Learning to Dharn by Ann Somerville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Learning to Dharn is an interesting alternate universe/historical fantasy story that includes the rarely seen hero with a disability. In fact the disability and how it affects both men’s lives is perhaps the best part of the book. The setting is well crafted and the story well written but I never quite warmed up to Kelten and the story relies on a lot of manipulation, which may or may not work well for some readers. It’s definitely a different story and stands out for the unique elements which makes it an easy one to recommend even if it’s not a story I’d personally read again.
The plot follows newly graduated doctor Rhede Kelten as he travels to a new land in need of doctors. However getting work isn’t immediate and Kelten’s dwindling finances have him accepting a ride with a friendly elderly couple. The trio is attacked one night and Kelten is saved by a silent stranger. Following the stranger, Kelten soon finds himself trying to adapt to a strange and harsh new life while constantly hoping for some way back to his life and profession.
The story is a good mixture of action and character driven progress. Kelten is the third person narrator and we follow along as he attempts to find his place in this strange new world. Kelten is a very complex, well crafted and developed character. He truly changes and evolves over the course of the story which is definitely a credit to the writing. Unfortunately he’s also a mixture of caring, arrogance, manipulation, self righteous indignation, kindness, ignorance, and bullheaded stubbornness. He’s a stranger yet constantly attempts to put his lack of knowledge to a situation, often completely ignoring the advice of locals. I had a hard time caring about anything that happened to Kelten with his arrogant demeanour and near obsession with his profession.
While I didn’t care for Kelten much, Dharn is somewhat more likable. His main failing is that there is not enough of him in the book. Since he’s deaf there’s a marked lack of dialogue and communication between the two men, even as Kelten slowly learns sign language. Additionally since Kelten is the narrator, all of Dharn’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are filtered through Kelten’s very biased observations. Dharn is a lovely, warm foil for Kelten’s uptight fumbling but I wish he would have shared narrating duties. As such the large secondary cast fills in the gaps with their charm and vibrant personalities. So much that they usually stole the attention in the scenes they were in.
The romance between Kelten and Dharn is somewhat tepid because Kelten mostly describes their interactions as friendly and nice. He seems to enjoy having sex with Dharn but the overall feeling is that Kelten is simply with Dharn since he has no one else to be with. There’s not a great feeling of love between the two, although their friendship and gentle companionship is nicely developed. Contrasted to this is the eye catching and vivid setting. The story relies on a lot of obvious manipulations to solve the problems that come up but the setting helps make up for that and an anemic romance. The deaf versus hearing portions are very interesting and the silent nature of Dharn and Kelten’s trip is really well written. The cold weather and lack of dialogue makes the landscape remote yet touches of warmth are imbued throughout.
Overall this is an interesting story to read with some unusual elements. It stands out from the crowd in this genre and for that alone most readers will appreciate it. It’s not my favorite story from this author for all the reasons mentioned but the positives outweigh the negatives and make this a novel I’d recommend.