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Book Review: The King's Peace

This is quite possibly the best fantasy novel I've read in years, excepting only George R.R. Martin's ongoing epic. I don't want to overhype it, but I enjoyed it immensely.

It's almost historical fiction, as it is set in a world based very heavily on real-life historical Britain and it's surroundings. But she not only changes names, she tweaks things and adds fantastical elements sufficient that the world actually has a life of it's own...it feels familiar enough that when she says "jarnsman", after a while you picture a viking warrior. But you can never just say, "oh, I know what this is, boring". After the first few mentions of "the White God", I was ready to say "ho-hum, Christianity, whatever"...but after reading further, I realized that even thought it is obviously based on Christianity, it is distinctly different. While I can clearly see the parallels of some (Isarnagans, Jarns, Vincans), some have me at a loss (Malms?).

It follows the story of Sulien ap Gwien, a young woman who becomes one of the foremost warriors of her day (if not the finest), and the High King she comes to serve. It is, distilled down to its core, a re-telling of the Arthur legend...but as the with the world, enough things are changed to make it quite unique. For instance, I can easily pick out the characters based on Gawaine (Gwyn of Angas), Mordred (Morthu), and Morgase (Morwen), and Urdo is obviously Arthur. But who is Sulien supposed to be? I'm guessing maybe Lancelot, due to her close friendship with Urdo and the implication that her son, Darien, seems destined to be a sort of Galahad...but that's odd, because the story uses the Romano-Celt version of Arthur, whereas Lancelot is a French retcon. And plenty more...who is Thurrig supposed to be? Garah? Raul? Marchel? I can't find (or at least, can't recognize) Walton's versions of Bedivere, Kay, Percival, Pellinore, or many other traditional Arthurian characters, if they even exist. Hell, even Urdo's queen Elenn bears very little resemblance to Guinivere, as I've seen her portrayed. However, this is a good thing.

Walton brilliantly avoided the biggest trap fantasy writers can fall into, which is taking historical prejudices and gender roles and using that as an excuse to avoid writing good female characters, despite the fact that fantasy worlds aren't real history. In Walton's version of Britain, women are just as capable as the men, and are shown as such, and in general, accepted as such. There is nothing whatever odd about the fact that Sulien and Marchel are superb warriors and war-leaders. And even most non-warrior females are very capable in different ways...from Garah's abilities as a quartermaster and logistician, to Elenn's skills at diplomacy, to the various women who serve as "key-keepers" (stewards, more or less). While it mentions that there are fewer female armigers than male, because the lance-work takes great upper body strength, there are evidentally plenty of women who can achieve that strength, because there are a large number of female armigers in the High King's army. Sometimes I didn't even know that a character mentioned was a woman for a long time, until a casual pronoun revealed it later; that's how even-handed the treatment was.

At least two female armigers save Urdo's life throughout the book...one of them, Enid, has her arm nearly chopped off in doing it (but lives through this and even continues as an armiger). I still remember Thurrig trying to match Enid up with his son..."We Malms aren't so particular, we don't look for a pretty face. Breasts, hips, brains, that's all that matters. Strong arms, too." Sulien herself is often praised for her size and strength, her skill at arms, or her valor...not so much for her beauty. Even the magnificent armor she wears belonged to her grandmother, not some male hero. And finally, there are women warriors in all the cultures...the famous brigand Goldpate was Jarnish, and Atha ap Gren, who fights with spears from a chariot, is an Isagarnan king (a female king, not a queen). I have seldom seen a book where women warriors are portrayed so well.

And while the Jarns apparently don't treat women as well as the Tanagans, Walton doesn't give this a pass...characters in the book call them on it. when the Jarnish lord Alfwin Cellasson comes to join with Urdo, he is reluctant to speak to women...and Elenn tells him in no uncertain terms (although politely) that he is dealing with Urdo's queen and two of his most trusted commanders (Marchel and Sulien), and if he doesn't want to deal with them he can fuck off. Alfwin's neice even becomes an armiger (against Alfwin's wishes) and becomes a war hero, at which point he accepts her and is proud of her. When Ayl (a Jarnish king) makes some comment to Urdo about "Will you be bound in your will by a woman? Or will you make her obey?" (referring to Sulien), Urdo's answer is simple: "Make her obey? I had rather kill you all".

