Recent Reading: The Tally Master by JM Ney-Grimm

So, this is a book by a new-to-me author. She posted nice reviews of some of my books and I thought okay, that suggests comparable tastes, so I picked up one of her books.

What with one thing and another, it took me some time to get through The Tally-Master, but I finished it last night.

What stands out:

The setting. This novel takes place almost entirely in the citadel of Belzetarn, a massive, towering citadel on top of a cliff above a lake. There are lots and lots of stairs allowing traffic up and down the tower, and I seriously feel that I climbed them all personally, multiple times. I haven’t read a lot of novels where the setting had such a powerful physical presence. We also get lots of views out of windows and plenty of glimpses of the various smithies (there are three) and kitchens and so forth. The sense of place is just tremendous. I practically got tired just reading about everyone running up and down those stairs.

The Regenen Stair was the tallest in the citadel, a spiral rooted in the mead cellars below the kitchen annex and climbing all the tower’s great height, past the lofty chambers of the regenen – Lord Carbraes – to the battlements. There were three other major stairways that ascended from the smithies to the battlement terraces, and all four of them were heavily trafficked, with warriors climbing from the bailey to one of several places of arms or to the march’s war chamber, porters carrying charcoal from the yard to the many tower living quarters, or messengers running errands for the catellanum who managed the domestic logistics of Belzetarn. …

It was a long descent to the tower gate, and Gael’s weak left ankle clicked. Not that his tally chamber perched anywhere near Belzetarn’s battlements. But the view from its arrowslits was a scary height above the artisans’ yard and the warriors’ bailey.

Passing two upward-bound porters carrying a heavy chest, Gael moved to the outside of the treads where they were so broad as to require an extra step to reach the riser. He had to duck an empty torch bracket. It would be filled, come nightfall, but the sunlight shining in through the open arrowslits provided illumination enough by day.

So, yes, there are lots of stairs and we climb up them and run down them many, many times over the course of this story.

Who lives in the citadel?

Trolls. When troll-disease strikes someone, he (or she) is exiled, and if the newly made troll lives long enough, he may wind up at Belzetarn. Women with troll-disease may, if they’re lucky, wind up elsewhere; Belzetarn is not a good place for a woman. Troll-disease is a malady that imposes increasing physical and mental distortion as time passes. Trolls and unafflicted humans are at continual war, with Belzetarn a bastion of troll military strength. Why the unafflicted humans don’t kill every single person afflicted with troll-disease isn’t clear to me … well, it kind of is. After all, the newly afflicted troll is someone’s friend, someone’s child, someone’s brother. On the other hand, if humans immediately executed trolls, this war would probably not be such a big concern. But maybe the conflict is usually low-level enough that this makes sense. This is not the part we see. We’re focused on Belzetarn and most particularly with the manufacture of bronze weapons from tin and copper.

The tally-keeper, the secretarious, is the person responsible for keeping track of supplies of these metals. This leads us to –

The characters. Also, the plot.

Gael is the secretarious of Belzetarn. He manages the flow of metal from the mines to the forges, tracking every ingot of tin and copper. Somebody is stealing ingots of metal. Who could it be? What is that person’s motivation? This is where the story opens.

So this is a fantasy-mystery. I really enjoyed how the mystery unfolded. I don’t want to give too much away, but this gets complicated and there are various surprises along the way, including at least one late revelation that I ought to have figured out long before the reveal, but didn’t. And one character-based revelation that nobody is going to figure out, but that particularly appealed to me because it involved a shift from enemy to ally. That was handled smoothly, and of course I always particularly enjoy it when an author does this at all, especially when it’s well done.

Anyway, this is a long, complicated story – complicated in some ways – not hard to follow, but there’s a lot going on and events and revelations kind of pile up.

Gael himself is a solid protagonist. He’s in a tough position, morally speaking. He’s not himself fighting against unafflicted humans, but he’s helping trolls fight, and is that right? No. Yet would it be okay to turn against the trolls who trust him and against the regenen of Belzetarn, who is a bulwark against anarchy and barbarism? Also no. So he’s been handling this dilemma for some years by basically trying not to think about it.

Gael’s assistant is Keir, a young man – troll – who is cool, collected, competent, and – spoiler! –

Here comes a spoiler!

– a young woman pretending to be a boy. I know, I know, that IS a spoiler, but! (A) it’s revealed early … okay, fairly early, about a quarter of the way through the story, when Keir also becomes an important pov character, and (B) this is a trope that particularly appeals to me, and the moment this revelation occurred, my interest in the story instantly went up by about 30%.

