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).( Collapse )