Teot’s War (Song of Naga Teot, Book 1) by Heather Gladney

Rating: 10/10 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

Title: Teot’s War (Song of Naga Teot, Book 1)
Author: Heather Gladney
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantasy, Speculative Fiction
URL: Out of print – Available from third party sellers at Amazon.
Price: Varies
Warnings: Very mild violence

Summary (from the original edition): He rode out of the desert with two swords strapped across his back, a harp at his side, and nightmares burning in his eyes.  He came from the wastelands smoldering with hate, no room in his heart for anything else. Until he met the gaze of Liege Lord of Tan, who claimed his Oath, his loyalty, and more. A king held captive by his position, a swordsman held captive by his Oath, together they would start a war–and free their land, or die.

My Review: Cars become antiques when they hit the age of 20 years.  But they don’t necessarily become classics when they hit that age.  What goes into making an antique car a classic is harder to define…the smoothness of the ride, the quality of the craftsmanship, the beauty of the design, the reaction of the audience as it looks back and remembers the times of their lives spent with that car.  The same can be said about literature.  Many books have withstood the test of time, but how many are classics.  Well, Teot’s War was originally published in 1987 and though it has taken me 22 years to discover it, this novel is anything but dated.  It may be antique in the best sense of the word, but what is even more impressive is that–in my eyes anyway– it is a classic in every sense of the word.  Classic adventure. Classic fantasy.  And classic homoerotic fiction.

The blurb on the cover is a bit misleading when it comes to this book.  Yes, Teot’s War is about war, but it is about two wars:  the war raging inside Naga and the genesis of an actual war where wrongs must be righted.  Naga Teot is a man without a country, without land or family.  Of noble birth, Naga is the survivor of a massacre of his people, the Upai.  He saw his family burned to death in a raid upon his lands, he saw his people tortured, forced to wander the land, enslaved.  At the beginning of the novel he finds himself (along with his prized gana–think of a cross between a horse and a Taun Taun) part of a band of marauders, many of whom were responsible for the genocide of his people and who are intent on overthrowing the ruler of Tan, a great land.  Naga is an outcast even amongst these mercenaries.  His skin is dark, his ways are foreign.  And when the band of marauders is confronted by Tanman, the Liege Lord of Tan himself, they are quick to give him up to their enemy.  He is nothing more than a sacrifice–a pawn in a plot they have kept hidden.  A wounded Naga is taken captive by Tanman and there begins the story, one of friendship and loyalty and, the need for redress.  We go on a journey with these two men as they learn to trust one another.  A friendship develops and though Tanman is counseled by his highest advisors that Naga is nothing more than a “Black Man,” a barbarian who could turn on him in an instant, Tanman seemingly knows better and accepts Naga’s Oath to him and his land.  Only when that bond is complete, does the novel move toward the beginning of the physical war.

One of the things with speculative fiction that is always important is the world building.  When done well, the author weaves a world we’ve never been to but doesn’t drown us in a plethora of made-up techno babble.  Good spec fiction for me builds the world with enough references to our own that I don’t spend all of my time trying to figure out what a “dwizzledworp” is (my own made-up word). Bad speculative fiction floods us with terminology we are hopelessly lost to understand, and is most often a sign that an author is enamored with their own abilities, lost within that self-admiration.  In Teot’s War, Gladney creates her world brilliantly.  Everything is clear, the prose and foreign words used exceptionally well.  When she introduces Naga and his gana, we can picture them immediately.  And because Naga has such a bond with that beast, it becomes a character in its own right even though it does not appear in more than thirty pages.  Likewise, the political and social dynamics are set up well.  There’s no confusing web of lands and conquests to memorize.  It is kept simple, but still rich in detail so that you can feel the humidity of the place, know the lighting, and even smell the smells.

But where Teot’s war really excels is in the lead two characters.  Yes, Naga Teot is a broken and battered man, one with much anger in his heart. But he never, ever wallows in it.  He never allows his anger or his drive to eat him alive.  He has seen the things he has.  He has watched almost his entire people massacred.  It eats at him, troubles him.  It burns in his nightmares.  But it also spurs him on, keeps him focused.  He knows that the wrongs visited upon his people must be righted. And they will be.  He simply needs to be patient. He simply needs to have a plan.  And he does.

