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
The Way of Unity is the debut novel from Sarah K. Balstrup. It is a really unique book, which I would say by setting it should be classified as fantasy, but that could also be considered as a literary study of what happens when a population is alienated from their own beliefs, when a sudden change is forced to happen. It's quite a mix between what is storytelling, and what becomes an investigative job, an effort to discern what's true and what's just a made-up.
We find ourselves in the land of Velspar, which is ruled by an elite called the Skalens. A religious cult, the Intercessors, is gaining power and threatening the authority of these called Skalens. Around a central event called the Fire, the narrative unfolds, showing us how Sybilla's family gets murdered in a house fire by the Intercessors. Sybilla escapes her family's fate, becoming Skalen, starting a path of revenge, trying to destroy the cult, and almost reaching her objective.
However, some Intercessors are able to escape, starting a plot to return to power, and becoming a small group of rebels, who see Sybilla as a heretic. Balstrup wovens a really complex world, which we get to experiment through the eyes of several characters, over multiple years. Sybilla's character by itself is probably one of the most interesting, as we get to observe her own crusade against the beliefs of the population, almost wiping them thanks to the power Skalens keeps; while at the same time, even in her power position, Sybilla is just a prisoner of her own prejudices, the one that appeared after the tragic death of her family.
We also get to observe how the group of rebels, these people who tried to keep their faith in the Intercessors and their religion behaves, plotting behind the scenes, seeking to restore the old beliefs. Doubts appear among them, especially as this implies a rebellion against what has become the established power.
Probably the highlight of this book is the writing style chosen by Balstrup. The prose has a great quality, transmitting the importance of what's narrated, giving great weight to the mystical experiences that the characters get to see. As said before, there are a great amount of work developing characters, so we can bond with them, even if their intentions sometimes don't feel clear.
From the start to the very end, this book manages to transmit the importance that religion has in the life of these characters, and how losing it impacted them. There aren't many elements to classify this book as fantasy outside of the world and certain creatures, as it feels more like a character study in a traumatic situation and the consequences of their actions. Still, the story is hooking from the start to the end, keeping some surprises to the very last arc of the narration.
The Way of Unity is a really strong debut. I think it will be a divisive book, as the narration style can alienate some readers, but at the same time, other readers will absolutely love how the weight of words can be felt; the quality of the craft is there. Personally, I enjoyed how the different plots get intertwined to give us a really satisfying end, one that makes you think about what you've seen in the rest of the book; and how sometimes what you got shown, might just be what one side wanted to show you. In definitive, a great novel that will be loved by those who want complex narrations, and books that make you think even after closing them.
Sarah K. Balstrup
Sarah K. Balstrup is an Australian author of dark fantasy and former Religious Studies academic. Her work gravitates toward the liminal and surreal, exploring religious themes with an air of dark romanticism.
Her other passions include Nick Cave and her morning coffee.
Sarah lives in Canberra with her record-collecting husband and two children.