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Undeterred by the fact that Stronghold was banned in its country of origin, author Kesha Bakunin emigrated and then painstakingly translated his novel into English himself over a period of five years. An epic, carefully plotted tale spanning centuries, Stronghold chronicles the effect that a simple book has on the fictional world of Ta’aiala. No matter what efforts are made to purge it from society, the viral influence of the text takes hold in unlikely places, festering and spreading until the entire known world is poisoned beyond repair.

At the center of an oblong continent stands the Stronghold—a mountainous, castle-like structure of unknown origin. As if it were part of the world itself, no one can remember a time when it was not there. There are no windows. Its gates do not open. And its mysterious inhabitants do not venture outside. Instead, there are the Keepers, humans selected by some means to leave their old lives behind and make modest homes around the place. And even their purpose is shrouded in mystery. It is said that they deter any pilgrims hoping to reach the walls of the Stronghold, or simply disappear when crowds draw over the horizon, leaving behind an eerie and lifeless ghost town around the perimeter.

The arrogant King Nodar of Iskoria, having expanded his kingdom dramatically in all but one direction, decides in a frenzy of victory that he will lead his army to conquer the legendary Stronghold. But they find only a single Keeper when they arrive, a straggler who didn’t get away in time. And in the rush of excitement that follows, the hapless Keeper is killed. That’s all it takes. The silent, unresponsive Stronghold only stares down at the army and they slowly lose their determination, at length returning to Iskoria confused and dispirited.

Back in the capital, they discover that the wells have been poisoned—great swarms of hideous, black insects boil over the edge of every drawn pail. Random citizens all over fall into a deep sleep from which they cannot be roused. The crops wither and die. The baffled and utterly defeated King Nodar travels once again to the Stronghold, where he throws himself upon the mercy of the mysterious structure. And for the first time ever, the gates whisper open. A figure emerges and presents King Nodar with, of all things, a book—a set of rules by which the people of Iskoria must live in order to atone for the death of the Keeper and lift their curses. Desperate to end the suffering of his people, King Nodar clutches the book to his chest and eagerly accepts the proposal.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, Iskoria is thriving. The book gifted by the strange figure from the Stronghold has had a profound effect on society not just in Iskoria but everywhere in the known world. Eight generations of royalty have made their mark on the kingdom, some more memorable than others, but the chain is broken when King Zortan and Queen Lucia give birth to conjoined twins. The unfortunate queen does not live to see the next day. And in a spiral, the king—whose first superstitious reaction is to have the twin girls killed—does not survive her by much. Thus, the future of the kingdom rests in the hands of the young and sheltered twin girls.

There are limits to how much enlightenment a book can provide, it seems. For when the girls finally come of age and assume the throne, tensions in the kingdom are high. The coronation ceremony quickly devolves into a riot, and the princesses narrowly escape an assassination attempt. All the while, rising from the crowd is a chant, a single word that translates as “abomination”—an inauspicious start to be sure, and one that puts the twins on the defensive. Arrests are made, suspects are tortured, and executions are carried out. Iskoria is purged of traitors and saboteurs, with the authorities digging so deep that when the dust settles, the castle staff is reduced to a permanent skeleton crew. Outside the castle, nearly the whole of high society has been burned away.

Decades later, the aging, paranoid, and heirless twins announce to a quiet room that the dynasty ends with them—that their successor will be whomever the Stronghold sees fit to appoint. Meanwhile, far away from Iskoria’s borders, in the modest village of Oleppo, history is about to repeat itself: the half-mad Moonreader Laurene prepares to burn a Keeper at the stake. The punishment for this crime is nearly instantaneous, and only two siblings will make it out of Oleppo alive.

It may surprise you to learn that these are only the broadest strokes of the plot of Stronghold. Indeed, the novel zigzags between time periods and among a cast of dozens, doling out details one at a time, many of them providing context that sheds new light on or skillfully contradicts previous chapters. Nothing is as it seems. Though many of the characters are separated by great distances and spans of time, their lives are more closely connected than the teeth of a zipper. And Kesha Bakunin’s careful plotting helps things zip up nice and tight in the closing chapters, with nary a single loose thread left behind.

The tone is grim, and readers should be prepared for a lot of heavy subject matter. While mostly devoid of humor or levity, the author occasionally describes something grotesque or obscene in such a way that is sure to draw a smile. Interestingly, the primary antagonist of Stronghold is not the titular structure, nor any of the characters, but rather the book given to King Nodar. A book. Very little of what’s inside that book is directly revealed, but readers likely won’t have much difficulty guessing the title. One town under the book’s influence, for example, has banned music. Men must color their beards and women must wear bags that cover their whole bodies. That’s a little too on-the-nose for my tastes, and by the time words like “Talebhann” and “mouezq” are added to the mix (words that readers would be forgiven for assuming were simple typos), along with “Jehad,” “Kalam,” and “caliphate,” Stronghold starts to feel like satire.

I found it somewhat frustrating that Stronghold never provided a satisfying reason for why people were drawn to the book. The closest it comes to doing so is introducing the character Governor Ramzan of Norzgy who, by way of explanation, was ugly, stupid, and illiterate. This is humorous on some level, sure, but it does little to explain why the book is sweeping the known world, and it clashes with the otherwise somber tone. Later, other villains fall in line, but it seems they neither know nor care much what the book says. They use it as a tool of subjugation, as if it’s a weapon, but it’s never clear how it’s wielded or what effect it has—only that it’s binary.

The quality of the writing depends on the lens through which it is viewed. Taken for what it is, Stronghold feels like your typical self-published book (albeit with impeccable copyediting). While the writing occasionally rises above that level with a passage that is quotable, effective, and poignant, it often feels bloated and overwritten. The author seems determined to avoid cogency, as if worried he’d make it too easy for readers to understand. Everything has to be an analogy. Everything has to be drawn out and stretched into some tenuous punchline or awkward segue. Hundreds of the simplest words are arbitrarily swapped out for the most archaic five-dollar substitutes available, scraped from the bottom of the thesaurus. The author states on the final page that “no local publisher was willing to represent Stronghold without excisions and adjustments,” and I can’t help but wonder if this had more to do with the highfalutin prose than the commentary.

Yet, it’s hard not to consider the author’s note at the end of the book. Stronghold was purportedly banned in Kesha Bakunin’s home country, but he felt so strongly about his work that he emigrated, translated the book into English himself over many years, and invested a substantial amount with a publisher to make it available to the public. It casts Stronghold in an entirely different light, something more personal and urgent about the Quran, Sharia law, and the ease with which a society can be overthrown under the right circumstances. And in an instant, the issue of whether it succeeds to make its point or not becomes secondary. All the obfuscations throughout suddenly feel like an effort to protect the author’s identity (including the promotional materials, which depict the author with most of his face obscured). Further, the writing, while ordinary at first glance, becomes something of a triumph. Few readers would ever guess it was translated, or that it was written by someone who doesn’t read and write English as a first language. Through this lens, the writing is quite impressive.

It’s not an easy read, and the writing style can be a high barrier to overcome, but the book’s tight plotting and memorable set pieces will stay with you long after you finish reading Stronghold.

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Star Count 3.5/5
Format Trade
Page Count 524 pages
Publisher Atmosphere Press
Publish Date 01-Jun-2021
ISBN 9781637529379 Buy this Book
Issue September 2021
Category Science Fiction & Fantasy