Fans of Philip Pullman, Jonathan Stroud, and George R.R. Martin are going to love this action-filled fantasy novel by an exciting and extremely promotable debut voice in the genre.
In the world of fifteen-year-old Raim, you tie a knot for every promise you make. Break that promise and the knot will burst into flames, scarring your skin and forever marking you as an oathbreaker. Raim has worn a simple knot around his wrist for as long as he can remember. No one seems to know where it came from or which promise it symbolizes, and Raim barely thinks about it at all--especially not since he became the most promising young fighter ever to train for the elite Yun guard. But on the day that he binds his life to that of his best friend (and the future king), Khareh, the rope ignites and sears a dark mark into his skin. Scarred now as an oathbreaker, Raim has two options: run or be killed. He chooses to run, taking refuge in the vast desert among a colony of exiled oathbreakers. Will he be able to learn the skills he needs to clear his name? And even if he can, how can he keep a promise he never knew he made in the first place?
It takes a bit of work to make headway into debut author McCulloch's imaginative space. She eschews the typical medieval European world of fantasy for a nomadic yurt village on the steppes. The cast of characters is large, the customs and beliefs distant, and worldbuilding detail comes thick and fast. For readers who stick with it, what unfolds is a thoughtful coming-of-age story focused on questions of what constitutes betrayal. Raim, at 15, has been the devoted friend of Khareh, the crown prince of Dashan, for five years. The boys are on the brink of adult choices: Raim wants to become an elite Yun warrior, while Khareh is sliding into a battle of wills with the khan he has been chosen to succeed. As the boys swear a sacred vow to be forever protector and protected, these futures crumble. Marked as an oathbreaker and outcast, Raim goes on the run for his life into the merciless desert. Many questions are raised and none resolved, yet it's an intriguing start to McCulloch's planned series. Ages 12 up.