Jun. 15th, 2008

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It’s always interesting to me when an author does something new or unexpected with material from oral traditions – fairy tales and the like, and that’s very much what is happening in Mercedes Lackey’s series of novels set in The Hundred Kingdoms. She’s written three books (so far – I don’t know if she intends to write more) in this series, and I’ve recently gotten around to reading the first two:

The Fairy Godmother
One Good Knight

The overall conceit is that in her world of The Hundred Kingdoms, what we consider to be the conventions of fairy tales are actually a powerful force known as The Tradition, which shapes the lives of people to conform to the conventions of fairy tales – sometimes to their benefit, but often to their detriment. Acting as a balance against the untrammelled consequences of Tradition gone wild are Sorcerers, Sorceresses, and above all, Fairy Godmothers, whose job it is to watch out for situations where The Tradition is making a mess of things, and nudge things around a bit (OK, sometimes a lot) so that the power of The Tradition flows along paths that result in at least a better result for the people involved, if not the best possible result.

For instance, how do you manipulate the Tradition of Rapunzel so that dozens of young princes aren’t drawn to her tower to be maimed or killed trying to rescue her, before the prince whose destiny it is to save her finally shows up? How do you manage to avert the Tradition that a maiden saved from a horrible fate by a young knight must end up madly in love with him? And so on.

These books are very witty, even gently satirical concerning the relationships between genders, classes, and races (humans, elves, dragons and so on), and make brilliant use of the range, variety, and interrelationships of folklore motifs – in fact, an afficionado of oral tradition may well feel as though she’s wandering through an animated adaptation of Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature. At the same time, I found the conceit an interesting comment on the ways in which perceptions, expectations, choices and actions are moulded and driven by social and cultural conventions. It’s not easy to challenge the weight of tradition in any world, and Lackey’s magical Tradition is a metaphor, I think, for just how difficult it is to change ideas about such things as the natural roles of men and women in society, and how, when one does try, the result is rarely a clean break with the past, but rather, an accommodation with the past that moves change forward one step at a time.

Fun reading, but with a hidden kick – a bit of a change for Lackey, who’s not always this subtle in her social messages.

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I have recently devoured Lois McMaster Bujold’s three fantasy novels set in the Chalion universe – a fantasy world that appears to draw much of its initial inspiration from medieval Spain.

I can’t recommend these highly enough to readers of fantasy who want a combination of strong and realistic characters, entertaining adventure, and sophisticated exploration of philosophical and religious issues all in a superbly crafted package.

The novels in question are:

Curse of Chalion
Paladin of Souls
The Hallowed Hunt

The first two are set in the feudal Kingdom of Chalion, and deal with what could have been fairly standard fantasy hero-quest adventures involving the breaking of ancient curses and saving the country from supernatural assault by the evil ruler of an opposing kingdom.

But you know that something different is going on when the heroes are, respectively, a middle-aged, worn-out and broken-spirited former courtier who has spent years as a galley slave following a humiliating defeat, and an equally middle-aged and broken-spirited dowager suspected of going mad following the death of her husband. These are fallible people with real aches and sorrows and memories of defeats and guilt and misgivings, who find somewhere inside themselves the will to serve the needs of their people.

This is also a land where the gods – there are five of them, the Mother, the Father, the Son, the Daughter and the Bastard, all seen in their own way as essential to the smooth functioning of the world – are real and attempt to intervene in the lives of humankind in order to bring about balance. But this is a universe where the gods really have given their children free will, and thus when Bujold’s heroes and saints are called to act, they have every right to refuse, to delay, to ignore the hints and promptings of their gods.

The third book, The Hallowed Hunt, is set in Darthaca, several hundred years prior to the two Chalion novels, but like the others, it features heroes (and villains) who behave like real people who’ve have been battered around a bit by life, and are swept up, unwitting, in events that at first seem far too vast for them to cope with.

These are protagonists that it’s easy to identify with, and the stakes are high and the risks seem real, because these are people who could fail, precisely because they are only human and we know from their pasts that they have failed before. And behind the action, there are some very interesting explorations of the nature of sacrifice, redemption, free will and divine providence – and as you may have gathered, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. Put it all together, and it’s well worth the reading.

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Gentle reader may recall my wrath and sorrow upon learning that the planned publication by Night Shade books of the third previously published volume in Charles Saunders' Imaro saga, and plans to publish new works in both the Imaro saga and in the Dossouye saga (beginning with a book containing all the previously released short stories about Saunder's bold and cunning warrior woman) had been cancelled.

