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Blood in the Water cover

Banners in the Wind cover

Some years ago, a certain Jonathan McCalmont of this parish became involved in a small internet disagreement. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.) In a pair of interesting and closely argued posts, he suggested that the fantasy genre is inherently a conservative one. Continued reverence for the themes and tropes established by founding fathers from less liberal times, combined with the tendency of the genre's fans to vote "More of the same, please!" with their wallets, McCalmont argued, results in a powerful pressure upon fantasy authors—should they wish to be successful—to avoid challenging too many cozy assumptions. "It is rare," he said in his second post on the subject, "for fantasy stories to be about changing the world for the better, instead they tend to revolve around protecting the status quo against an evil threatening it." It was not an argument that went down well.

I dare say that it would meet with disagreement, too, from both sides of the recent kerfuffle over whether or not modern fantasy is a howling wasteland of degenerate amorality (on which see Martin Lewis's useful summary). One side might replace "status quo" with "traditional values," in Jonathan's contention, and lament that there isn't nearly enough of such protection on the bookshop shelves these days, relativistic modern life being unwilling as it is to allow that concepts like "better" and "worse" have any validity; the other might protest that fantasy has become more mature of late precisely because it has recognized that the world does not, generally, change for the better, or indeed change much at all, no matter how much one's heroes swear, shag, slaughter, and die for causes they don’t really believe in.

In addition to encouraging a great deal of posturing, this rather silly debate did provide the hardly original but still useful reminder that fantasy remains all things to all men. (I use "men" specifically rather than abstractly here; the almost total absence of women commentators from the proceedings was notable.) The truth is that the genre is much more diverse in terms of both works and readers than any "fantasy is X" statement could hope to encompass.

Still, Jonathan has a point: how many times have you read a fantasy saga that didn't end with the forcible removal from power of the bad, evil, no-good tyrant, and the glorious restoration of—huzzah!—the rightful wielder of arbitrary, unaccountable unilateral power? And with magic-wielders at his disposal, why does a benevolent One True King never consider building a school in every village overnight, funding research into magical irrigation methods, or—at the very least—getting his mages to blast their way through a few mountain ranges, to improve the road network so he can get fat off the profits of an increased flow of inter-regional trade?

It's just possible that this is a question which is its own answer; as reading material goes, battles are fun, the finer points of crop rotation not so much. Although I'd like to see someone try.

We might debate the extent to which any of my suggested activities for the One True King, in themselves, could make the world "better"—the development of human society is neither a linear process nor evenly distributed, and there are always unexpected consequences—but I agree with Jonathan to the extent that there is very often a frustrating lack of real change to be seen in high fantasy sagas, for better or for worse. It is not, however, a universal or a necessary quality of the genre; merely a prevalent one. Among the field's biggest hits of recent years, after all, are Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series (2006-8)—which will resume this year with a novel, The Alloy of Law, set some three hundred years on that brings railways and skyscrapers to its world—and Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt (2008-present), in which industrialization is driven by the demands of war and political organization is several steps more imaginative than a clutch of neighboring pseudo-feudal kingdoms.

In her recently completed Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution trilogy (2009-10), Juliet E. McKenna attempts—as the series title would suggest—to portray precisely the sort of change that Jonathan McCalmont calls for. The war-torn landscape of Lescar has been a byword for strife since McKenna's first novel, The Thief's Gamble (1998): a pariah polity—state would be too strong a word—ensnarled in endemic conflict between rival duchies, a place to which only mercenaries would freely choose to travel. The Chronicles push Lescar and its people to the narrative forefront for the first time, following a small group of individuals who come together to try to bring lasting peace to their homeland.

For all its somewhat overplayed talkiness, I enjoyed the first volume a great deal. In my review, almost two years ago, I discussed the major characters and their divergent reasons for becoming involved in the fledgling revolution, noting that McKenna "displays the violent costs of all that high-minded dreaming in the first half: undercutting the rhetoric of glorious revolution, letting cracks develop within the alliance, and telling the first stages of an altogether more complex and interesting story."

I'm pleased to report that parts two and three fulfill much of this promise, although not, I suspect, in a way that will win over critics of the first. While they have their moments, neither of the books—Blood in the Water (2009) and Banners in the Wind (2010)—move especially quickly. Sometimes this is down to uneven narrative pacing; both books are, like the first, somewhat prone to the infodump. But it is also a consequence of the type of story being told. There is more incident and drama here, particularly in the second installment, but fundamentally this is a political upheaval fought as much or more with words than with swords. We end not with a big blow-out battle, but with the promise of a Conclave:

Let every town send their guildmasters. Let all those who hold land choose respected men and women from among their number to equal those chosen guildsmen. Let those who have neither land nor trade gather at the shrines and put forward those whom they know to be sincere and wise, in equal number to the guildsmen and the landowners. (Banners, p. 352)

The slow pace is undoubtedly a deliberate choice, intended to drive home the point that real change takes time:

