In an alternate universe, Michelle West’s Essalieyan novels would need no introduction. West has spent the twenty years since the publication of Hunter’s Oath in 1995 writing an epic fantasy series with few counterparts in the genre in terms of breadth, scope, and ambition. After thirteen novels, West’s world has only become more rich and strange. This year’s Oracle, the penultimate book in the current, third series of Essalieyan novels, both lives up to and deepens the impact of its precursors even as it lays the groundwork for what promises to be a smashing conclusion in the forthcoming War.
The House War books have followed Jewel Markess ATerafin’s improbable rise from leader of a makeshift foster family of orphans in the capital of the Empire of Essalieyan, Averalaan, to the position of The Terafin. House Terafin is the acknowledged leader of The Ten, essentially merchant corporations that offer the ambitious an outlet in a city in which only sons of gods may hold the thrones. Jewel, however, is seer-born, and throughout the series she has struggled to control her abilities and to balance their demands against her responsibilities to the House. Having gained the position of head of Terafin in the previous book, she departs almost immediately on a journey to the realm of a demigoddess who promises her the ability to master her gift—and thereby, hopefully, enable her to save House Terafin, the city, and maybe the world itself. Oracle is the story of this journey, on which she is accompanied by a band of mortals and immortals including talking cats, the former consort of the mistress of the Wild Hunt, and others. Meanwhile in Averalaan, Jewel’s surviving den-kin are now in positions of power in House Terafin and are working with everything they have to hold onto it against her return.
I’ve been a fan of West’s Essalieyan novels almost since the beginning; I read the first book of the second sequence, The Broken Crown, not long after it came out in 1997 and was immediately hooked. West’s writing was, and is, subtle, deeply felt, nuanced, and well observed, and introspective without being overly abstract. Her characters, each of them well-drawn individuals marked by their experiences, choices, and emotions, are vivid and interesting, and the cultures she has created in the world of the Essalieyan empire—human, immortal, and demonic—are varied and believably complex. To top it all off, West has taken a fairly common fantasy trope—the encroaching end of the world, and what some people will do to prevent or to hasten it—and delivered a fresh and fascinating take on that same trope. Though it’s common to talk about the "sense of wonder" in relation to science fiction, West is one of the few fantasy authors I’ve read who is able to convey the same thing in relation to gods, demons, immortals, and magic, partly because her characters feel it themselves so deeply. As one of the characters in Oracle says near the end of the book, about the journey he has undertaken that he knows will kill him, "I will see frostwyrms and gods and demons. I will see things that there are no Weston words for. It is enough. It is more than enough."
For all this, I’ve sometimes found it difficult to be a proponent of these books for some reasons that the novels of the current sequence, The House War, have both exemplified and done something to address. The first three books (The Hidden City, City of Night, House Name) take place before the earliest books in the first Essalieyan series, The Sacred Hunt, while the last four (Skirmish, Battle, Oracle, and the forthcoming War) take place immediately after the end of the action in the previous series, The Sun Sword. (Got all that straight?) Thanks to the magic of ebooks, it’s now much easier for new readers to track down the first two series, and West has made a highly detailed “previously on” plot summary available on her website for readers of The House War books who don’t want to stop and read another eight books in the middle of the series.
One of the real pleasures of the House War books has been the evolution in West’s writing. Although I would never have called her prose overly wordy, since the end of The Sun Sword series she has developed a tauter style that makes even an epic length book of epic fantasy like Oracle breeze by. The books are also remarkably funny. Jewel and her den-kin are, by virtue of their origins and early upbringing in the Averalaan streets, much more sarcastic and direct than many of the characters they interact with. Her den-kin, who are lower in the House hierarchy than Jewel, have a real gift for puncturing the pretensions of the patriciate and the elite mages, artisans, and priests that populate the city’s upper crust. The immortal talking cats that Jewel acquired in a previous installment are also hilariously disdainful of pesky mortal conventions like propriety or tact, and their acerbic remarks frequently provide a welcome counterpoint to the serious and awe-inspiring people and events of the overall narrative.
Another pleasure of the series has been the chance to spend more time with characters who, in the previous series, got little if any screen time. Two of Jewel’s den-kin, Finch and Teller, have come into their own in the course of the series, and Oracle sees them stepping up to hold House Terafin in Jewel’s absence. Both of them are House Council members, and it’s a real pleasure to see them as mature adults making the kinds of decisions and calculations they couldn’t even have dreamt of as traumatized children in the first books. Finch in particular, as the prospective Terafin Regent, has revealed a core of clear-eyed pragmatism about power—how to hold it, and what to do with it, and why—that is both engaging to read about and thought-provoking, even as it mirrors the otherworldly journey that Jewel herself has undertaken. The den-kin’s involvement in the day-to-day life of House Terafin, starting with the servants and the lower-level merchants, has also fleshed out the life of the empire in a way that the action in previous series didn’t.