And males aren't locked into roles either (though they don't go against type as strongly as females)...Sulien's brother Morien, while he is Lord of Derwen and leader of the warriors there, is not really a true armiger, and there is no doubt that Sulien is ten times the warrior he will ever be. Marchel's husband ap Wyn is an even better example...she is praefecto (commander) of one of Urdo's forces, while he is a smith and not even a warrior. I haven't seen such a good example of a female-warrior/male-civilian couple since Redlance and Nightsong (from Elfquest).

--Excellent prose. Walton writes in an almost poetic fashion, and her narrative is extremely moving. Not romantic, or mushy, but stirring to the soul. For that matter, she prefaces each chapter with a brief quote from an "in-world" character, be it a poem, or a snippet of a historical account, or a passage from the book of the White God. One of her poems is quite good, and I'll quote it at the end.

--Complex relationships that avoid stereotypes and cliches. In fact, they neatly sidestep the usual focus on a female main character's "romantic" aspect by the fact that Sulien has no interest in romance at all (she was raped in the first chapter, and while it does not haunt her mentally or emotionally, she never after has any interest in sex). And this is not shown as some horrendous tragedy...Sulien herself is never sad/depressed at the lack of romance in her life. Instead, she has deep relationships with many of her comrades in the alae (such as Marchel, Angas, Glyn, Osvran, Thurrig, and others), with Garah, with her mother, and of course, with Urdo. Even though her companions sometimes tease her about being romantically involved with Urdo, she doesn't throughout the entire book recognize that they are serious...that's the degree to which her love for Urdo is entirely platonic. There is also her love for her brother Darien, which is important in the story development, her love for her horses (this is not trivial; read and you'll understand), and her love for her son.
While Sulien is the main focus (naturally, since she's the main character), the portrayals of other relationships, romantic and otherwise, in the story are quite good. Urdo's relationship to Raul, for instance, or Sulien's mother and father.

--Respectful treatments of women's issues. Again, Sulien's rape: it was something horrible that happened to her, but that's it...it doesn't inspire her to be a warrior or a hero (she was a warrior before it happened, and she becomes a hero for her own reasons). It does not define her; even her desire for revenge on Ulf Gunnarsson is motivated more by the fact that he murdered Darien than the fact that he raped her. Also the way the book treats the concept of abortion (as something any woman can do by force of will, and a perfectly normal thing to do). Sulien only has her son because of divine intervention...and her attitude towards this is an honest mix of motherly love and self-interest (she wants to be an armiger, not a mom), and throughout the book her self-interest actually wins out (she sees her son very rarely as he grows up). And this is considered okay...nobody considers her a "bad mother" or anything, or that caring for her child is more important or "right" for her than being a war-leader. And I absolutely love the part where she names her son...shoving aside the priest's urging her to name him after the monastery's patron AND the tradition of naming him after his father (who she despises), she names him after her brother and herself, giving him the surname "Suliensson" (in defiance of all naming conventions). That's awesome.

There is also a good examination of a more traditional 'woman's role' in the form of Elenn, but it's dissected a bit rather than just played straight. In one scene, Elenn speaks about how she was trained to handle men from the time she was young, and that this is a large part of her skill at diplomacy...hiding her true feelings behind a mask, making men think she likes them or is interested in them (romantically or otherwise) so that she can manipulate them. But Sulien, seeing how Elenn acts, sees how this upbringing has damaged her...she cannot fully be relaxed around any man now, not even a friend (perhaps not even her husband); she unconsciously puts on her 'public self', like armor. This difference is partly because Elenn is Isarnagan (Irish), not Tanagan (English), and it's a neat detail about the difference in cultures.

--Ulf Gunnarson. I was fully prepared to hate him forever after the first few chapters, but by the end of the book you end up actually respecting and even sympathizing with him. The biggest help to this? I said that Sulien was not haunted by her rape; she gets over it pretty quickly, actually (for the most part; talking about it is still a trigger, as is to be expected for a rape survivor). But Ulf is haunted by that rape, and near the end he reveals to Sulien that he has nightmares of being raped like she was. It's good at showing that people are complex (not simply caricaturing Ulf as a sneering rapist villain, but making him a complex character), and even in showing the idea of rape culture among the Jarns (Ulf did it because it was just something raiders did, and it was expected of him; once he had done it and had time to think about it, it made him realize how horrible it was). Best character redemption I've seen since Jaime Lannister (and actually better in some ways, since Ulf actually appears to repent for his wrongdoings in a way that Jaime won't).

