The fantasy archetype of the soothsayer is often a supporting character, trotted out or journeyed to for a crucial yet standalone scene in which she provides some context or clue to the hero about how everything will turn out. Then she usually retreats into her remote hideout, never to be seen again — at least not until the next protagonist requires a glimpse into the future.
But in Elijah Kinch Spector's delightful debut fantasy adventure Kalyna the Soothsayer, not only is the fortuneteller the unlikely hero, but she's also a shameless fake.
The eponymous Kalyna Aljosanovna is descended from a proud clan of future-seers, but their hereditary gift never took root in her. The fact that her bloodline ends with her hasn't stopped her from carrying on the family business, using a network of paid informants and her own shrewd observations of human behavior to make just-accurate-enough prognostications about her customers' upcoming fortunes.
It helps that she, ailing father Aljosa and her nasty grandmother are nomads, used to fleeing in the middle of the night and/or being run out of town by suspicious locals.
But not even Kalyna can foresee a political plot in which she's kidnapped so that she can advise the louche Prince Friedhelm of Rotfelsen, who will do anything to avoid his royal birthright. Kalyna is his "Eleventh Recourse," just as disposable as the 10 people before her if she fails to predict a future of continued debauchery.
While Kalyna is no stranger to telling someone what he wants to hear, the stakes are heightened when they involve the fate of an entire kingdom, not to mention the supposed end of the world.
The best lies contain a bit of truth. But in Kalyna's case she must not reveal what her father sees — the entire country crumbling in just a few months — if she wants to save her own skin.
Kalyna possesses a frenetic energy, recklessly jumping on hunches if they turn a sword or gun away from her and toward another suspect. Her desperate psychic improv stokes the already fractious atmosphere at Rotfelsen's royal court, making for a mad romp, despite a slow start.
Kalyna's story doesn't really get going until literally the wheels are turning — that is, as she's spirited away from an encampment in Masovska by the spymaster of neighboring Rotfelsen.
Despite crossing borders, they aren't actually leaving the country. The two realms are part of the Tetrarchic Experiment, which has sought to unite four very different kingdoms ("cold and superstitious Masovska; jagged and paranoid Rotfelsen; precarious and discrete Quruscan; fertile and motley Skydašiai") in tentative coexistence.
It's a keen setting for a tale of court intrigue and pretenders double-crossing one another. As Kalyna reflects, you cannot con someone whose way of thinking you cannot understand. Tetrarchia's citizens learn one another's languages (if only out of obligation or convenience), but each quarter retains its own nationalist pride and suspicion of outsiders.
And then you have someone like Kalyna, who looks like she's from both everywhere and nowhere — a quality that's useful for shifting between factions, but also a nasty hurdle to gaining the trust of the more xenophobic Rots.
Rotfelsen's court is a microcosm of the Tetarchia's tension, with four color-coded armies constantly at one another's throats: The Yellows, loyal to Prince Friedhelm; the Purples, who follow the dangerous court philosopher; the Reds, split between king and queen; and the Greens, Rotfelsen's actual army.
Kalyna aptly describes them as resembling confetti, strewn about in each another's business. Rotfelsen operates on an endless array of feasts and balls, except that each party is more of an excuse for attempted poisonings and dishonorable duels.
The tricky narrative style challenges the reader's expectations of tidy chapters, instead laying out the action in vividly-titled scenes ("I Concoct a Dangerous Plan," "A Clear Case of Assassination"), each not unlike a tarot card illustrated with a single visual or self-contained narrative.
Jumping back and forward in time as she relates her misadventures, Kalyna shuffles the metaphorical tarot deck for an extended reading of the past, present and (but of course) the future. Just like her soothsaying, what initially appears to be a gimmick takes on real heft as the story unfolds.
Even with all the back-stabbing (and front-stabbing, and sharpshooting), Spector cunningly puts this puny mortal hand-wringing about the future into stark perspective with reminders of what a nascent, dysfunctional country the Tetrarchic Experiment is.
Like any encounter with a fortuneteller, it's best to put your trust in Kalyna's hands and let her build a story around the two of you. Parts of it will speak to your own specific fears and desires; other aspects will be entertaining fictions, until you discover the devastating shard of truth within. And even if you know from the start that Kalyna is a swindler, she'll still surprise you (and even herself) by seeing something that no one else can.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, Den of Geek, Paste Magazine and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.