West doesn’t pull punches, however; the saga of who would rule House Terafin has claimed many lives over the course of the previous Essalieyan books, and the House War novels have seen both the winnowing of Jewel’s original den-kin and escalating severity in the demonic attacks on Averalaan in general and House Terafin in particular. As a consequence, in Oracle virtually the last remaining unengaged member of Jewel’s den, the outwardly feckless Jester, is called on to step up to the plate. Jester would really prefer to spend his days drinking with the patriciate, but as Finch and Jewel’s other allies tell him repeatedly, there really is no one else, and his impatiently sardonic viewpoint on just about everyone except Finch is both amusing and an ironic contrast to the work he finds himself doing for another of the series’ more interesting new characters, the assassin/spy-turned-tailor Haval.
Like Haval, everyone in the Essalieyan books has a past, and those pasts continue to shape their actions and viewpoints in the present. But one of the adjustments I had to make while reading the House War books after Skirmish was the sheer wealth of information that characters are now discovering about the impending end of the world. One of the things that drew me to the Essalieyan books initially was the sense that there was so much going on in the deep background that simply hadn’t been revealed, not because of caginess on the author’s part but because the characters themselves were simply very, very ignorant of the deep past. Much has been forgotten, as the immortals and demi-gods who appear with increasing frequency in the books remark, but much has also been rediscovered, and other people have simply decided that the time for secrecy is past. The mage Meralonne APhaniel is perhaps the foremost example of such characters, and for those who’ve read the entire Essalieyan sequence, the transformation in long-established people like Meralonne and the relative ease with which characters now discuss previously unknown secrets and the impending apocalypse only heightens the impact of those revelations.
Indeed, the evolution of West’s writing on some level mirrors the evolution of the story itself, as things are now happening faster and circumstances are becoming more desperate. It’s now apparent that the events of the first eight novels, consequential as they were, were only preliminary maneuvers in a very long game—as is only fitting, given that the demons and the Lord they serve are immortal and subtle. (The reappearance of the most dangerous and subtle of those demons, to say nothing of Jewel’s decisions and sacrifices, at the end of Oracle seems like an indication that things are only going to get more fraught and more consequential from here on out.) But more importantly, it’s also a symbol of the remarkable feat West has pulled off with the last three books and Oracle in particular, integrating events, characters, and the meanings of their actions and choices over a story that is twenty years and counting in the telling. There are few authors of epic fantasy who can execute this reliably even over the span of a trilogy, let alone over fourteen books and more.
I’ve left discussion of what is the other really remarkable aspect of these books for last, partly because it’s taken me years to realize it consciously, and partly because, in that better world where everyone has already heard of Michelle West’s work, I suspect it wouldn’t be remarkable at all. But it is still remarkable, particularly given the gendered dynamics of the discussion around epic fantasy in the past few years, that so many of the characters of the Essalieyan novels are women. Although the empire is ruled by Twin Kings who are the sons of gods, that is the only gendered restriction on who can hold power there, and women populate Averalaan at every level and in just about every walk of life. I’ve mentioned Jewel and Finch by name, but the previous Terafin, Amarais, has been of fundamental importance over the previous thirteen books, and the time-traveling seer Evayne a’Nolan, cursed by her talent and her choices to have walked the same road Jewel travels on now, as well as others much darker, is equally fascinating and far less predictable. In Oracle we meet the botanist-spy Birgide Viranyi, who enters House Terafin at the orders of her master in the Astari but who stays because the forest at the mansion’s heart claims her as its own. We also meet Shianne, an outcast lady-in-waiting of the Winter Queen whose crime was trying to save her liege by bearing a child. And though longtime characters such as Sigurne Mellifas, the powerful head of the Order of Knowledge, are undoubtedly aging, they still remain compelling, and central to unfolding events. These women, and all of the others in the books, are believably drawn people with their own foibles, personalities, and concerns that aren’t automatically subordinated to anyone else’s. Again, this should be less remarkable than it is.
I inevitably think of West’s novels whenever I see the latest "Where are the women in epic fantasy?" article or the most recent iteration of the "Hey, women are writing epic fantasy now!" canard making the rounds on Twitter. Rather than obsessing over the portrayal of the few token female characters in the latest blockbuster doorstop book written by a male author, it’s eminently possible to just read books like West’s, which exemplify the best potential of epic fantasy as a form. Oracle and the preceding Essalieyan novels are interesting, thoughtful, and compelling epic fantasy novels written by a writer at the top of her game, and they are worthy additions to West’s long career and to fantasy itself.
Electra Pritchett lives in Tokyo, where she splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. She blogs at electra.dreamwidth.org.