Fantasy Classics: “Pawn of Prophecy” (by David Eddings)

Sometimes, you just want to read a book that hits all the right notes of its chosen genre, that doesn’t really try to be something it’s not. So, when I decided that I wanted to read an epic fantasy in a style that isn’t quite as popular that it once was, I dug out my omnibus copies of The Belgariad and The Mallorean and decided to give them a re-read.

I’m glad I did. From the moment that I started reading Pawn of Prophecy, the first installment of The Belgariad, still retains much of the charm that drew me to it when I was an adolescent in the late ’90s, always looking for my next fantasy adventure to lose myself in.

The novel follows a young boy named Garion, who’s been raised on a farm in the practical kingdom of Sendar. Very soon, it becomes clear that he is part of something much vaster than he originally thought, and that his “Aunt Pol” is in fact the powerful sorceress Polgara, while the vagabond that he’s known since he was a child is Belgarath, Polgara’s father and a powerful sorcerer in his own right. They soon set out on a quest to recover the Orb of Aldur from a man who has stolen it, picking up several companions along the way.

It’s clear from the outset that this is going to be an epic adventure story in much the same mold as those that preceded it (most notably, perhaps, both The Lord of the Rings and the Shannara books by Terry Brooks). The book doesn’t take many risks when it comes to plot, and the reader is well aware from the first page where all of this will end up, particularly since the book begins with a young boy struggling to find his place in the world. The characters that appear are the archetypes that one expects from epic fantasy: the orphan hero, the wise old man, the rascal, the warrior, etc. And the plot is somewhat episodic, as they make their way through the lands of this world, foiling several plots along the way.

Don’t get me wrong. Though Eddings’ plot might follow the traditional beats of an epic fantasy, there are some moments of unique beauty here. The bond between Polgara and Garion, in particular, is one of the most affecting parts of the entire novel. The idea of the orphan as the epic hero is one that seems baked into the genre, but Eddings’ skill as an author allows us to see the negative impact that this status has on Garion’s sense of self, particularly after he comes to realize that Aunt Pol isn’t really his direct aunt (though, as it turns out, she is his many-times-great-aunt, just as Belgarath is his many-times-great-grandfather). Given that she has been one of the most constant aspects of his life, it’s very disconcerting for him to find that she isn’t who he thought she was. The moments when Polgara embraces him and Garion responds to her kindness are incredibly heartwarming, and they are a reminder that the family is as important to the genre of the epic as the more adventurous aspects.

Eddings’ skill as a storyteller is that he manages to keep his book light and breezy, even as he explores some of the darker, more sinister aspects of the epic form. There is a lot of violence in Eddings’ world. Even when the characters are joking with one another, it’s clear that theirs is a very unstable world, one in which politics can lead to bloodshed in the blink of an eye. There are some elements of grimdark here, to be sure, but Eddings prefers to keep things from getting out of hand.

Now, it has to be said that Eddings’ work is problematic in at least two regards. First, there is the question of gender. Unsurprisingly, most of the main characters are male, with the important exception of Polgara. However, while some have said that her inclination to perform domestic tasks takes away from her power, I’ve always thought that she was one of the best characters in the book. Though she might look like someone who’s content to simply do her work in the kitchen, she makes it pretty consistently clear that she’s as formidable as her father Belgarath, and that her choice to work in the kitchen is just that, a choice. (It’s also worth noting that, several years after this book was published, she would get her own volume exclusively about her life and told from her perspective).

The more glaring problem is Eddings’ tendency to associate “west” with “good” and east with “bad.” Of course, Eddings isn’t alone in this tendency, since it crops up literally everywhere, including in The Lord of the Rings itself. More importantly, he has a tendency to associate the races of his fictional world with certain (seemingly immutable) characteristics. Thus, those peoples that inhabit the west and north tend to be associated with goodness and justice (even if they are sometimes a little dense) and those from the east and south with sinister purposes, guile, and often just plain evil. Again, this isn’t exclusive to Eddings, but it’s one of those aspects of epic fantasy that has definitely come under significant (and well-deserved) scrutiny and criticism in recent years, and it’s one of the things that really dates this particular effort.

