As I tore through The Empress of Timbra, the new Kickstarter-funded novel from Karen Healey and Robyn Fleming, I couldn’t help but think about the difficulties of genre classification. Dual protagonists Elaku and Taver are twelve and fourteen, respectively, and their alternating first person POVs tell an epic fantasy story which recalls the kind of thing I feel like I read a lot as a child in the 1980s and 1990s. I was reminded by turns of Diana Wynne Jones and, strongly, of Sherwood Smith, particularly her masterful Inda series (2006-09). Ironically, the former’s books are now mostly marketed as YA, while the latter series is adult fiction, though the protagonist is a child through the middle of the second book. Given that the cover of The Empress of Timbra says it’s Book 1 of “The Hidden Histories,” I can only hope that Healey and Fleming have plans to encompass a similar sweep in their protagonists’ lives.
The titular country of Timbra is an archipelago, and fittingly enough the book begins in a fishing village, which Taver and his mother Kelvia are forced to leave after his father drowns. Once they arrive at the capital city, Taver gets the shock of his life when he learns that his late father wasn’t his father; he is the biological son of the powerful Baron Arkelga Tuvari, who didn’t know he existed. In another book this would be the start of a world of suffering, but Healey and Fleming are trying to tell a different kind of story. With Tuvari's blessing and financial backing, Taver’s mother takes a job in the palace kitchens and he himself apprentices to a blacksmith. It’s there that Taver does start to have the more normal problems of ostracization and bullying, compounded by his aristocratic birth, which he can’t accept out of love for the father who raised him. It’s also there that he meets Lady Elain, called Elaku, who turns out to be his younger half-sister.
Like Taver, Elaku is a bastard. Unlike Taver, Elaku is acknowledged: her mother Hialye Cazol refuses to marry Baron Tuvari on account of the fact that women lose all rights to their own property upon marriage, but they are in every other way a committed couple. Both of them, moreover, are high in the circles of the Empress, Tuvari because he is a mage and her cousin and Hialye because she is an extremely gifted Seer who uses her gifts to advise the monarch. For this egregious display of aptitude and of knowing her own value, she is commonly called “the Witch” and is popularly thought to be cursing her enemies left and right. All of these things weigh on Elaku, whom circumstances have made a bit of a loner; as the book opens, she makes a bargain with one of the gods for a friend, and gets Taver. And though the siblings do become friends, the journeyman mage Riciardo Korfi isn’t wrong when he tells Elain that, rather than friends, “as far as I can tell, you have relatives” (Chapter 22).
The problem of the Witch is also the problem of women: the Empress Vatadania is the first woman to hold the throne in her own right in centuries, and she shares a name with the Usurper, her aunt, who systematically murdered all of their male relations except Tuvari as part of her attempted coup. To make matters even trickier, women’s magic is associated with destruction, so women must “bind their art with logic” while men enact magic through the much quicker expedients of feeling and visualization as opposed to higher mathematics and physics calculations. The price men pay to be wizards is a vow of celibacy, but loopholes in the Covenant binding the practice of magic mean that men can be all but fully trained before leaving the guilds, if they can afford the lessons. Hialye’s best friend Elain, herself a powerful magician, is also the leader of the Women’s Guild, a league of female magicians who were organized in response to the threat of invasion.
Taver knows little of all of this; he’s heard the stories that made their way to his distant village, but learning the reality of the people behind them, and that he’s related to many of them, continually throws him for a loop. Plots and politics are afoot in the present, as well: the Empress is planning to marry a foreign lord, and many of the Timbran aristocrats would prefer she marry a local man—or that she be replaced with a man, full stop. To these people, Taver presents a convenient alternative, and he and Elaku are quickly caught up in schemes that they don’t fully understand.
There’s a difficult balancing act, which Healey and Fleming mostly pull off, in making the viewpoint protagonists of the book so young, and so believably children. While Elaku’s political education is fairly sophisticated, given her birth, she is willfully childlike in other ways, and her upbringing in the palace makes her naïve to some realities. Taver, by contrast, knows a bit more about how people work, but politically speaking he’s a total naïf. There were times when things that were totally opaque to Elaku’s twelve-year old perspective were frustratingly clear to me; there were others when the authors skillfully used that perspective against the protagonists and the readers, as when Korfi, a delightfully amoral mage who is always looking out for number one, raises questions about the loyalties of people Elaku knows, and she doesn’t have enough information to disagree with his suspicions on anything but faith. There are also times that the siblings’ vastly different social positions give them different vantage points on other characters, as when Elaku’s beloved Aunt Elain is willfully cruel to Taver at a dinner. Their differing perspectives keep the reader guessing at how certain crucial decisions will turn out.