After the swift ferocity of the autumn's campaign, Tathrin burned with frustration at the slow pace of progress this For-Winter. It was like wading through mud. (Banners, p. 116)

Patient spadework is the order of the day; while there are a few larger-than-life characters and even the odd inspiring battlefield speech, a recurring motif is the key role played by planning and logistics, rather than dramatic heroism, in military and political victory. When the revolutionaries win battles, it is because they have employed the most disciplined and experienced mercenary companies, and because the native Lescari rank-and-file that those mercenaries gradually step aside for are recruits with a stake in the outcome rather than the force-marched conscripts of the various dukes' forces. ("That so many of the common men fled doubtless helped us to win", notes merchant's-son-turned-military-commander Tathrin after one battle (Blood, p. 395)). The revolutionaries are able to employ those mercenaries, in turn, because they have established a network of wealthy Lescari expats sympathetic to the idea:

Evord addressed himself to the boy. "Do you have friends who've fled Lescar for Tormalin, Caladhria or the cities of Ensaimin? . . . Never think they've forgotten you, in their peace and safety. Those who have prospered, and plenty have," he assured them, "they're paying us to put an end to Lescar's suffering. All of them, whether they're of Carluse blood, or Marlier, Triolle, Draximal, wherever." (Blood, p. 37)

The fact that a stable Lescar would mean new markets for trade doesn't hurt, either; McKenna is alive to the possibility that people might have multiple motives for what they do. At least when it comes to secondary and minor characters. Her protagonists, with the exception of the cheerfully amoral mercenary brothers Sorgrad and Gren—shrewd and crude, respectively—are markedly more straightforward in their idealism.The four central revolutionaries never entertain less than lofty thoughts about what they might achieve.

Nor do they waver in their commitment to the cause, however much they suffer for it. Continuing a thematic thread from the first novel, the blows that each character takes are determined in large part by their status, in both social and gendered terms. Failla, peasant-born mistress to Duke Garnot of Carluse ("Her rich gowns were all bought for the duke's pleasure, and every stitch of lace beneath. If he tired of her, Garnot could throw her out naked, everyone knew that" (Blood, p. 110)), receives a humiliating public beating in the course of aiding a siege of the Duke's castle. A more private, if no less brutal, peril awaits Branca, a university student (who, if not rich, is of sufficient means to pay for her upkeep), and conspirator extraordinaire Charoleia. The latter's background is murky, but she maintains a host of disguises ("Charoleia could change her accent as easily as she changed her gloves", notes Branca (Blood, p. 83)) and is a past master at assuming the trappings of high birth. These two women, reflecting their higher status and the different circles in which they move, are targeted by a paid assassin behind genteel closed doors.

This episode—a tense, grim highlight of Blood—leads to some nicely understated character work with Charoleia in Banners. While Failla and Branca both get the romantic plot arcs, with all the familiar beats that that implies, Charoleia—a holdover from McKenna's previous books—does not. This gives her more freedom within the narrative, and the sense of a story that does not begin and end with the revolution; it also allows McKenna to make her a figure to whom there is more than meets the eye. The ordinarily unruffled Charoleia is manifestly shaken by what she has experienced, but she still has the subtle and cynical presence of mind to put the horror to good use, delicately alluding to her pain—and to her great fortitude in surviving it, naturally—in such a way as to nudge the Tormalin emperor into putting political and military pressure right where the revolutionaries need it. Like Sorgrad and Gren—who also featured in McKenna's first series, The Tales of Einarinn (1999-2002)—Charoleia offers a refreshing change from the uniform, ever so slightly dull earnestness of the four main characters. But then, the Tales were about thieves and rogues; the Chronicles, arguably, need a different sort of protagonist, although it is a shame to lose some of the spark that made the Tales so much fun.

The personal costs to the men are of a different nature. Tathrin must deal with the brutalizing effect of his close involvement in the revolution's military campaigns; but, unlike his female counterparts, when he becomes a specific target of their enemies, it is his ability to protect his family, rather than he himself, that is threatened. Family provides its own sort of emotional violence for soft-spoken nobleman-scholar Aremil; he has an upsetting, debilitating reunion with the parents who disowned him as an infant for his socially shameful disabilities. His exile was a cushioned one, but his sense of loss is nonetheless keen—it is a "shock" for him when he sees them for the first time and realizes that he looks like them: "the dark eyes he saw each day in the mirror gazed from his mother’s face" (Banners, p. 130) is poignantly put. Worse still is their reaction to what he sees as his mission. His mother is inconsolable, "terrified tears pouring down her face" as she pleads for Aremil to spare his estranged siblings' lives. His father, Duke Secaris, describes the revolution as a "slaughter of innocents"—he means, of course, the dukes—and is utterly "perplexed" by the idea of upending "the natural order" to give "commoners and craftsmen" a say in government (Banners, p. 133).