That being said, there is quite a lot to enjoy in Pawn of Prophecy. While the genre of epic fantasy seems to have moved on from some of its most basic conventions, for better and worse, there’s still something to be gleaned from these earlier examples of the form. I’m already making my way through the second volume of the series (like I said, it’s a quick read), and I’m still amazed at how powerful this story remains.

I can’t wait to share my thoughts on the books of this series, as well as Eddings’ other work, with all of you!

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Curse” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve now finished the second volume of Jacqueline Carey’s third trilogy, Naamah’s Curse. It probably goes without saying, but I really enjoyed this novel and I am, of course, hard at work reading the third.

The novel begins with Moirin setting out on her journey to catch up to her beloved Bao. Though she finds him, she is soon kidnapped and sent north into the vast country of Vralia. What follows is a series of adventures in which she meets a fanatical Yeshuite patriarch, his sensuous and sensitive nephew, a powerful witch who commands a deadly jewel, and a lord of assassins. Through it all, she must rely on her love of Bao to see her through, as well as her native powers and abilities.

Much as I wanted to savour this novel, to take my time and really lose myself in its sumptuous prose, as always I found myself pulled inexorably along by the story. Like its predecessors, it is largely episodic, in that Moirin goes from mishap to mishap, learning more about herself and about the world in which she lives with each iteration. Here, we learn more about the burgeoning power of Vralia, which has continued to grow in power and importance. In particular, we see that the vengeful patriarch has plans to use Moirin to launch a terrible crusade against Terre D’Ange. Given that I’ve often wondered how Carey’s world would look with a Christian nation, I found this development rather exciting and, while Moirin manages to circumvent the zealot’s efforts, it does suggest that there might yet be a confrontation between two of this world’s great powers. This storyline thus serves as a cautionary tale about the destructive power of religious zealotry and the reactionary condemnation of the pleasures of the body.

Like any unwilling epic heroine, Moirin finds herself caught up in forces and events much greater than she can at first imagine, and this is certainly the case when she pursues Bao into this world’s equivalent of the Himalayas. There she must confront a woman known as the Spider Queen, who has managed to take control of a powerful gem that has the power to command desire. There are echoes in this story of Phèdre’s journey into the heart of Drujan. Like her predecessor, Moirin finds herself faced with a truly dark magic, one that, while temporarily locally contained, has the potential to expand and damage the world. And, like her predecessor, she recognizes the fundamental humanity at the heart of this seemingly evil creature, showing us that even those who seem beyond the pale of comprehensibility have their own reasons (both good and bad) for doing what they do.

Much as I liked the stories about both Phèdre and Imriel, I identify with Moirin in ways that I never completely did in the case of the other heroes of the Kushiel saga. Moirin, for better or worse, gives her heart very quickly and easily to those with whom she comes into contact. Whether it is Bao (arguably her one true love) or any one of a dozen others, Moirin always gives freely of herself and of her gifts. Of course, this means that she frequently finds herself in scrapes that it takes quite a lot of effort to escape, but this is part of what makes her such a compelling and sympathetic hero. After all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to give one’s love freely, even if the costs to oneself are frequently harsh and exacting.

Though the novel is largely full of joy, there are a few moments of genuine sadness, such as when Moirin hears that her beloved Jehanne has died in childbirth. Given that we have already been led to understand just how deeply she feels for the Queen of Terre D’Ange, this is a particularly devastating blow (the fact that it is delivered by the vengeful Vralian patriarch makes it all the more difficult to hear). This is one of those moments in the novel that is a profoundly human and universal one, as we are led to feel Moirin’s anguish that she wasn’t able to be there for the woman that she loved at the end of her life. The fact that Jehanne’s shade manages to visit her in her dreams only partially offsets the tragedy of this storyline, though it is rather nice seeing Moirin get at least a little bit of closure.

