I was fifteen when I first read Cecelia Holland.
The novel was Floating Worlds, and I still remember the exact bookstore where I bought it—the one at the strip mall near my house, which I could reach on my bicycle, so long as I stuck to the back roads along the canals. It was a fat grey hardback, and it was in the remaindered bin. I probably could not have bought it otherwise. At that age, previous to starting any real job, my book-buying was restricted mainly to secondhand or paperbacks. Even remaindered, the price made me hesitate.
But it was science fiction. And I was hungry for any SF in those days—our local public library had almost nothing, the school library even less. These were the years before the internet, before online bookstores—I hadn't yet even discovered interlibrary loan. I bought it.
I was both confused and entranced. I don't think I made it all the way through the book on that first reading. But I kept returning to this great sprawling novel, which did something with science fiction I had not found elsewhere—mixing a politically complex story with realistic characters from multiple cultures, across a broad canvas. There was also the writing, which again was like nothing else I was finding in science fiction at the time.
Cecelia Holland, though I wasn't aware of it then, was better known as a writer of historical fiction. In her historical novels, like Great Maria or Until the Sun Falls, just as in her science fiction works, she uses precise, sparse details to build entire worlds, entire political landscapes.
Her historical novels range throughout time, and all through the world's cultures—Holland has said she chose historical fiction, among other reasons, because the discipline of history tries “to know all there is to know.” In Floating Worlds, she drew on this knowledge of history to create many cultures, including an anarchist culture on an all-but-destroyed Earth, a fascist culture on the moon, and—most intriguing—the Styth culture out by Jupiter. That so many of those in these cultures were black and brown, that many main characters of the novel were women, and that politics and feminism dominated the book—not as lectures, but as the engine of the story—oh, I imprinted on this book like a duckling, I am here to tell you.
For years, I have read every Holland I could find—borrow, buy, or download. (After 1995, the glorious internet arrived. Those of you who came of age after that will not remember what a revolution that was. Now all the books belong to us.) Most of her books I have read at least once; many I own outright. My point—and I do have one—I was never likely to be very objective about Cecelia Holland's new book, Dragon Heart.
Luckily, like Floating Worlds, Dragon Heart is a winner.
As in Floating Worlds, in Dragon Heart Holland drops readers bang into the middle of a world already in action, and expects us to be able to keep up. We open with two young scions of a royal house somewhere vaguely Mediterranean. One, Tizra, is unable to speak, though she can understand spoken language; the other, her brother Jeon, has come to fetch her. Their mother is to be married, unwillingly, to a brother of the Emperor. We soon learn that this Empire has been expanding outwards, conquering and annexing lands and kingdoms as it goes. But trying to annex this kingdom, run by the royal family at Castle Ocean, may be a mistake. The Castle Ocean family, headed by Queen Marioza, is not just royal; they are magic.
Generations back, according to their history, the founder of the family, the youngest daughter of a king, Atla, called up a monster from the depths of the sea, who abducted and raped her. Atla killed this monster and built Castle Ocean (the building) from its body. Her son by this monster becomes the first king of Castle Ocean. All the Castle Ocean family descend from this rape, and from this mixed monster/human blood; thus, Queen Marioza and all five of her children have some sort of magical ability.
I've summarized this history for two reasons. Firstly, because it gives a glimpse of one of Holland's tactics in this book, which is to take mythic tropes and then play against them. The slain monster whose body is used to build the world is not new—here, though, the hero who slays him is neither a god nor a (male) warrior, but the young princess whom the monster abducted. In other words, this princess rescues herself. Holland plays with tropes in this way throughout the book. We have princesses trapped in towers; we have a princess who speaks to birds, who bring her aid; we have the youngest of three sons in a kingdom, who is the one who finally solves the big problem. We have a virgin princess captured by a dragon, and we have maidens locked in towers. In each case, Holland subverts, enriches, and otherwise uses the trope to add mythic depth to her story.