Together, the siblings make a pretty decent team, and one of the pleasures of the book is seeing them learn to carry out schemes and plots of their own. If I had one complaint about the book, it would be that the first half is somewhat slow-paced, but things really take off when the children are kidnapped by the pirates of the Okkelg, who have constructed a radical communitarian and egalitarian society on the waves, but who have reached the carrying capacity of their ships and tiny scraps of rock. They want and need land to continue their way of life, and their desires put them squarely in conflict with the Timbran state. The Okkelg are the aspect of the novel that most strongly recall Sherwood Smith’s books: her Inda novels pivot on the establishment of a virtuous group of pirates as an alternative to the established landed society of the protagonist’s birth. Like the world of the Inda books, the events of which eventually touch off profound changes in the societies they chronicle, Timbra is in the throes of social upheaval, and the amusing scholarly appendices at the end of the book make it clear that the realm stands on the brink of even more change, particularly around the role of women in society, the rules concerning the practice of magic, and especially the role of religion.
The appendices dub the era of history that The Empress of Timbra chronicles the “Age of Faith,” and until those appendices launched into a discussion of the decline of religious belief, I was convinced that the book was taking a page out of Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief novels, where the gods act directly in the narrative at a few choice points—sometimes just to tell certain characters to quit whining and go to bed. It’s possible to read the events of The Empress of Timbra as being subtly but profoundly shaped by divine intervention, but the appendices weigh against that interpretation. In that respect, this book is telling a much more uncommon story than is usually found in epic fantasy. That said, the book recalls the Queen’s Thief books in other ways; the setting feels unusually thick and well-developed, partly because the complicated events of the failed coup still reverberate so clearly through Timbra, which is itself probably an effect of the fact that the story apparently had a long genesis, as Healey recounted in her “Big Idea” for the series.
Stories and narrative form an important part of the story itself, as Elaku is obsessed with stories—a classic “lonely intelligent child” trait. Her parents repeatedly warn her that her stories aren’t like real life, and that she shouldn’t mistake the one for the other; one of the more poignant parts of the book is her gradual realization that stories, as part of their simplification, leave out a lot of unpleasant and painful details.
I rubbed at a hole in my trousers. “This isn’t right,” I said. “Stories have clear endings, even if you don’t like them.”
“Like the Fisherman and the Anaver?”
“That’s a stupid ending,” I said. “She should get her revenge! But anyway, that’s what I mean. That story has an end, even though it’s bad. It doesn’t keep trailing on.”
Taver yawned. “This is life, not a story.”
“I think it can be both.”
“How does it end, then?”
I thought about it. Aunt Elain's bedtime stories all ended the same way. “And if they have not died, they live still today. And if they died, why, then they live on in the Gardens of the Gods, where all the good dead go.”
Taver was quiet.
“Maybe trailing off is better,” I said. I was seeing the Admiral’s furious eyes, and the bodies in the water. (Chap. 38)
Elaku is not too old to not want narrative justice, as when she decides to make up a better ending to a well-known folktale about a fisherman who steals a shape-shifting woman’s skin to make her his wife. The appendices flesh out some of the effects of her interest in narrative, even as they demonstrate the very distorting effect of storytelling through the inaccurate ways in which they interpret Elaku’s mother. The appendices also reveal that the story of the book is “hidden” in another sense, as many women of this era used complicated encryption methods on their diaries and correspondence, which later scholars evidently still struggle to decipher.
I used to say that “epic fantasy” meant the kind of doorstop paperbacks that were so familiar in the 1990s: secondary world setting, multiple POVs, cast of dozens if not hundreds, magic. The rise of ebooks has made talking about doorstop books obsolete, and it’s not clear to me whether the term “epic fantasy” is even internally coherent anymore, as it increasingly seems to mean “not urban fantasy.” Moreover, there’s a strain of discourse in SFF in the past few years which has sought to erase the fact that women have ever written epic fantasy, which for those of us who remember the 90s is deeply weird as well as deeply sexist. To put it mildly, George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson didn’t start this subgenre—and men aren’t the only people writing it now, either. Is this what people are calling “high fantasy”? In that case, is there such a thing as “low fantasy”? What about mid-height fantasy?
All of which is to say that The Empress of Timbra could be considered a throwback just as easily as it could be a way forward—but with the easy acceptance of queer relationships in the Okkelg, and the challenge that most of the adult female characters present to established gender roles in Timbran society, I hope that the book is a signpost to future developments in the genre. Either way, I’m looking forward to more from this writing team.