

That, dear reader, was a mistake.

Fortunately, a week ago I saw it on my ereader again, remembered that I’d offered to review it and decided to try it once more.

I’m so glad I did.

Ashamet, Desert Born is a marvellous book. It’s full of intrigue and adventure; it’s intelligent and engaging; it’s romantic and exciting!

The book is narrated by the Ashamet of the title – a prince whose father bears a holy symbol that Ash lacks, though both suspect is just the result of jiggery-pokery by the priests. Ash is happy to be a soldier, and we meet him on his wedding day. Descriptions of him and the various peoples come to his great celebration indicate they are a humanoid but not necessarily human people, but all the potential awkwardness I saw in that never eventuates, because Terry Jackman is a subtle and clever writer.

This is certainly an alien world, and its creation shows influence from Arabian Nights tales, but it unfolds as its own thing. Various cultures, social mores, rituals and practices unfold with slow grace, all from Ashamet’s perspective, so the reader is never overwhelmed with tedious infodump.

Ashamet’s world is one in which males outnumber females to a huge degree – and actually my only criticism of the book is that with females so completely elided in the story, I find myself wondering how such a biologically awkward thing has come to pass. I’d very much like to see more female characters in any follow up (and I very much want to read a follow up!).

This leaves us with a complex society in which same-gender relations are the norm. So when Ashamet receives a rare slave as a wedding gift – a male who is rather old to be a virgin, but clearly an innocent and so prized – his relationship with the unusual Keril becomes the central theme of the book, affecting as it does both Ashamet’s emotional life, as well as his social and political ones – and Keril’s too, of course.

We already know from the very first paragraph that assassins have tried to kill Ash. From there, an intricate story is woven of court politics, family relations, complex alliances, and traditional social expectations.

Ash narrates with humour and depth – a smart male, politically savvy and spiritually sceptical. The odd things that begin to occur, including a itching sensation on his arm that begins to form into a sign of heavenly blessing, alarming because he doesn’t believe in such powers.

Jackman manages to build a narrative in delicate layers that reveals a world without lecturing, that reveals Ashamet to us through his thoughts and deeds, and then weaves more and more complication into the story until we reach the action-packed denoument. Because we only know what Ashamet knows, some elements still come as revelations, because they haven’t been heavily foreshadowed by the writer.

In the end, I found Ashamet, Desert Born beautifully paced, filled with characters of depth and texture, with enough action balanced with enough thoughtfulness and a thread of tension to reveal a fully developed world. The enigmatic, innocent and  yet perceptive Keril is balanced beautifully with the wit, courage, strength and heart of Prince Ashamet. Their love story is interwoven flawlessly into the wider tale of political and religious intrigue.

Of course I wish there were more of a female perspective – but with enough mystery left at the end of the story (which is otherwise well concluded) I have hopes that a second book in this world will give us more of a look into the female experience of these fascinating cultures and people.

I will certainly be looking for more work from Terry Jackman, who writes with such intelligence, emotional depth and subtlety.

Read and interview with Terry Jackman

Buy Ashamet, Desert Born