Lumin is a forest world, with trees who’s roots reach all the way to the planet’s core. The lives of the people of Lumin are closely entwined with those trees. Maybe too entwined; after using the energy that flows through the forests to power every aspect of society, the Core is heating up and the trees themselves are dying. There’s only one way to reverse the damage: shut down the entire Network, cutting off all advanced technology that feeds off the trees and throwing the planet into a new dark age. The Core will stay sealed for as long as it takes the planet to heal.
More than six hundred years later, a young woman named Mia stumbles across a treasure in the Archives of the Order of Vis Firmitas. The treasure is a book, hidden away for centuries. The history of an ancient battle and the key to the lost technology of the planet may be contained inside the mysterious artifact that slowly comes to life in Mia’s hands: the Compendium.
The setting for this world is exactly the sort of thing I love to find in a fantasy novel. The civilization on Lumin isn’t just built on trees; the buildings are carved out of trees, bridges are made of roots that are trained to grow twined together, and ships have their own miniature grove of saplings planted in the hold and growing through the upper deck. The advanced technology of the Network is still shut down, but people have access to the electrical-like energy of the forests with glowing gourds that sprout from vines, or the hearth-trees they use to cook their food and heat their homes.
The first few chapters alternate between the disastrous time when the Core was sealed off, to the time hundreds of years later when the technology from that age is almost forgotten, and families like Mia’s live by harvesting the food and electricity they need directly from the trees. Mia has always had an ability to feel the energy that pulses through the trees, and she has a knack for repairing the ones that have been damaged. Her talents can’t save her from impossible situation though, when she travels to the Order of Vis Fimitas to get help for her ailing father, only to find when she gets there that her father has given her to the Order to be an acolyte in exchange for his medical treatment. So she’s now stuck, far away from her home in the tropics, in a cold, maze-like compound, serving an organization she’s been raised to avoid, where at least one cleric is already convinced she’s a spy.
It’s not all bad though. Mia is assigned to work in the Archives with the elderly Brother Cornelius, who shares her affinity with the trees. Mia’s talent has always been with physical repairs – mending breaks in the electrical pathways or splicing in new roots – while Brother Cornelius is an expert in breeding new strains of plants, creating gourds that provide heat instead of light, or which can be cooked and eaten after being used. Not surprisingly, the two of them get on like a house on fire. There are also a couple of younger acolytes who strike up a friendship with the outcast Mia (one of them becomes very obviously smitten with her, but don’t worry, no romantic triangles in this book). And the Compendium itself is more than a book, it’s a living artifact that can communicate with Mia, and the two of them have some rather cute arguments even while it helps Mia to find out more about the Order and her own history.
It’s the way Mia’s history is revealed that I have the only big problem with in this book. I could overlook the sometimes overly elaborate writing (someone must have convinced the author that simple descriptions are poison) and the two-dimensional bad guys (like Brother Sain-Clair. Yes yes, I know he’s supposed to have an “arc”. Don’t care. A pivotal scene in the last fifth of the book does not a sympathetic character make. Fuck that guy.) But most of the action is driven by a plot device that always drags me out of a story: withholding information for no reason.
So much of what Mia has been told is a lie, and so many characters – her father, or the clerics of the Order, or even Compendium itself – could clear everything up. But they don’t. And we’re never given a good reason why. There’s an ongoing theme of a secret organization with a secret mission to protect secrets, but just a few words to Mia about why she was sent to the Order would have changed her whole outlook. She only gets a decent explanation after she’s betrayed the Order, and the only reason I can see for keeping her in the dark is because the plot required her to act in a way that she wouldn’t have if she’d been given the right information.
The last few chapters involve a covert mission against the ancient enemies of the Order, and then homesick Mia’s gradual discovery of where her real home is. The ending resolves many of the dangling plot threads, and leaves open just enough for the next book, Ocularium, which the author is working to complete. Compendium is Alia Luria’s debut novel, and it’s already won the 2015 National Indie Excellence Award in Fantasy, and the author will be able to explore more of this intricate fantasy world in the next installment.