I have one minor complaint about the novel, and that it falls a little too much into the white savior narrative that is such a problematic aspect of the west’s relationship with the cultures of the east. In this case, Moirin’s disgust at the caste system that operates in this world’s equivalent of India/Nepal is, from a western perspective, understandable, as is the fact that she is the catalyst that sees the beginning of the undoing of the oppression of the untouchables. As gratifying as this is, however, I do think that we should be wary of these sorts of fantasies that allow western characters to be the primary catalyst for social change.

Despite those flaws, Naamah’s Curse is a stirring reflection on the power of desire to provide a balm to the human spirit. As always, Carey’s command of her prose is powerful, and the sex scenes in this book are even more intense and visceral than in the other installments of the series. However, the true emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between Bao and Moirin. Much as the Kushiel series shows the power of desire, it also shows us how much a part of the human condition love is, and how central it can be to the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Carey excels once again at making us feel just a little bit better about the world.

I have to say, though, that I’m approaching the final volume of this series with some trepidation. After all, it will mean the final farewell to this beautiful world and all of its enchanting mystique.

Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Chosen” (by Jacqueline Carey)

It’s a very rare thing for an author to follow up a delicious first novel with a sequel that is just as satisfying.

Well, Jacqueline Carey has done it, giving us Kushiel’s Chosen.

The novel picks up right after the end of the previous one, where Phédre attempts to discover the whereabouts of the traitor Melisande Shahrizai, the woman who very nearly brought about the end of the kingdom of Terre D’Ange. In the process, she encounters not only the viper’s nest of Serenissima, but also falls in with a pirate, a priestess, and a terrible confrontation with her own guilt. In the end, Phédre must come close to sacrificing everything she holds dear to save the country she loves.

Melisande continues to be one of the most compelling, exquisite, and yet utterly repelling creations in all of fantasy literature. Her cunning and her utter ruthlessness draw the reader as much as they do Phédre, and while it is very easy to hate her, you can’t help but admire her absolute willingness and ability to do whatever she has to do gain power for herself. However, it would be inaccurate to say that Melisande is amoral; rather, it is that she lives by her own rules. As she says to Phedre, Elua and his Companions care little for politics.

Though the fraught and deadly connection between Phédre and Melisande is one of the novel’s (and the series’) most compelling aspects, that between Joscelin and Phèdre is arguably the more complex and meaningful. They have the grave misfortune of being diametrically opposed in terms of their temperaments: Phèdre, an anguisette who experiences pain as pleasure, he a renounced Cassiline who cannot help but love her but can’t bear the thought of hurting her. Carey keeps the two of them balanced on an exquisite edge of conflict, even while reassuring us that they do, in fact, love one another.

I’ve always had a particular penchant for fantasy that works at the crossroads of historical fantasy and traditional fantasy. It’s a surprisingly rare type, and rarer still to find someone who does it with skill. Carey manages to create a world that lives and breathes with the same vibrancy as our own. These are nations that have their own complex histories and mythologies, their own ways of being in the world. More than just a colorful backdrop, they also determine how the various characters interact, both with one another and with their environments. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Serenissima is definitely the standout in this novel, for Carey manages to find creative ways around the dilemma posed by this world’s lack of Christianity as a hegemonic faith. Instead, the people of this world’s Venice worship Asherat and Baal Jupiter. What’s so startling about it is how right it feels for the world that she’s created and how seamlessly she twines together a culture that is very much that of Renaissance Venice with a faith that probably seems strange to us. And, as it turns out, that faith has an important role to play in the affairs of kingdoms.

If Kushiel’s Dart was about the power to triumph after tremendous adversity, Kushiel’s Chosen is about the power of the gods to influence our lives, and about the sacrifices that we must sometimes make in order to see to it that the greater good is served. Phèdre may have her flaws–most notably in her inability to do away with Melisande–but she is an honorable woman, one who loves her country and her queen dearly and deeply. However, she also recognizes that her actions (and inactions) have brought about the deaths of many and, however, well-intentioned she might be, she still must contend with the moral burden this places on her soul.