Secondly, this particular myth of Atla and the monster is reflected in interesting ways in the plot of Dragon Heart. First, and most obviously, as Jeon is taking Tizra home to this forced marriage, a great red dragon rises out of the sea. It destroys their ship, and kills many of the sailors. Tizra is not exactly abducted, since she seizes onto the dragon to save herself—but becomes a captive of this dragon. This is at the start (and one of the best parts) of the book, within the first forty pages. Though she can speak to no one else, it transpires, Tizra can speak to the dragon. He's still a dragon, though: still a monster. In this fast-paced, fascinating section, Tizra deals with the dragon and develops a kind of relationship with him—she does not tame him, this is not quite Beauty and the Beast. Ultimately, unlike most mythic princesses in her straits, and through her own wit and perseverance, Tizra escapes.
The middle section of the book, where the Castle Ocean family deals with the Emperor's brother and the rest of the Emperor's invading force and fights to keep from being annexed, is the political section. Holland, as always, does a nice job of presenting these politics through narrative action. Though we don't really spend much time getting to know the Emperor, or anything much about the aims and ethics of the Empire, we do get introduced to the major players on all sides of the conflict at Castle Ocean, and—often through interior monologue as well as through the scenes—come to understand their aims and ethics, and the personalities that inform these.
Queen Marioza is among the best of these characters. She is arrayed against the Empire in general, and against Archduke Erdhardt in particular—he had been dispatched by the Emperor to marry her. By this act, the Emperor will gain, through Erdhardt, legal control of Marioza's kingdom. Since she poisoned the first man the Emperor sent to marry her, Erdhardt has arrived with a much greater force, enough to overwhelm Marioza's guards and warriors. Through the first part of this middle section, the tension arises from Marioza's understanding of the trap she is caught in, and her cleverness and desperation as she fights to outwit Erdhardt and the Empire.
The battle scenes, also told through multiple characters and their own perceptions of events, are especially well done. Notably, those who fight in these battles are not just the nobility, or even just the adult men. Women and children number among the warriors. (Characters who dismiss the strength and power of women in this book pay for it dearly.) Tizra strikes the first crucial blow, touching off the resistance; and another character, Amillee, calls out—or at least attempts to call out—the new King of Castle Ocean when he ignores the aid given to him in the fighting by the commoners.
Amillee looked him in the eyes, her back stiff. "Why are you the King, Luka?"
From the crowd [of commoners] a roar went up, angry. He was frowning at her, not angry, more quizzical, as if she had asked him something unexpected. She wanted him to say, Because of my people. I am King because of you. (p. 149)
Luka is charismatic and intelligent, a good commander during the battles; both the reader and most of his fellow characters find him likeable. But he is terrible at listening to others. This flaw causes him to make more than one fatal error—as when he lets a crucial opponent live—and is eventually the cause of his downfall.
The three sisters, the princesses of Castle Ocean, are all active characters. They take charge of their own fates and each fights back in her own way against the forces of the Empire. Each sister also has some magical ability, which she uses as her weapon. The oldest sister can speak to birds; they obey her willingly; the second sister's magic lies in her skill with weaving and embroidery—she can see the future through the scenes her needles create. Finally, there is Tizra, who has the magic of storytelling.
Throughout this section, the dragon is attacking towns and fortifications on the coast. It's not explicit, but we start to think that the dragon may well be summoned to these places, urged to these attacks, by Tizra and her stories. She may, in other words, like her ancestor Atla, be capable of summoning monsters from the deep.
The dragon himself does not reappear on the page until the very end of the book—if I have a criticism of Dragon Heart, it's that. The book could have used about 30% more dragon.
But this is a quibble. There are brilliant moments throughout the novel, and the plot is nicely unpredictable. Holland's writing, as always, is sharp. I particularly admire her expository descriptions. She uses detail sparingly but precisely, and we are never confused or lost, whether we are hearing about the layout of the castle grounds or the tactics of a key battle. Finally, the ending, with the forces of the invading Empire crushed and the sole remaining child still living at Castle Ocean standing uncertainly among the havoc wrought by war, is striking.
Especially in these days when (some) readers of SF/F argue against politics in the genre, as though any work that is deeper than a cartoon Western should be anathema, it's good to see a book that gets political writing right.
Kelly Jennings has published short fiction with Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction, as well as in the feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres Press.