There is a myth of the English countryside which became common during the first half of the twentieth century, but was particularly popular after the Second World War when it was formalized by the Ealing Comedies and Agatha Christie novels. This mythical landscape featured picturesque villages that had little time for big city ways; villages where the local gentry looked after the interests of their people, and the people were salt of the earth who could always be relied on in an emergency despite the prevalence of local feuds. The big house was both the maintainer of old ways and the conduit through which new ideas might be filtered into the village. There was always a vicar who had no particular religious calling, and who was well respected perhaps because he did nothing to push religion. Above all they were villages of cosy domesticity where old fashioned virtues disguised a remarkably wide but generally unexamined tolerance.
This mythic England seems to have become the preferred setting for Jo Walton. It was where Farthing, the first and easily the best of her alternate history trilogy, took place. And it is where Lifelode is set. Because despite the spectacular effects, the non-traditional sexual arrangements and the standard pseudo-medieval fantasy trappings this is a novel firmly rooted in that fondly remembered and never quite real rural England. What's more, although the novel features a clash of jealous gods, a war with bows and arrows and spells, and strange visitors from another time, it is suffused with the domestic. It is no coincidence that Sharyn November's introduction repeatedly returns to food and demands recipes, because this is a novel in which the warmth of the kitchen and the smell of cooking pervade every page.
If that should make it seem small, uninteresting, or undramatic, think again. The whole world is contained within the village of Applekirk, and all of life is represented by the various characters who come together in the Manor. This is a huge novel on a small scale.
Let us begin with the spectacle, because Walton riffs on the idea of the Zones of Thought in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (the borrowing is acknowledged). But here the zones are laid across the world, so that the further east you go the more quickly time moves:
If you go far enough to the west, they say, you come to the lands where people are like statues, going through the day's round the same each day out of pure routine. Contrariwise, if you set off east, people become feyer and stranger, more powerful maybe, but less able to remember who they are from moment to moment, until at last they run together and separate as fast as rainbows on oil and only the gods can keep themselves whole. (p. 1)
Walton's use of this device to represent the spread of magic is ingenious. In the west are the materialist, scientific lands where people doubt that magic even exists. In the east is the realm of the gods (their nature is one of the understated but ingenious inventions of this novel). In between, in the Marches, is where we find Applekirk, just far enough east for some magic, here known as "Yeya", to work. But this is very domestic magic, a matter of corn dolls and wards placed at windows, not too dissimilar to the everyday superstitions once associated with rural England.
The two worlds, materialist west and spiritual east, come together when two unexpected visitors arrive at Applekirk Manor. Jankin is a scholar from the west, abandoning his studies to come east and investigate the history of the region. He acts as our portal into this mysterious world, because everything about it has to be explained to him. The other visitor is Hanethe, once mistress of Applekirk Manor who went east to pursue her own studies in magic. But that was several generations ago: because of the way time moves at different rates the few years she has spent in the east equate to a century or more in Applekirk; she arrives back as a stranger, pursued by magical forces whose animus she has unleashed during her stay in the east. Hanethe is, literally, a visitor from the past, while for Jankin the Marches represent the past; all time comes together in Applekirk.
Times converge on a personal as well as a social level. The novel's central character, Taveth, is able to see people at different stages of their lives: "Time has always parted easily for her and she has never been sure if it is curse or blessing" (p. 3). Thus the role of the manor as keeper of tradition is made concrete in Taveth and in the peculiar temporal situation of Applekirk. But it also makes time (as opposed to, say, the past) the central concern of the novel, which is very rare in fantasy. The only other significant work of fantasy that takes time as its subject is probably the Mythago Wood sequence by Robert Holdstock, and, like Holdstock, Walton seems to bring a science fictional sensibility and affect to her fantasy.
But if that is rare, what Walton does with Taveth and her fellows who hold Applekirk Manor is unique. Because Ferrand, the lord of the manor; Ranal, who farms the manor lands; Chayra, who is Ferrand's wife and Ranal's sweetmate; and Taveth, the housekeeper and cook who is Ranal's wife and Ferrand's sweetmate, together form perhaps the only positively presented polyamorous relationship in mainstream fantasy literature. The closeness between the four is part of what gives the novel its domestic warmth, and it is notable that the relationship is unquestioned not only by the other members of the extended household that inhabits the manor, but by the whole of the rest of Applekirk. Indeed it is significant that the only person who sees it as a weakness that might be exploited is a stranger to the village, the priestess who arrives as agent for the forces arrayed against Hanethe. The priestess tries to use the sexual tension between Taveth and Chayra that follows the arrival of Jankin as a way of undermining the unity of the family so that she can isolate Hanethe, but the openness of the family relationship allows the various sexual desires of the members to be satisfied without causing any damage to the family as a whole. The polyamorous marriage, therefore, is an unalloyed good that allows the family to defeat one of the attacks upon it.
Other attacks follow, of course, escalating in drama as the book progresses. These include a grueling magical duel between Hanethe and the priestess, and a siege by an army from further back in history than anyone in Applekirk can hope to remember. Much damage is done during this escalation: Walton doesn't shy away from killing much-loved characters, or from recognizing the lasting hurt that can be done. But though there is much drama in the novel, what keeps us reading is not so much the thrilling story of whether our heroes will triumph, but rather the domestic story of how they hold together throughout the tribulations. When, eventually, Hanethe and Jankin, past and future, come together to produce a startlingly transcendent climax it is a remarkably satisfying conclusion to the story, but we quickly find our attention turning away to learn, rather, what next for Taveth and her family and the children of Applekirk Manor.
Too often fantasyland is presented as no more than a setting for great deeds, stirring quests, battles and monsters. But in Lifelode it becomes a lived environment. The big, dramatic events are there, but they are sideways to the importance of everyday life; something amazing happens (and Walton is very good at amazing us in this novel), but as in Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" we just scratch our innocent behinds and turn away. The ordinariness and quiet tolerance of our mythic English village is what triumphs in the end.