One of the great pleasures of Juliet McKenna's novels—to date, the five-volume Tales of Einarinn (1999-2002) and the Aldabreshin Compass quartet (2003-2006)—is the sense that they are set in a pre-modern world not simply because that is how genre fantasy is done, but because the author has a very clear understanding of how a pre-modern world works, and has stories to tell that (with a magical twist) emerge from it naturally. Characters and nations, institutions and trade routes, folklore and theatre productions: all are expressions of the societies and cultures around them, which in turn are born of a complex, dynamic past. This is fantasy, in other words, with a strong sense of both place and history, one in which the world emerges from the lived experience of its varied characters, rather than grand vistas of description.
Irons in the Fire, the first in a new series from a new publisher for McKenna, is a typically rich, robust and unsentimental effort, which sees revolution brewing in Einarinn. Specifically, there is unrest in the coastal region of Lescar. Not that there is ever anything else in Lescar; it is not so much a country as a morass of mutually-hostile dukedoms, whose incumbents are engaged ceaselessly in making war on each other, and in squeezing out every last drop of Lescari blood and capital to fund those wars. Another characteristic of McKenna's books is that she is keenly interested where her characters fit into her invented pre-modern world, and how certain fantasy mainstays—women who live and travel alone, for example—can operate plausibly within its terms. In other words, farmboys tend to remain farmboys, and if they're fortunate they are able to scrape together the money to send their son to the town for a better education and a non-farmboy future. Or else the harvest fails, their lord extracts too much rent from them, and they join a mercenary band to die an early, bloody death instead.
Tathrin, a young Lescari man who has left his homeland to train as a clerk in the city of Vanam, is of the former type: his innkeeper father sent him to university in distant Vanam in part to improve his and the family's fortunes, and in part to prevent him from being conscripted to fight and die in one of the local duke's pointless skirmishes. But simply emigrating does not solve everything. The contrast between the prosperous lives of the urban merchants he meets with the straightened circumstances he remembers back home in the dukedom of Carluse make him profoundly uncomfortable. Furthermore, McKenna has a sharp eye for the limitations of even this effort at self-improvement: while studying, Tathrin had to support himself by living as the servant of a more nobly-born fellow Lescari scholar, Aremil. Aremil's own affluence owes much to the fact that his noble family have deemed him—a lifelong cripple—an embarrassment to the line and an unsuitable object for a political marriage; he is in Vanam with a significant income only to keep him out of sight and quiet. Others find other ways:
"Do you know why so many Lescari become apothecaries rather than physicians?"
Branca folded her hands in her lap. "I can guess, but why don't you tell me?"
"Money," Aremil said bluntly. "Studying medicine requires funds for several years of dedicated scholarship. While an apothecary learns, he earns his room and board as a condition of his apprenticeship. Lescari are always poorer than the people of Ensaimin. Even those who've lived in Vanam for generations struggle to lift themselves out of poverty because the misery of their kith and kin back in Lescar constantly leeches away their coin." (p. 233)
Tathrin is not the only Lescari immigrant-exile in Vanam, and the early part of the story follows him as he falls in with a group that wants to do something more lasting than simply sending cash home; as one character observes, such apparent help may in fact be causing more long-term damage ("'But these remittances merely throw fuel on the smouldering fires of Lescari strife. As soon as a duke can wring sufficient silver out of his subjects, he hires mercenaries to try to impose his rule over all the rest'" [p. 70]). They dream of bringing peace to Lescar, by uniting people so long divided, artificially, by the boundaries created by their dukes' conflicts.
Some seek protection for family members, or revenge for those already wronged. Others, like the mischievous but brutal mercenary brothers Sorgrad and Sorgren—recurring secondary characters in The Tales of Einarinn—are just in it for an adventure and some coin. Still others, like the itinerant speech- and troublemaker Reniak, are inspired by revolutionary political writings—Vanam is a university town, after all, and McKenna does a good job at suggesting a radical intellectual backdrop without overloading the exposition—while those with less of a budget for books are more drawn to popular pamphleteering, and speechmaking:
Reniak smiled broadly. "I still fought to free myself. Freedom is the natural condition all men are born to, whatever might befall them after they've taken their first breath."
