I was a little skeptical about a book called “The Interpreter’s Tale”. I was extremely skeptical about the dedication to “linguistic nerds” on the first pages—not because I wasn’t sure that I would like it, but because I wasn’t sure that anybody else would.
Well. I shouldn’t have been worried.
This is a charming, breezily-written story about an interpreter named Eliadmaru, a bookish, curious young man who has made a habit of studying obscure languages. He is picked up from his obscure post at a border station by a relative of the Emperor, called “the Autransi”, for a diplomatic mission to a neighboring country. His job, ostensibly, is merely to facilitate the Autransi’s attempt to heal the neighboring king’s sickly daughter with magic, and then help the Autransi woo the princess and secure a favorable trade agreement. Their mission becomes more complicated than it looks, as you might expect. There are enemies in the foreign court and members of their own mission who have ulterior motives. Eliadmaru develops a relationship with the imperial sorceress, a woman named Folso, and he finds himself with divided loyalties as his duties as a translator, his oaths to the Autransi, and his fondness for Folso all come into conflict.
This book is not a page-turner: the pacing is gentle, and the tone is measured and pleasant even when the stakes in the Autransi’s mission turn lethal. That’s not to say that the book is boring; on the contrary, after reading a series of arduously brutal fantasies Eliadmaru’s the calm confidence was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. And I was preparing to give the book a solid four stars, right into the last fifth of the book, where—
I don’t want to reveal anything about the last bits of the plot. However, the light-hearted nature of the story takes a sudden turn towards the end, and the store ends with a psychological and moral quandary of surprising depth. Characters I thought that I understood turned out to have more complexity than previously suspected, and the protagonist is forced into hard choices with no good options. And I am ambivalent about the ending, which has had me wondering for several days whether Eliadmaru actually did the right thing.
And as for the promise of the title and dedication: there are plenty of allusions to linguistic trivia and the mental and physical act of interpreting, but these discussions don’t overwhelm the story, and there’s plenty to recommend the book even to someone who isn’t terribly interested in linguistics. I’d recommend the book to anyone who enjoys a good political fantasy.