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Air Logic coverAir Logic has been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait.

I suspect that for those who’ve already read Laurie J. Marks’s previous entries in the Elemental Logic series—Fire Logic (2002), Earth Logic (2004), and Water Logic (2007)—this statement will be all the encouragement you need to tackle the final volume of the series, which was published by Small Beer Press last year. A wait of a dozen years is a decently long interval on this earth, and I know that I, a relative latecomer to Marks’s beautifully realized world of Shaftal, was worried whether the long gap would make the final volume feel different than, not as good as, the earlier books. Happily, that is emphatically not the case.

The Elemental Logic books are set in a secondary world in which individuals whose natures are dominated by one element, rather than a jumble of all four, are known as elemental witches: fire, earth, water, air. [1] Each element has its particular set of specialties, and its particular “logic.” Fire logic, for instance, works by intuition; for “fire bloods,” metaphor and reality are the same. For earth bloods, action is understanding, while water logic is associative and holistic, and I still struggle to understand it. Air logic, by contrast, is analytical, concerned with order and judgment; action and symbol are entirely separate for air witches: as Air Logic demonstrated, they often have difficulty interacting with other people, since other people are characterized primarily by their insistence on pointless social niceties and their pernicious inability to act logically. Unchecked, the powers of air witches are dangerous to everyone around them.

Fire Logic introduced readers not only to the elemental magics but to Shaftal, a largely pastoral, early modern-ish society where family structures are capacious and queer relationships are treated no differently than opposite-sex couples. This peaceful country is shattered when the invading Sainnites arrive from over the sea, bent on conquering the country for themselves. At the beginning of the saga, the ruler—or G’deon—of the realm dies and Shaftal is overrun, leaving only a few scattered servants of the old order to keep up a guerrilla resistance while they try to find a new G’deon, an earth witch capable of wielding the power of Shaftal. Among them is Emil, a Paladin who gradually turns his back on war, and Zanja na’Tarwein, the Speaker for her people, the Ashawala’i, one of the indigenous border tribes who remain proudly apart from the Shaftali, their land not under the G’deon’s power. That distance is not enough to save the Ashawala’i from genocide at the hands of the Sainnites, and Zanja, traumatized and half-mad with survivor’s guilt and her own torture, falls in with Emil, who becomes her closest friend.

In the first book, their fire magic led them to realize that there is in fact still a rightful G’deon: Karis, a part-Shaftali earth witch who is hopelessly addicted to the smoke drug which the Sainnites have been importing to induce dependency in the Shaftali population. Zanja and Karis fall in love, and by the opening of the second volume, Earth Logic, Karis has worked free of her addiction and they have forged a family with Emil, his lover Medric—a Sainnite seer—and the air witch Norina and her healer lover J’han, who are the biological parents of their daughter Leeba. Though Karis is reluctant to take up the mantle of G’deon, she eventually does so, and makes peace with the Sainnites; Water Logic found her and the rest of the characters struggling to put Shaftal back to rights.

The rightful ruler resuming the country’s government might be where another novel (or a trilogy) stopped the story. Marks, however, understands that even such weighty accomplishments as that are only the beginning, or the middle, of the story. Water Logic and Air Logic instead demonstrate the need for the inhabitants of Shaftal, Shaftali, Sainnite,and tribes alike, to build a future that includes all of them and that acknowledges the wrongs of the past while somehow moving forward together. That work includes more than a few false starts, and Air Logic in particular asks questions about how one might build that future in full knowledge of the wrongs of the past. When I was growing up, my Quaker schools often had a poster in the classroom reminding us that “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” The problem confronting Shaftal is similar: Karis wants to take the realm back to the old ways, before a decade and more of guerrilla warfare turned the hearts of people against one another, and warped many of Shaftal’s traditions: the Paladins, for example, are now expected “to return to the old way, the way of judging people by their merits, and not only by their failures” (Air Logic, p. 141). Trying to make peace, as one character observes, brought a new war. What are the true Shaftali ways, when they themselves were once the invaders who colonized a foreign land? Can a way that was lost be found again, and how, when Karis still has enemies who seek to destroy her?