Aremil suspected the man couldn't call for a refill in an alehouse without indulging in such rhetoric. (p. 117)
Whatever their reasons, the exiles and their allies gradually hammer out and set in motion a plan to bring down the dukes of Lescar. Their methods combine propagandistic whispering campaigns, kidnap, robbery, guerrilla raids on deserted outposts, and, at length, the hiring of mercenary armies for full-scale military assaults. With the telepathic help of practitioners of aetheric magic (a recent import to the land, discovered in the course of The Tales of Einarinn) speeding communications and allowing for rapid changes of tactics in response to events, the conspirators have made considerable progress by the end of this volume.
But no revolution, of course, is uncomplicatedly glorious, and that of Lescar is no exception. There are personal costs long before the revolutionaries get near a battlefield. Tathrin's first reality check comes when his rousing attempt to explain to his Lescari boss why he is leaving Vanam falls on stony ground, and he finds he has instead burned his bridges:
"Every cripple I see on Vanam's streets reminds me of the men who'd come to my father's inn begging for bread because they'd lost an arm or a leg or an eye to the fighting and couldn't work at their trade any longer or in the fields. I see them all in my nightmares."
"Then take yourself off to Arrimelin's shrine," Wyess said angrily. "Talk the moons down from the sky with her priestesses until the horrors fade."
"The gods help those who help themselves. [ . . . ] I can't stand idly by, Master, not anymore."
[ . . . ] "You're not the man I thought you were," Wyess said bitterly. "Get your gear and go. Don't show your face here again." (pp. 203-4)
There is an understated grimness behind such scenes. Tathrin has, we are left in no doubt, no future if the revolution is unsuccessful—nor does he know, really, that what he is attempting will not cause more suffering—and there are clear warnings elsewhere that his involvement puts those of his family who are still in Lescar in real danger. He is not the only one: other characters, notably the brave, sharp-witted Failla—the mistress of Duke Garnot, who uses her precarious position to warn villages when the duke plans to send out for conscripts, enabling families to hide their sons—similarly risk all, and in some cases they lose much. Failla is another good example of McKenna's ability to find believable roles for her characters: although of lowly origins, Failla has been able to take the active role to which she is so suited primarily because a nobleman has snatched her up as a disposable plaything (just as McKenna's farmboys stay farmboys, so her peasant girls don't tend to marry princes), and for a long time has thought her incapable of being anything else.
Wealthy and well-born women, meanwhile, may appear at first glance to have things easier, but while some can push the socially-acceptable envelope, they generally require the support of a sympathetic husband, or the freedom of widowhood, to do so; thus Lady Derenna has the licence to demand respect in Vanam ("'Are you one of those who cannot conceive of female scholars?' she challenged. 'Asserting that the highest intellectual calling a woman can hope for is merely playing the whetstone to sharpen superior male minds?'") at least partly because her intellectual life has been allowed to develop in tandem with her husband's ("'My own interests are alchemical, as are my husband's. We work together as equals'" [pp. 87-8]); additionally, in this instance, she is addressing her social inferior, Tathrin. Given this opportunity by circumstance, however, and the liberty afforded by her wealth, she makes for a formidable figure, even when she must strike out on her own because her husband is a political prisoner in Lescar.
Even once things get underway, the conspirators face plenty of obstacles to their plans, not least the fact that, however artificially the divisions between the dukedoms were created, the prejudice and othering have come to have real force in practice. So Tathrin discovers through repeated slights on his travels through Lescar: he is over-charged for food, or given "a half-share in a bad whose mattress hadn't seen fresh straw inside a year" while a local gets a room (p. 128), simply because of the miserly reputation attached to his Carluse accent. More urgent, for Tathrin, is the increasingly inescapable violence. He is a character type encountered before in McKenna's work—young, earnest, educated, somewhat unworldly, a little reticent—but here he is very effectively employed. McKenna's prose can be somewhat workmanlike, and she tends—for better or for worse—not to build her narratives around big emotional moments or dramatic set-pieces, opting instead for quieter increments of characterisation and plot. (The device of having point-of-view characters keep secrets from the reader for the sake of creating mystery and plot twists is an exception to this rule, and an irritating one, particularly when ostentatious references are made to the existence of said secrets.)
