“The Scar” by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, translated by Elinor Huntington (Tor, 336 pages, $24.99)
Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, husband-and-wife authors, have written numerous science fiction and fantasy novels in Russian — and have racked up a mantel-ful of awards in doing so — but they’ve only now made a foray into U.S. bookshelves with “The Scar.”
“The Scar” tells the story of Egert Soll, a handsome and skilled warrior from a noble family, a leader of men, arrogant and self-centered. Always the center of attention, he enjoys the admiration of his men and the affections of a stream of women.
He runs into trouble, though, when he spies an unfamiliar woman, a visitor in town. He is captivated by her loveliness, but Toria rebuffs his attentions; she and her fiance are students, traveling for study and devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. Egert ends up killing the fiance, largely unintentionally, in a duel, and a short while later is himself bested in a duel by a mysterious stranger. The stranger spares his life, but marks his cheek with a scar — and his life with a curse.
From that point on, once-brave Egert jumps at shadows, cowers in corners and barely leaves his family home. He finally leaves, fleeing his past as much as he is seeking answers and the possibility of deliverance from the curse. He finds himself in the city where the university is, and is offered a position as an auditor — by no less than Toria’s father.
But sinister forces are at work in the city. As Egert muddles through a process of self-discovery and a cautious detente with Toria, machinations far larger than himself are taking shape, leading to events that will force Egert into action to determine his future.
“The Scar” starts quickly, but falls into a languid pace after Egert’s duel — a reflection of Egert’s own lack of energy, perhaps. The pace picks up quite a bit at the end, ultimately moving so quickly that the final scenes feel hurried.
The writing itself is uneven, sometimes spare and direct; other times florid and meandering. It can be tough to judge language in translation, but a sentence like “The city loomed over Egert like a fetid chunk of porous cheese, mottled with the pits of windows and alleys” probably sounds equally clunky in the original.
The novel is not much on world-building: little history and mythology, no geography, not even a map at the beginning — this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it means the story doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail. But for fantasy readers who like to be immersed in a setting, the lack of that kind of detail may prove disappointing. A possible explanation for this is that “The Scar” is the second novel in a series, the first of which (“The Gate-Keeper”) may contain more of the set-up.
There are swords in “The Scar” and there is sorcery. But the novel is far more focused on larger questions of psychology and humanity: The nature of courage and cowardice, the power of forgiveness. And that focus gives it a depth and complexity that mere swordfights and spells alone cannot deliver.