Well, I'm a very happy woman again. Saunders has joined with Sword & Soul Media to release the last of the original Imaro books, The Trail of Bohu and brand new volumes continuing the series. And just as wonderful, the first of the Sword & Soul Media/Saunders releases is the promise collection of Dossouye stories.

Dossouye, by Charles R. Sanuders, is now available at LuLu.com.

Can you hear me dancing for joy?

Of course, I ordered the book the very minute that I discovered it was available. And counted the minutes until it arrived. and now I have my very own copy.

Saunders has extensively revised the first of the Dossouye stories, "Abegwe's Sword" to give the reader more of his hero's backstory. We learn how Dossouye was trained to be one of the women warriors of the kingdom of Abomey, how she saves her people but is forced to go into exile by treachery, and more about her family and culture. The collection also contains the other three Dossouye stories written in the 1980s, "Gimmile’s Songs," "Shiminege’s Mask," and "Marwe’s Forest," and the story "Yohimba's Choice" the Saunders wrote in 2004 for the second of the Dark Matter anthologies edited by Sheree Renee Thomas. And there is a new Dossouye story, "Obenga’s Drum."

Dossouye is a marvellous creation, for me even more so than Saunders' Imaro precisely because she is a woman, and Saunders does an excellent job of writing her, not as a "man with breasts," which is how some female fantasy warriors have been written, but as a warrior who is a woman - a subtle difference, perhaps, but a meaningful and welcome one.

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In these times, when there's a new urban fantasy or supernatural romance on the shelves almost every day, and there is a recognisable format that so many of these books have adopted, it's fun to go back and re-read some of the earliest works of the genre.

Tea with the Black Dragon, by R. A. MacAvoy was written in 1983, when very little fantasy was being written that took place in contemporary times and real places. It is, like many modern urban fantasies, both a mystery adventure and a romance, but part of its charm is that the main characters are a middle-aged woman having communication problems with her daughter, and a centuries-old dragon in the form of a man who has grown tired waiting for the "master" that he was once told he was destined to meet.

It's a wonderful, charming, magical book, and it was a pleasure to read it once again.

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The Last Hawk, by Catherine Asaro, is one the one hand firmly a part of her Skolian Empire space opera/romance series, and at the same time, an interesting entry into the body of science fiction and fantasy works that address, from various perspectives, "the battle of the sexes."

It follows one of the classic plotlines of the "battle of the sexes" novel: a man from a society where male and female roles are much as we see them in our own 21st century North American society is somehow transported, alone and in need of help, to a land where women rule, and what our society thinks of as the "natural order" of gender roles, abilities, characteristics and interests are reversed.

In this case, the lost man is Kelricson, brother to the Skolian Imperator and one of the most powerful psis among his people; he is also a cybernetically enhanced soldier. with ship and cybernetics damaged in battle, Kelricson crash-lands on Coba, a Restricted planet - one which has requested to have no contact whatsoever with the Skolian Empire. With his cybernetics damaged, his psi powers malfunctioning, and his ship destroyed (by the inhabitants of the planet, to prevent him from escaping and bringing word of their civilisation to the empire) there's little Kelricson can do to get word out of his whereabouts.

Kelricson's personal beauty, and his unusual gift for playing the game of Quis (although as it turns out, it is far more than a game, but an information network and a way of thinking, formulating and exploring new ideas, and negotiating conflicts and debates), make him both interesting and valuable to some of the most powerful women on the planet - the Estate Managers, hereditary rulers of the various city-state - and over the course of 18 years in captivity, he moves from the estate of one woman to another, by gift, trade, theft and conquest, fathering two children along the way.

Where the novel departs from the classic scenario is that Kelricson does not, of his own, spark a rebellion among the downtrodden men of Coba, nor does he convince one of the women who own him along the way to give up everything to either change her world, or follow him into exile from her people. There are signs that a desire for a more egalitarian relationship between men and women was already beginning to surface even before his arrival, and while he does influence some men further in this direction, there's still no sign of revolution at the end. And it is true that his last wife - who ends up the overall ruler of the planet - has some doubts about many of the ways that life on Coba is organised, and is likely to spend her reign engaged in significant social reforms, when Kelricson finally escapes, he does so alone, and whatever changes will come to Coba, will come as a result of the actions and choices of the people of Coba.

I enjoyed reading this more than I expected to. I'd been getting a little tired of Asaro's brand of space opera/romance, but this book came at me quite out of the blue, and was in some ways like reading a strange combination of Herland, The Odyssey and The Glass Bead Game. An interesting book indeed.


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