The Way of Unity
by Sarah K. Balstrup
The Seven Lands of Velspar put their faith in the Intercessors, a psychic priesthood responsible for the purification of the spirit. Where passion flares, they soothe its intent. Those who cannot be soothed, are cast out, their spirits destroyed by fire.
The Intercessors are mystics of the highest order, but Velspar’s ruling Skalens believe their power has grown too great.
Surviving the Intercessor’s murder plot against her family, Sybilla Ladain rises to power. The Skalens come together under the banner of her grief, bringing the practice of Intercession to its brutal, bloody end.
Yet victory brings Sybilla no peace. In time, she will have to face the people of Velspar, forced to live in a psychically alienated world, and a band of rebels led by an escaped Intercessor set on her annihilation.
SPFBO9 – Our Reviews
“She would not do it again. She swore it. They would have no more of her blood.”
Religion and politics collide in The Way of Unity, the debut dark fantasy from Sarah K. Balstrup.
A psychic priesthood known as the Intercessors oversees blood rites and spiritual purity in the Seven Lands of Velspar. The Intercessor priests can probe individual minds, leveling harsh punishment against those with sinful “red” thoughts. The unchallenged religious authority of the Intercessors leads to their heightened political influence, which puts them on a collision course with the elite Skalen families who rule Velspar.
The Way of Unity is built around a central event known as the Fire, a fateful attack by the Intercessors that leaves Skalen Sybilla of Vaelnyr as its sole survivor. Sybilla rises to power in the painful aftermath of the Fire, intent on religious reform and pursuing justice against the Intercessors. However, a rogue Intercessor is bent on Sybilla’s own destruction.
The Way of Unity is told from multiple points of view, but Sybilla steals the show as the most compelling and well-developed character in the book. She is emotionally complex and may be either lionized as Velspar’s great reformer or vilified as its worst heretic.
Sarah K. Balstrup excels in her nuanced worldbuilding. Of particular note is the Meridian, a magical headband that prevents intrusion into one’s thoughts and also hampers the wearer’s psychic vision and sensory perception. The Meridian is also used as a symbol of personal autonomy.
Balstrup’s prose is beautiful and well-polished, conveying a sense of gloomy mysticism throughout the story. Although The Way of Unity emphasizes religion as its main theme, there is also a touch of romance, which is tastefully done and helps in the development of Sybilla as a character.
On the downside, The Way of Unity is marred by overly stiff dialogue, which prevents many of the other characters from developing their own individual personalities. Unfortunately, this also compromises the ability of the reader to establish strong emotional connections with these other characters.
The story also suffers from disjointed flow, with sudden jumps in time between chapters that make the plot confusing to follow in places. Overall, The Way of Unity would benefit by devoting more time to exposition and building smoother transitions between chapters.
Sarah K. Balstrup shows great promise with The Way of Unity, a melancholic tale that explores the darker side of organized religion and its impact on the individual psyche. The series will continue with Balstrup’s second book, A Trail of Stars.
I have provided an honest review of this book below for purposes of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) Number 9 competition in which this book is entered, and assigned to Before We Go Blog for judging.
For my first read as an SPFBO 9 Judge, I selected The Way of Unity, by Sarah Balstrup. In the novel, Balstrup transports us to the Seven Lands of Velspar, where all sides of a revolution against the religious overseers in power suffer dire consequences.
In a clash of church and state, the ruling elites of the Seven Lands – known as Skalen – tire of the pervasive influence of the Intercessors. The Intercessors are a fervent and powerful clergy of mystics who worship the gods as manifested through sacred creatures, Siatka and Kahidol. The Intercessors also demand religious purity and secure the faithful’s adherence to dogma in blood rites. Additionally, those succumbing to sinful – “red” – thoughts can be summarily executed by the Intercessors.
Which, of course, many find abhorrent. While some ardently believe this is a necessary part of worship, and preserving faith to one’s gods.
Some among the Skalen believe the Intercessors are heretics who have perverted the original rectitude of the faith of Velspar. Of course, the Intercessors would find any such thoughts to be heresy. Not good for the supposed heretics, because the Intercessors have a penchant to purge apostates via flames.
“Because he had the courage to resist their advances, they silenced him with fire..”
But the Skalens are no pushovers, and with their authority in jeopardy from the Intercessors, they are determined to strike back. Hard.
Yet there will be catastrophic losses on all sides of the conflict between the Intercessors and the Skalen, including internal conflict among the Skalen themselves, divided between rising up against the Intercessors, or maintaining the status quo. The author, through the use of POVs on opposing sides, shows us just how wonderful and how terrible people can be when they are armed with self-righteousness, and a cause that can inflame them to act upon their ideals, no matter the cost to the other side.
Revolving around an inciting event, with looks both forward and in retrospect, this book is a marvellous effort to use deeply flawed characters whose actions appear “good” to their followers and supporters, while appearing horrible to their enemies .It may become hard to root for any of the characters (while I don’t require that in my books, many readers do), but one will fully understand their motivations and fret over the consequences to the greater land, and future generations.