We spend a lot more time, for example, with characters being saddle-sore and travel-stained, or sitting in inns or townhouses waiting for news, than we do with them, say, wading into battle, racing against time, or having pivotal encounters with villains. It is therefore not always easy to connect with events on a visceral level—the story's effect is cumulative, and is seen most clearly through the changes wrought on Tathrin, most of which are only gradually apparent. He is not precisely an innocent abroad, but is certainly the one through whom the harsh realities of carrying out revolution, seen particularly once he joins up with Sorgrad and Sorgren and their mercenary band, are most starkly cast into relief. At first, he is only warned:
"A lot fight for the fun of it," Gren explained.
Tathrin didn't like the keenness in his expression. "For fun?"
Sorgrad looked grimmer. "There are always men with a taste for cruelty, and a few women, come to that. Stay at home and beat your wife to death or bugger your neighbour's son and you'll dangle from the nearest tall tree. If your mind's set on killing, you can dabble in guts up to your elbows in Lescar."
Nauseated, Tathrin couldn't think what to say. (pp. 143-4)
Months—and more personal experience—later, Tathrin has little more stomach for the job, but he is ever more deeply embroiled. We see him take part in his first military clash, whereupon he discovers the reality of waiting for battle ("Fear congealed the fish stew in his belly. How could he need to piss so urgently when he'd only drunk water and precious little of that?" [p. 347]). After the battle, having witnessed Sorgrad kill an untrained peasant and give a quick death to a mortally-wounded friend in the same, almost casual manner, and been slapped down for attempting to challenge this, the last line of the chapter underlines the extent to which Tathrin is trapped—and complicit—in these horrors: "Dizzy and nauseous, Tathrin followed. What else could he do?" (p. 351)
At the same time, Tathrin's long friendship with Aremil, who has started to learn aetheric magic so that he can co-ordinate from Vanam, becomes strained, a gulf of experience opening up between them even as the aetheric telepathy puts them inside each other's minds. Nor is theirs the only relationship to suffer; by the end of the book, co-operation and trust—in some cases not strong to begin with—are beginning to break down at several key points in the chain. One character's past comes back to haunt them, leaving them vulnerable to coercion by the conspirators' enemies; doubts are raised, too, over how long it will be before the aims of nobles like Derenna will begin to conflict with the more radical, egalitarian ideas of people like Reniak.
As an opening volume, Irons in the Fire is arguably too slow for its own good. In part, this is an unavoidable side-effect of McKenna's style: it takes time to build up a picture of a world, and a plot, through layers of characters' points-of-view. But too long is spent on the conspirators' initial planning—lots of conversations in drawing rooms, which do the job but lack a little in momentum or dramatic weight—and the politicking of the dukes. The latter, despite several pages of situational infodump at the start of the novel (couched as an extract from a contemporary scholarly study of Lescar), take a long time to emerge as distinct individuals with distinct agendas; for a large portion of the narrative, most of the dukes are only a collection of names and territories. The chapters that focus on the young Duchess Litasse of Triolle, and her spymaster lover, go some way towards remedying this, and towards the end these chapters also begin to provide the story with some astute, well-connected, and potentially sympathetic opponents of the revolution. In the next volume, no doubt, the stakes (and the brutality levels) will thus be raised considerably. Nonetheless, once the scheme is in motion, and the characters are in the field putting themselves and others at risk for their ideals, McKenna quietly and subtly turns up the tension, with a payoff that is—characteristically—more thoughtful and thematic than cinematic. Building on the foundations of strong characters and a complex world, she 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.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she is using the remains of her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She also reviews for SFX and Vector, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.