And that’s what makes it so painfully, soulfully, and beautifully human.
Oh, man. This book is not for me.
Krystle Matar’s Legacy of the Brightwash is a long, bleak, Gaslamp fantasy that focuses on the world of the Dominion – a grim and gritty setting with late 19th and early 20th century technology, with one important difference: the existence of humans with limited magical capabilities. These ‘Tainted’ (or ‘Talented’, depending on who you ask), are effectively mutants with the ability to heal, or generate electricity, or run machines, or other similar useful tasks. Of course, the human government of the Dominion has seen fit to register them and tightly control the use of their ‘talents’.
Brightwash follows Tashué Blackwood – a regulation officer who registers and tracks the Tainted– after he finds the mutilated body of a young Tainted girl wash up on the banks of the Brightwash river, sparking his investigation on where this child came from and who was responsible.
Now, while you would think this mystery would be the main thrust of the plot, it actually quickly takes a backseat as the book shifts gears entirely and delves deep into the politics of the Dominion and Tashué’s place within them, while he begins an emotional and eventually physical affair with Stella Whiterock – one of the Tainted he’s charged to monitor. The novel devotes the majority of its very considerable page count to the complex interpersonal dynamics between the various characters introduced in the narrative and their place in society before coming back to, and wrapping up, the mystery of the mutilated child in the back 20%.
This makes Brightwash a slow, sad, depressing, trudge through the dark world of the Dominion and the even darker inner world of its protagonists and secondary characters.
And that’s what makes it so painfully, soulfully, and beautifully human. Brightwash uses fantasy like a safecracker’s tool to break its characters open and lay their contents out with the lightest of touches.
Matar’s prose is deep, mournful, and gorgeous, able to bring out both the deep physical and emotional wounds the characters experience throughout the story. And although the world is light on its fantastical elements, Matar manages to make it feel absolutely strange and familiar all at once – books like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and China Miéville’s The City and The City come to mind. This is dark stuff written so beautifully that you can feel the grime on the walls and the grit in every crevice – both in the world and the characters themselves.
As I said, this book is not my cup of tea. Its a light fantasy frame around a long, introspective look at the human condition and our power structures that left me feeling absolutely emotionally drained and uncomfortable.
But that’s what all good art is supposed to do.