This is not to say that Lescar's freedom fighters always agree, on either means or ends. Tathrin in particular, in the thick of the fighting, entertains doubts about the methods. "What he was about to do sickened him", we are told on one occasion, although within a few lines he has reconciled himself to the necessity of "scour[ing] the rest of Lescar clean. Only then would they see a lasting peace" (Banners, p. 189), and even when he shares his worries with Branca, there is no sense that he is seriously rethinking their scheme:

I long to have [Aremil] tell me that we were right to start all this upheaval. To tell me that we're doing what we must, however hard it is, to bring about a better future for all Lescari. I need to know that he still believes that. Then I can tell him that I still believe it, when it's his turn to be torn by doubts. (Banners, p. 265)

More dangerously, the fautlines in the cross-class alliance that began to appear towards the end of Irons in the Fire become central to the later books, especially Banners. Apparent freethinker Lord Rousharn—imprisoned for speaking and writing against the Dukes' excesses, and freed by the revolutionaries working with his wife, Derenna—soon proves to have limited patience with the goals of his would-be allies. He wants change, but not too much of it, and is discomforted by the notion of members of the Ducal class, even when defeated, receiving the same treatment as do those who fight on their behalf:

"What are you intending to do with Carluse's daughters, and with Duchess Aphanie and her girls?" Lord Rousharn was still staring at Aremil. "In the longer term. Do you intend to ransom them, as befits their rank?"

Aremil struggled for an answer. "We seek peace and prosperity for all in Lescar, whatever their station in life." (Blood, p. 234)

On the other side of the coin, "rabble-rouser" Reniack, who is "worth another regiment of mercenaries" with his recruitment propaganda ("scurrilous pamphlets to entertain gutter riff-raff . . . soberly argued broadsheets persuaded those who fancied themselves loftier thinkers") wants a more extreme solution:

Only Reniack had gone his own way now, intent on bloody revenge for all he and his long-time confederates had suffered through their years of defying their duke and his tyranny. (Banners, p. 27)

Unfortunately, neither Reniack nor Rousharn ever feel like a true part of the inner circle, and so the fact that each falls away, or in the case of the former becomes actively antagonistic, comes as little surprise. While the central quartet—so perhaps an inner square, then, rather than a circle—of Tathrin, Aremil, Failla, and Branca take the lion's share of the point-of-view chapters between them, we never get to share the thoughts of Rousharn and Reniak. This disparity is further emphasized by the fact that Blood pairs off the members of the quartet with each other, effectively setting up a stark and rather unfair contrast between the sweet mutual devotion of Tathrin and Failla, Aremil and Branca, against the indifferent and even brutal outsiders.

This feeds into a larger reservation I have with the trilogy, which is that it never quite settles into a detailed enough tapestry; while plenty of attention is paid to giving us an overview of Lescari society, we still spend the bulk of narrative time with our protagonist quartet. For all the talk of recruitment, at times it seems as if all the revolutionary legwork is being done by less than a dozen individuals. The Duchess Litasse is a notable and welcome exception in this regard, and her journey from implacable, bereaved opponent of the revolution to weary supporter of it is well drawn. That said, she alone is not enough—although her final speech to her husband is an excellent interrogation of the strictures of high social status:

What are we fighting for? To impose our will on vassals and peasants who resent us? To pursue old quarrels bequeathed by sires and grandsires? To see innocent blood shed for enmities we never sought or deserved? . . . To live surrounded by the debased loyalties of swords for hire? To marry for imagined advantage and live miserable for want of true affection? To condemn our children to the same wretchedness, shuffled around like birds on a white raven board? . . . I want to be free of it all. (Banners, pp. 386-7)

For all the measured pace of the revolutionary campaign itself, the third volume wraps things up a little too rapidly, and sacrifices some plausibility in the process. Sensibly, though, McKenna does not attempt to resolve every social ill within a single trilogy (although she does resolve most of the relationships into marriages); Tathrin and company are only able to put the wheels in motion for their much-cherished Lescari Conclave, mentioned above, a sort of cross between direct and parliamentary democracy, for which each section of society is intended to provide its own representatives, and in which all voices will receive equal weight.

McKenna's conclusion could be accused of being too neat, but on the contrary: it is clear-eyed about the limitations of what has been achieved, as well as being hopeful about the future possibilities. Her worldbuilding is nuanced and robust enough to give the reader plenty of scope to imagine what could wrong, and what could go right. We have been shown repeated examples of hostility between the inhabitants of the various duchies, and of endemic class divisions within the duchies; we have seen people disagree on what should be done, even if those scales were weighted in favor of our heroes. But we have also seen that poverty and injustice can inspire people to action, and that not everyone believes the solution is simply to install a nicer duke on the throne. Whether Secaris's assumption, that the social order is sacrosanct, will prove to be shared widely enough to drown the Conclave at birth is left as an open question: the novel ends shortly before the first meeting is to begin. Le roi est mort; vive la revolution?

Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she lectures on medieval Islamic history, and continues her project to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.

Nic Clarke is Lecturer in the History of the Islamic World at Newcastle University. She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.
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