Overall, Kushiel’s Chosen is a finely crafted and exquisite follow-up to Kushiel’s Dart. With its intricate (one might even go so far as to say baroque) plot, erotic and sensuous prose, and vividly detailed world-building, it somehow manages to be a coherent work of erotic epic fantasy. Somehow, Carey manages to make us feel the depths of despair and the joy of triumph, and at the end, you emerge as satisfied as one of Phèdre’s patrons.

Who could ask for more?

Fantasy Classics: “Arrows of the Queen” (by Mercedes Lackey)

KC here. For quite a while now I’ve been been wanting to make my way through Mercedes Lackey’s “Valdemar” series. Since Kellen has already read many of the entries in the series, I’ll be in charge of blogging about this extraordinary world as I make my way through the books in the series, beginning with Arrows of the Queen.

Arrows of the Queen focuses on the young woman Talia. Raised among the puritanical and repressive Holderkin, she is raised to believe that she will never be anything more than a man’s wife. Fortunately for her, she is rescued by a Companion, one of the mystical beings–in the shape of a white horse–that mark her as a Herald, one of those sworn to serve the monarch. By the end of the novel, Talia has come to accept her place among the Heralds, as well as her position as the Queen’s Own.

There’s something uniquely pleasurable about a fantasy novel that doesn’t try to take on too much, that simply wants to tell a good story in a lean and fast-paced volume. Lackey’s prose is smooth and swift, and the book’s primary focus on Talia’s feelings and actions (with occasional forays into other characters with whom she interacts). This limited perspective keeps the action tightly-focused, without the sort of plot meanderings that all too frequently trip up other, larger fantasy offerings.

Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of action and intrigue, as well. At this early point in the trilogy, however, much of the greater context of the kingdom and its troubles sits ominously in the background. It is only toward the middle of the novel that Talia becomes directly involved with the darker currents of the kingdom, particularly as takes the young princess Elspeth in hand and attempts to make her into the kind of woman that can be Chosen by a Companion and thus become queen. It’s thus clear from the beginning that Talia has a very grand destiny in front of her, one that may well change the entire course of the kingdom’s history.

One of the most refreshing things about Lackey’s Valdemar series is that it includes same-sex relationships that are as rich and developed as any of the heterosexual ones. While Talia herself is not a queer character, she is surrounded by several who are, and even at this early stage it is clear that Vanyel, one of the most important characters in the Valdemar mythos, had a man as his lifelong companion. On a broader level, I would even argue that Talia’s narrative as a whole emphasizes the very queer value of a chosen family, the idea that, when one’s biological family casts one out, it is possible to find emotional fulfillment with others of one’s own choosing. Indeed, as Talia’s time at the Collegium makes clear, the bonds forged in such a setting can be just as, if not more, fulfilling than the ones dictated by biology.

Relatedly, Lackey has an almost uncanny ability to wrench pathos from even secondary characters. There’s an emotional authenticity about many of the books in the Valdemar series that’s awfully rare in epic fantasy. Her characters are at once extremely strong and yet also exceedingly vulnerable, and this makes them very human. As a result, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself cheering for them and becoming intimately involved with their fates.

And, of course, no review of a Valdemar book would be complete without mentioning the Companions. Though the concept of magical horses might seem a bit trite to some, in Lackey’s capable hands they become a key part of the world, and the intense emotional bond that develops between Heralds and their Companions, especially that between Talia and Rolan, forms the backbone of the entire narrative. It takes a rare talent to make talking horses seem so natural, but luckily that perfectly describes Mercedes Lackey.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Arrows of the Queen. I know that I am just beginning on my journey through this enchanted world, but I am very excited indeed about working my way through Lackey’s prodigious corpus. Stay tuned for my future reviews, and thanks for reading!