--The scene where Osvran and Sulien talk, and he proposes marriage. He knows she isn't really interested in sex with him, but that's fine with him, since it turns out he's gay. Note that there was no foreshadowing to this whatsoever, and that Sulien takes it as perfectly natural. He proposes based on political expediency and mutual respect, which--given the setting--is actually quite a rational basis for a marriage. It doesn't work out, though, for various reasons...but I still really like that the scene is there.

--Going along with that last, the treatment of sexual issues was admirable as well, to my eyes. There is little to no "slut shaming" about women having sex (or even children) out of wedlock. Part of this is due to the "magic abortion" thing I mentioned above, but it's still refreshing to hear about women "sharing blankets" with whatever men they choose, and it's not considered a big deal or scandalous. While Elenn seems to have some jealousy of Urdo's relationship with ap Rhun, in the book it was before they married, so it doesn't matter. Even adultery is different...when Conal the Victor makes his ill-timed jest about the queen dallying with an armiger (I won't say who), Sulien thinks "Even if it had been true it was no crime, and would have been nobody's business but theirs and Urdo's".
I've already spoken about how casually Osvran's homosexuality is handled; the same is true of the other homosexual relations in the book, most of which are mentioned very simply. While we don't really see any homosexual romances in detail, it's implied that Ulf has had lovers of both genders, and there is some homoerotic context with Urdo and Raul (I may be imagining that, though). It reminds me of F.M. Busby...no real focus, but treating it as simply a normal aspect of sexuality.

--Interesting look at religion, especially how "real" it seems...when Sulien is threatened by Morwen, she speaks of actually seeing her gods coming to her defense, and when Morwen makes them back off, they actually hear the Jarn's version of Odin speaking. Also note the complex interactions between people and gods/spirits (the way the king "keeps the land peace" for instance, as well as Urdo's dealings with the Lady of the Lake, and the appearance of Turth), and the fact that charms and prayers to the gods can have real, visible results (the water-calling song Sulien and Garah use, or the healing of wounds). And finally...the least "real" god we see in the series is The White God; his followers do not work spells or charms as the followers of the old gods do, or interact with gods and spirits (an exception to this is the bit with Chanerig ap Thurrig, a sort of St. Patrick analog). Sulien is frankly dismissive of the quasi-christian religion, and does not change her mind the entire series, and this is seen as perfectly reasonable. Despite this (and the rather negative portrayals of many followers of the White God), it does not have the feel of a hatchet job on christianity.

--Related to the above, considering all the clearly supernatural elements in the book, I was surprised at the absence of a real Merlin figure. This is intriguing to me...Mary Stewart's Arthurian books (good reads, by the way) focus heavily on Merlin, but without scarcely a trace of magic...this book has the magic, with not a trace of Merlin. I wonder at Walton's decision there.

--There is one very interesting scene mentioned near the end, about how Larig ap Thurrig killed Black Darag (the infamous Isarnagan King and raider)...from the description of how the fighting went, it sounds as if Darag is meant to be a version of Cuchullain. For instance:
a.) he fights with a barbed spear
b.) in his final battle, he ties himself to a stone after taking a severe stomach wound
c.) when Conal finds his body, he has cut off his killer's hand.

This therefore makes Conal the Victor an analog of Conal Cernach (which translates to something like "victorious" or "triumphant", according to wikipedia), who avenged Cuchullain's death. This is kind of a neat tie-in for people who follow Celtic myths...I'd never heard of anyone linking Cuchullain and Arthur before.

In short, I can't recommend this highly enough. There is a sequel ("The King's Name"), which I have yet to read, but will as soon as I can find it.

The poem I mentioned:

Bear me swiftly over the land
long legs, nurtured with roots
turning ears tuned to my voice
gentle mouth here to my hand
warm flanks under my thigh
faster than eagles

Bear me swiftly down on the foe
long legs, first in the charge
strong feet shod with iron
brave heart thundering down
driving home the lowered lance
stronger than lions

Bear me swiftly home at last
long legs, ready for grain
at end of day, when night falls
never complaining, carry me on
smooth feet, shadow in shadows
best of companions

--Aneirin ap Erbin, "Greathorse"