Before that, I was reading a bit here and a bit there. After that, I was considerably more interested and I read the rest of the story much faster. I decided I’d provide this spoiler in case any of you also especially enjoy this trope.

I liked Keir a lot. I liked the relationship between Gael and Keir, which did not shift into romance territory in this book, but my guess is it’s heading that way in a very, very slow-burn sort of way. I liked a bunch of things that sort of wrap around the periphery of this relationship, including an intensification of Gael’s central moral dilemma.

And I guess I’ll stop there or I would probably tend to say too much about the plot.

There are lots of characters and it might be helpful to know there’s a dramatis personae in the back, along with quite a handful of other appendices.

What about the writing?

Smooth, solid, and sometimes really nice. As lyrical as Patricia McKillip? No. Evocative of the setting? Yes.

Anything else?

This is a fairly slow-paced story, so if you want a breakneck pace, this isn’t the novel for you. It’s an easy novel to read rather slowly, setting it aside to do other things, so if that’s what you want right now, here you go.

Themes include trust and forgiveness, both of which appeal to me a lot; and the difficulty of finding a moral path forward when you’re surrounded by conflicting duty that pulls you in different directions. That appeals to me a lot too.

This novel includes quite a few extended flashbacks, the first of which occurred only 5% into the story and seriously turned me off. I don’t particularly like extended backstory flashbacks anyway, and in this case, we find out how Gael became a troll. It involved the king to whom Gael was loyal handling a situation in a way that was both stupid and morally highly questionable. I came really close to stopping with this book at that point. Gael thinks, basically, If the king was going to reconcile with his brother in the end, why in hell couldn’t he do it before without putting the kingdom through a year of civil war? And you know what, that’s a very good question. My patience with a king who would do that is minimal, as in, zero. That king did not deserve Gael’s, or anyone’s, loyalty, even if the brother was worse.

However, that’s the only situation like that. Even though I just skimmed through all but one – okay, two – flashback scenes, I’m glad I didn’t quit reading when I hit that first flashback. The present-day story takes up most of the book. I liked the ending – I liked how Gael handled problems of loyalty and duty right at the end.

 I’m curious about how various elements might get resolved, I’m invested in the relationship between Gael and Keir, and I bought the sequel, which I’m reading now.

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8 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Tally Master by JM Ney-Grimm”

  1. I have read several books by Ney-Grimm. I like some better than others, but rarely regret trying them. The first one of hers I read was Caught in Amber which managed to be a gripping (to me) story with just one person on the page for most of the book. I may have mentioned it here, years ago. There’s also her East o’the Sun retelling, Troll Magic which has been described as a book without a villain. And starts solving the troll problem. I’m not sure the author balanced all the elements properly, but I like it.

    Read Tally Master when it was new, haven’t gotten the sequel off the TBR list yet.

  2. Elaine, I particularly like stories with just one character on the page. I’m always interested in how the author makes that work and I just enjoy it. I’ll definitely try Caught in Amber.

  3. This looks interesting! I’ll have to check it out.
    You know who else has an obsession with stairs? Garth Nix. Every. Single. Story. that I’ve read by him has someone running up (or down) stairs, miserably sore in some way or other, usually with something chasing them. I don’t know what he has against stairs; maybe he has some trauma involving them.

  4. At the moment I’m dealing with knee problem that makes stairs mildly traumatic, so I’m with Nix.

  5. I read this post and comments immediately before falling asleep last night, and dreamed of stairs. Sketchy parking garage stairs. Shopping mall emergency exit stairs. Brutalist concrete giant outdoor stairs, complete with plantings. Fantantastic shallow spiral stairs, around a huge atrium, with rounded steps, each covered with a Persian rugs. Catwalks, with more stairs. Stairs, stairs, stairs. What a dream!

  6. That’s pretty neat, Pete! I would have enjoyed that dream, maybe, although maybe not if I had to climb them all with something chasing me.

  7. I really like the North-lands world she has built for her stories. The Nordic folktale/fairytale inspiration gives them a flavour that stand out from the generic fantasy style.
    If this one sounds too long and complicated for now for some of those here, but the setting seems interesting, she has written several shorter stories in that same Nordic fantasy world, that work well as standalones but give a good sense of the style of her writing and deepen the feel of the world of you read more of her work.
    Here’s a complete list:
    If you want a recommendation it really depends on what you’re looking for, but Sarvet’s Wanderyar is one I like.

  8. Thanks, Hanneke! Very useful comments. Good to know about the shorter standalones in particular.

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