The plot unfolds in a subterranean world of tunnels and caves on a moon whose surface is apparently uninhabitable due to the increased radiation of two suns. The story is narrated from the POV of one Cadre Massima Leithka Orna, assassin and spy from the city of Veya in Eskara, one of several nations, currently at war with the people of Gurta. Orna is held in one of the Gurta prisons inside a fort called Farakza, situated on the edge of the Borderlands. They prisoners are held in caves beneath the fort that are surrounded by magma. From there she attempts to flee with two other prisoners to find her son and right a wrong – or so she thinks. We learn about the hierarchical system of Eskara in which Orna is bound to Clan Caracassa by a life debt and for whom she works as a spy and assassin.
[In the very first chapter we see Orna’s husband Rynn get killed in an attack by the Gurta. Rynn was also in bondage to Clan Caracassa. Unlike Orna, who entered her life debt willingly, Rynn is indebted because his grandfather’s bankruptcy earned him a life debt of three generations. Later on we learn that they have a son, Jai, (who is currently serving in the military) who could have been born free, where it not for the clan leader’s power over every aspect of their lives. Since Orna got pregnant without the leader’s permission, he considered their son his property (for life), too.
There were a number of things I liked in this book, for example, Orna’s remarks about aristocracy (the ruling clans basically resemble aristocracy here):
They existed entirely in their own little world, like most of the Plutarchs and their families. Why was it that the people with power were the only ones licensed to act like children.
Sometimes the aristocracy scared me. I often wondered if we shouldn’t be more afraid of our rulers than of our enemies. (page 88)
Orna used to be a slave to the Gurta before she was rescued 20 years ago: “Enslaved at five, Bondswoman by ten, Cadre by seventeen, and mother by twenty … Loyalty, affiliation, duty: I hold them as virtues but they bind me like tomb wrappings.” (page 101)
Orna’s thoughts on society, whether her own or that of her enemies are rather dark. The hatred of the Gurta is deeply ingrained in her, but she also sees what they have accomplished:
They have such an eye for beauty, these people, yet for every admirable aspect of their society, there’s an ugly one. Cultured in some ways and backwards in others. They both crush and adore their women. They write poems and lays of wrenching beauty and yet they are the most savage and brutal and callous people I’ve ever known. (page 98)
We get some explicit explanation as to the novel’s title, the meaning of which will, however, only be fully revealed in the very end: “A fade was someone you went through to get to someone else. A slang term in the trade.” (page 119)]
What follows is flight, fight for survival, recuperance, a peaceful interlude with the coterie of the Sun children, followed by even more betrayal and murder.
I found Orna’s flashbacks to her past life almost more engaging than the accounts of her present exploits. Nevertheless, the ending and the revelations are not really surprising. There are may hints throughout the novel. The novel cleverly poses a number of questions (Who is the ominous Silverfish? What’s Ledo got to do with the Gurta minister? Where is Casta repeatedly disappearing to and what does she really mean by the things she says?) and the reader (well, at least this reader) can’t help but ponder these questions and speculate about who is betraying whom and who might be turned into an unwitting victim. It might, however, be a bit surprising that the reader comes to the correct conclusions before the big revealing showdown, but the first-person narrator apparently is unable to see this coming or to connect the dots. Well, Orna is not leisurely sitting on the sofa sipping wine and reading a novel, but escaping from a prison, fighting for her dear life and trying to unveil a conspiracy whereby she is thoroughly being left in the dark and misled by people seemingly close to her. I’m generously cutting her some slack.