A nice dichotomy Gladney weaves in to Naga is that while he is patient for the big picture, he often is terribly impatient and rash when it comes to the more immediate circumstances.  He needs, he finds, to temper himself.  And, blessedly, he does.  That balance of patience and impatience is really defining in him and makes him slightly dangerous in a very good way.  And how refreshing to find a hero who is intent on what needs to be done, but is smart enough to work out the best way to get there.  Naga is smart enough, patient enough not to just go hacking his way into the unknown.  He is, even though he may not think it, methodical.

But Gladney doesn’t stop there.  Though trained and expertly skilled as a warrior, Naga Teot is also a harpist, one who understands the beautiful things in the world and the songs that tell of the history of the people and its lands.  In less trained hands, this aspect of Naga could have turned into a cloying literary trick, a trait that takes a well defined, wonderfully masculine character and feminizes him.  But not so here.  It is simply another aspect of his character and, thankfully, Naga does not go off spouting love songs. His harp talents and his songs are the way he keeps his people alive in his heart and for the world.

One of the ways that Gladney builds Naga early on is to give us a glimpse into his more noble self.  When Tanman takes charge of him, his is severely wounded and treated with less than kid gloves.  Despite all of his wounds and all of the rough treatment, his thoughts turn to his gana who died on the battlefield.  His only request to the Liege Lord of Tan who could have him killed at any instance is that his gana be buried.  That one moment perfectly defined Naga to me.  His loyalty. The connection to his people. His sense of what is right, even for a beast of burden…a beast that served him well.

Tanman is equally complex.  Here he has this strange man in Naga that for some reason he is compelled to trust.  Perhaps it is that, as a boy, he knew Naga’s brother and family.  Perhaps it is something more:  Naga is a breath of fresh air compared to the politicos and responsibilities with which he is surrounded.  Perhaps Naga represents a simpler time.  Tanman is a strong man, an even-handed, fair ruler who truly wants to be the benevolent monarch.  Yet, this doesn’t weaken him, either.  The reader is very aware that this man can be brutal if he needs to.  Like Naga, Tanman’s weariness with ruling is never once overwhelming.  It is simply a condition of his being.

The relationship between Naga and Tanman is the driving force in this book.  The bonding of the two men is wonderfully handled and what is so refreshing is that the homoeroticism of this pairing is  so subtle. This is a book my father could have (and would have) read and loved, and he would have been oblivious to what was so appealing about the book for me.  Their connection isn’t born out of lust.  The homoeroticism comes from the loyalty and respect and  friendship that slowly develops.  These men do not moon after one another.  They do not crave some quick, satisying roll in the hay.  They never speak of any attraction for each other.  That is blessedly left for us to discern, and in a day and age where m/m fiction seems intent upon being as graphic and sex-ridden as possible, this was like a breath of fresh air.

Like all good spec fiction, Teot’s war also touches on social and political issues.  Racism, genocide, religious discrimination, intra-ethnic racism are all touched on but is all done so subtly that, while it washes over you, it leaves an indelible impression.  Never does Gladney get heavy-handed or preachy.  We see it and feel it through Naga, but like Naga we are simply resolved to find a way to do something about it.

Gadney also does well with her minor characters.  Lado, another harpist, and Tanman’s sister are but two of the characters who are so much more than stock, cardboard characters.  Not all the minor characters fare as well, but in a nation of peoples, not all can be spelled out in intricate detail.  The action in this book–while not as all encompassing as the blurb might lead one to believe–is really well handled, exciting and brisk.  I think if there was any nit-picking to be done is that the the desciption of the plot going on behind the scenes to assasinate Tanman felt a little too expository, too explained rather than shown at the end of the novel.  But that is a really minor quibble and the final chapter is a rousing closing  that makes me long to get into the second book where Teot’s War truly begins.

This book is the first in a trilogy.  The second book has lept to the top of my reading list.  The third book has yet to be completed, but I cannot wait to see where the entire series goes; so it better be finished by the time I reach the end of the second book.  In the end, Teot’s War, for me, is a classic.  I don’t know what the rights situation is with this book, but some publisher would be wise to go in and scoop up the rights.  It deserves a shiny new edition.  Perhaps a combined three-volume set.  I cannot recommend this book more highly.