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Monday, June 25, 2012

Here's the thing

I have been trying for almost four years to write something smart about The King's Peace, The King's Name, and The Prize in the Game by Jo Walton. These three books are well worth a full academic perusal, but my brain is so amazingly out of shape since I left college. My own fault, I suppose. I have always wanted to examine the role of the princess/queen figure in fantasy and fairy tales, and how that role is fulfilled and subverted by Elenn, as well as the other major female figures, in these books. And this year so far I've reread the triptych twice (I'm on the third go-round), each time with saintly intentions to read slowly and carefully, making notes, jotting page numbers, and generally being critical.

This just...doesn't work. I have consigned myself to being totally uncritical where the Sulien books are concerned. Even though by now I've read each of them probably ten times, I just can't not get caught up in the stories. Simply too good. So instead of my intended Gleaming Academic-Quality Superpost, you get a Jumble-of-Somewhat-Related-Thoughts Superpost. As ever, read or ignore at will.

First, a little background on the world of Tir Tanagiri and Tir Isarnagiri is needed for those not familiar with the Sulien books. Briefly, an alternate-mythology version of Arthur's Britain is presented and peopled with characters almost familiar from our own Arthurian myth cycles: Urdo is the glorious king, Sulien is his right hand (Lancelot, effectively), Gwyn of Angas is Gawain and Mordred becomes Gwyn's brother Morthu, and Elenn ap Allel, an Isarnagan (Irish) princess, is the queen Guenever. Two major legends, that of Arthur's Camelot and the Irish story of the cattle raid of Cooley, intersect at a few points and form the bulk of the three books. Overall it is an elegant and natural reformation of tales familiar to many.

This world has what I suppose to modern eyes looks like near-total gender equality; women fulfill the occupations of warriors, healers, keykeepers or stewards, farmers, priests, merchants, ambassadors, and every other walk of life necessary to the functioning of a kingdom. Most notably, perhaps, is that women can hold the kingship of their ancestral lands and are referred to as "kings" or "lords" without an eyeblink or discussion of whether the term is gendered. For instance, Sulien is eventually the lord of Derwen and is termed "king" by one of her fellow armigers; across the water the word king is thrown around even more casually, as both Maga of Connat (Elenn and Emer's mother) and Conary of Oriel are kings, and the major characters often discuss what it's like to be king and whether one would rather be a king, a warrior, a queen, or something else. Within the ranks of Urdo's armigers, women are as accepted as men for the fighting life and often reach high rank, Marchel and Sulien as praefectos (a title akin to general) being the most obvious examples. Rape isn't allowed even "in the usage of war" and is punishable by law in either war or peace according to Urdo's law; the Tanagan armigers are horrified to learn that the invading Jarns rape as a matter of course in their warfare. Furthermore, extra-marital and pre-marital sex are normative in Tanagan and Isarnagan culture (In The Prize in the Game, a threesome between Darag, his wife Atha, and his best friend Ferdia occurs with little to no fanfare from anyone), and if homosexuality is not found as often as heterosexuality, neither is it looked at askance. Sulien is somewhat of an outlier in that she is asexual, with the bulk of the Tanagan armigers coupling at will, apparently with few issues arising (the Pierce fanatic in me harks at this point to a conversation in Squire between Kel and Buri, wherein Buri states that, in the ranks of the Queen's Riders, male subordinates offer to "work things out in bed" with their female superiors). An interesting conversation does occur between Osvran, a (gay) man, and Sulien, in which Sulien points out that a fellow female armiger, Enid, after marrying had to request that she still ride with the ala, when it was her right to do so and not her husband's decision. However, beyond this we don't see much barring the major female characters from doing as they wish; no one doubts Sulien and Marchel's fitness to command (until Marchel's ignominious downfall, anyway), ap Rhun is accounted one of the best key-keepers in the land, and Emer is considered more significant in terms of alliance and war-making than her husband Lew, a king.

There is also a certain burgeoning flexibility as far as class in Tir Tanagiri goes. One of the most notable supporting characters, Garah, goes from being a groom in Sulien's family's stables to becoming a queen married to an armiger gifted with empty land--a king. Both Garah and her husband Glyn were "commoners" who rose to power. This isn't accepted by everyone--indeed it is part of what tips off the civil war in The King's Name--but it is part of Urdo's vision for what Tir Tanagiri should be and is regarded by both detractors and supporters as inevitable change. The admixing of disparate cultures and religions is also an inevitable change coming to the land; the old "pagan" religions of the Tanagans and Isarnagans meet with incoming pagan religions of the Jarns as well as the new religion of the White God (thinly veiled Christianity), and the ways in which each king deals with this make up significant plot points and considerable background for the story. As High King, Urdo stands between all the gods of Tir Tanagiri (we meet a few of them, including the great boar Turth and Coventina, Mother of Waters) and it is his duty to force neither the gods nor the people to any path they don't wish, despite the pressure of the White God's church.

Walton does virtually no feminist preaching in these books; it isn't necessary, since the very structure of the world is close to being a feminist ideal. It's a matter of reality that there are both gods and goddesses, female priests and monks and male ones, female warriors and male healers, female kings and male charioteers, female lawspeakers and male cooks. There are villainous women, such as Morwen and Maga, and villainous men, such as Morthu and Borthas, and all significant characters are given rein to grow and change. Characters make plot, and Walton's characters are no exception. The motivations and deep personalities of such complex characters as Ferdia, Elenn, and Morthu create the plot through their machinations and impulses. Even the glimpses we see of the future of Tir Tanagiri shows that despite the eventual rise of the White God's church over the island, the position of women remains steady; Sulien speaks of great female armigers and lords she knew in her old age. Urdo's peace built on and strengthened a foundation of equality which covered all people, creating a bright world which could almost be our own.


Julia - Finding My Way Softly said...

Okay, next time Powell's Books has free shipping, I know what I am getting myself as a present! Thanks for a great triad to check out. I usually fall on the SciFi side and read fantasy when someone passes a book along, sends it as a present (regifting books in my family is totally kosher, with or without an occasion for gift giving), or a recommendation with enough teeth to make me fall in love with the world and want to go explore it.

I also love alternate histories, and while this isn't as obvious as say Card's Alvin the Maker Series, it sounds like it is a good alternate mythology world!

Thanks for the suggestion

Diana said...

I hope you enjoy! These three are some of my favorite fantasy stories (if it wasn't obvious)--just really beautiful writing, and original characters in a world that's just familiar enough.

Paul Deane said...

Interesting review! Would you mind if I quoted a couple of sentences in a website on fantasy books I 'm working on? I would of course attribute the quote to you and link back to this page.

Julia - Finding My Way Softly said...

Hey! I am extending my August contest until Monday night (official announcement tomorrow) so you still have time to enter, and on the the prizes is a Powell's Gift Card! Too cool.

I can't remember if you have ever been, but it is my favorite online book store. Every month or so they do free shipping with either a $10 minimum or no minimum. I always wait for that, and then get a ton of older SciFi and Fantasy novels and anthologies. They go as lower as fifty cents a book, and I love finding out of print book.


Diana said...

Hi Paul! You are welcome to use a clip from this review (kind term for a ramble) as you see fit.

And Julia, thanks for the tip! I'll check it out.

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