In Water Logic, finding a path to the future involved Zanja traveling back in time to the Shaftal of two hundred years prior, returning with proof that the Shaftali were themselves once invaders on the land. Earth Logic and Water Logic also introduced some specific Sainnites: the general Clement, who has no interest in continuing to wage a hopeless war but who struggles to make a place for her soldiers in a new, postcolonial Shaftal; and the cook Garland, an ex-soldier who attaches himself to the G’deon’s household. At the same time, it becomes clear that there is a group of Shaftali insurgents still at large who want revenge on the Sainnites and who do not consider Karis the lawful G’deon, with many lives being lost in an assassination attempt in her headquarters of Travesty.

As Air Logic opens several months after these events, Karis and her family and friends are still on high alert: the leader of the insurgents is an air witch, who can suborn the wills of others and alter their perceptions of reality with his words. What they don’t know is that the agents of the air witch are already embedded in Travesty with them. Other members of the insurgents, who call themselves the Death-and-Life company, are also skulking in a nearby town. Among them is Chaen, an itinerant sign-painter whose son is an untrained air blood. Chaen herself is precisely half air and half fire, a peculiar mixture of elements which can bring much grief if not properly balanced—and Chaen is not. Part of her wants revenge on the Sainnites, who killed most of her family; part of her wants a peace she doesn’t feel she deserves or could embark upon after a life spent killing for revenge and in defense of her son. When Chaen is arrested after yet another assassination attempt, she is faced with the necessity of accepting the impossible—and, over the course of the book, somehow reconciling herself with her duty to Karis, who is Shaftal (something that her fellow insurgents refuse to recognize). Chaen goes from enemy to ally, if not quite a friend, in a process of reconciliation and acceptance of harsh truths that mirrors the work that confronts Shaftal as a whole.

One of the reasons I loved the earlier Elemental Logic books was the feeling that the action not only depended upon whichever logic was named in the title, but also that the structure of each book to some extent partook of that logic. In Fire Logic, for example, we learned that “Making action possible is fire blood’s business”; and in in that novel, when three fire bloods put their heads together, the thirteen-year stalemate of Shaftal after the Sainnite conquest is finally able to change productively. In Earth Logic, by contrast, action is understanding, and the action of reading the book brings the reader to an understanding of how its events stack up to their conclusion, which freely mix metaphors with the actual things they represent.

In the previous novels, Zanja’s status as a fire blood, and as the Speaker for her people, has driven the action: her purpose is to blaze trails and to cross boundaries. In this novel, however, she is reacting as much as acting, with Karis and the rest of the G’deon’s household similarly two steps behind their enemies. The air witch who opposes them is ruthless, and ruthlessly plays Karis’s own good qualities against her, as her Paladins realize:

“Because Karis is a border woman, a Sainnite, and a Shaftali, she is the only possible G’deon for our time, as Harald must have known when he decided to vest her with the Power of Shaftal. But it must also be true that in belonging to all these people she belongs to none of them, and that having grown up without a family she clings too tightly to the family she now has. For a woman of such strength, she has many weaknesses.” (p. 222)

Air logic is harsh, merciless even. This is the case even when it’s leashed by the strictures of society, as the punishments Norina hands down demonstrate—and downright cruel when it’s not, as the actions of Saugus and Chaen’s son prove. The book itself has some of that harshness, although it’s balanced by the ongoing minor comedy of the air children, Norina’s students, attempting to work out, systematize, and internalize the rubrics of social behavior which everyone else seems to understand with ease. (I suspect readers who’ve found the niceties of social behavior difficult to learn will sympathize.) But, as the last installment in this quartet, Air Logic the novel is also the story of how Karis and all of Shaftal struggle to find a balance among the four elements, between the Shaftali and the Sainnites and the border people, and struggle to work out what that balance should look like, and more: “What must we do to achieve a poised and unified balance?” (p. 309)

The answer to that question is the meat of Air Logic’s story, and also that of the series as a whole. At the last, Karis, Zanja, Chaen and the air children, and everyone else bring about a balance in Shaftal, unifying its postcolonial past and post-invasion present to forge a new future, in which some wrongs are righted but some hurts will never fully heal. Such is the way of life. Laurie Marks’s epic fantasy world is brilliantly realized, gratifyingly queer, and satisfyingly, humanly complicated. Now that the story of Shaftal is complete, it’s one that every fantasy fan should experience for themselves.

Endnotes 

[1] (You can find out more about the elements, and learn your own elemental balance, on Marks’s website.) [return]



Electra Pritchett is a lapsed historian who splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. Born in New Jersey, she has lived on three continents and her studies have ranged from ancient Rome to modern Japan. She blogs at electrapritchett.wordpress.com.
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