Perhaps no character in the book exemplifies this more than the troubled Sybilla. Sybilla is the initial POV we are greeted with, and her father is the driving force behind the rebellion against the Intercessors.
A young girl at the start of the novel, she seems like a good person, noble, just, caring. But after tragic circumstances propel Sybilla to be one of the primary revolutionists, and she needs allies amongst the other Skalen families to achieve her goals, we see just how vengeful and ruthless Sybilla can be, and one might start to question if any new regime promises to be just as problematic – or even worse – than the old regime.
Later, the perspectives of Zohar and Ambrose, who are on another side of the conflict, as family of Skalens who did not support the rebellion against the intercessors, are presented. When Sybilla is examined from the lens of other characters such as these, her actions appear to be much more sinister and reprehensible. Then when we swing back to Sybilla, so much of what she does seems reasonable, even “just”.
It takes real aplomb to craft complicated, unlikable characters that are compelling, and Balstrup excels in this regard. You may not care about the characters much, but you will be fascinated by what they do, and how the results of what they do turn out.
The main characters age and evolve, and the author does a wonderful job with their evolution, as the religious conflict changes them, for better and for worse. There is some awesome character work here.
That said, there are times when the reader may feel somewhat emotionally distant from the characters, because of the style of narrative, despite the characters being so believable and well-fleshed out. It seems to be a choice by the author; a deliberate, impersonal touch, that manifests in the multiple, detached, third-person POVs.
The worldbuilding is wonderful in the novel. Centered around religion, tradition, varying, fascinating customs between the noble houses, and of course the Intercessors and their domination of public life, it is easy to become immersed in this world. There are diverting charts and images at the beginning of the novel to help explain aspects of the magic, the religion, and the noble houses which I thought lent a great air of authenticity to the world-building.
While, if you seek dragons, elves, and more traditional creatures and monsters, look elsewhere, I truly enjoyed the realistic, gritty world that Balstrup crafted. The religious and magic system are both centered around the use of the meridian, which was really interesting. These meridians, essentially a band worn on the forehead, carries stones that emotionally distance the wearer, blunting emotional extremity and perception, preventing invasion of thought, and protecting one from hostile magic and manipulation.
The complexity and relevance of the themes explored in The Way of Unity, and the way these themes are handled, are indicative of a brilliant writer who knows how to draw strong emotional reactions out of their readers, and leave the reader with plenty of things to ponder long after they’ve turned the last page.
Psychosis, mysticism, revenge, trauma, torture, murder, religious intolerance, bigotry and oppression, fanaticism, revolution, and more, are themes tackled in the novel. In The Way of Unity, the players are caught between two very extreme ideals of devotion to one’s religion.
The author poses a myriad of thought-provoking questions to which there are not many clear or easy answers.
What constitutes “true” faith? How does one know who and what one is worshiping is “the right faith”? Is something “wrong” just because it seems harsh or barbaric to the eyes of another? Could there be a lack of true enlightenment and understanding of what the gods require from their feal subjects?
Is individuality and autonomy more important than being devout? Who is “right”, who “wins”, and will anyone – any of the characters – believe in anything anymore when all they believe in is cast into doubt? And will vengeance, retribution, and lust for power ruin the endeavour to “set things right”?
This novel is about the malevolent side of religion and faith, which invariably becomes about the people who believe or don’t believe, and what they do to others who don’t feel the same, rather than any purity of a divinity.
While a god may or may not be pure, humans are subject to corruption and flawed logic when it comes to their worship. When persecution becomes the end result of divergence of opinion over religion, is it justified? Who, then, becomes the “infidel”?
Religions run deep into our psyche, and martyrs can inspire further revolution and upheaval, creating a cycle of continuous instability. When one version of the faith is cast down, another rises in its place, but often a faction wants the old faith back.
The author chooses the irony of calling the novel The Way of Unity, because there is little harmonious about what happens in the book, as religion and politics butt up against one another, with bloody results.
There are plenty of political machinations, back-stabbing, back-room dealing, and even a well done romantic element to the book. Therefore, plenty to keep the reader engaged, in the absence of larger scale battle sequences. Nonetheless, there are scenes of extreme violence, and they are blistering. There are some absolutely heart-rending scenes.
Prose is typically the one factor in a book that will sway me decidedly one way or another when I try to evaluate a book. In the case of this novel, the prose was scrumptious, and some of the best I’ve read in my time thus far as an SPFBO judge. Poetic, lugubrious, haunting, contemplative, the author’s way with words resonated deeply with me.
Other than some of the choices with respect to dialogue not living up, perhaps, to the marvellous exposition, and the narrative feeling a bit detached sometimes, as I noted above, this book was fabulous.
This dark, traumatic, intriguing, hypnotic, and poignant book, set in a harsh world, is truly a unique and bold work, that does not feel derivative of anything else I’ve read recently.
The best single word I can use to describe this book is “different” and I mean that as high praise.