Once in a while, a fantasy story comes along that feels more like some long-forgotten folktale than a modern novel. The Grass King's Concubine by Kari Sperring is one of those stories. It has the logic of folktales at its heart, but surrounds its tale of magical bargains with a modern story of power, poverty, and the price that our heroine must pay for her ancestors' sins. Furthermore, The Grass King's Concubine is inhabited by complex and interesting characters, human and otherwise, who take the novel out of the realm of the fairy story and ground it firmly in real emotion.
The Grass King's Concubine takes place in the same world as Sperring's first novel, Living with Ghosts (2009). However, The Grass King's Concubine is not a sequel, and I never felt as though I were missing anything for not having read the first book. The story begins with our heroine, Aude, when she is seven years old. The first chapter is a reasonable description of a seven-year-old's thought processes, and whether little Aude is sweet or annoyingly saccharine will depend on the reader. I found it somewhat dull, but I would ask that anyone who feels put off by the first chapter to refrain from setting the book down until the second chapter. That is when the book takes its first radical jump through time and space, and it is when the ferret women arrive.
I, for one, will put up with the occasional dull chapter in a book that includes shapeshifting ferrets. This wild pair swings from adorable to inhuman—and from ferret-shaped to human-shaped—as their whims take them. They are, as they say, "very sharp," and they bite. I enjoyed watching these two troublemakers plot and sneak their way through the book. Whether it's the Grass King's pet ferrets or his Cadre, the Grass King's elite elemental warriors, Sperring's nonhuman characters are drawn in sharp contrast to the two human protagonists.
Every chapter break signals a change in time, place, and character. As the book progresses, each character's timeline draws closer to the others. I love it when authors can pull off this kind of interwoven narrative as well as Sperring has in this book. The Grass King's ferrets don't have to describe his downfall, because the reader sees the past through their eyes and sees the way the Grass King's world is supposed to work. After that, the silent courtyards and piles of bone in Aude's story need no further explanation.
Aude is a highborn lady with the usual fantasy heroine's problems: she would much rather read books and manage her estates than play the empty-headed doll at society functions, and she does not want to marry the drip that her uncle has picked out for her. This is where The Grass King's Concubine takes a left turn from ordinary fantasy stories: Aude's country has already experienced its industrial revolution. In addition to her estates, she owns her share of hellish mills where young women work themselves to death for meager pay. When she sees one of the girls being dragged away for a beating, Aude decides that she must intervene, which she does in the most realistic, flailing, bourgeois fashion. Sperring is enthusiastic in her use of the mallet of Dickensian social justice, but I prefer the mallet to the smiling hordes of nameless servants who inhabit so many fantasy stories.
Aude's story would have ended in that dark mill if not for The Grass King's other hero, Lieutenant Jehan Favre. Jehan is a welcome change from the surly young men who usually star in romantic fantasy novels. He's the kind of man who writes a charming reply to a letter that young Aude addresses to "the bravest soldier."
"All our officers," he writes, "are very brave, so it would be very difficult to choose the bravest among them. Perhaps one day you could go on such an expedition yourself?" (p. 14).
Jehan's motivation is simple: he wants to keep Aude safe. Aude's plot is a little harder to puzzle out, and changes as the character grows. Whether she's daydreaming about the fairyland she glimpsed as a child or sneaking out of her palace in rags to see how ordinary people live, the ultimate question that drives her is "Why?" Why is the world this way, and why can't it be something else?
While the beginning does not sound much like a folk tale, by the time all of the main players have made their way into the Grass King's domain, real-world logic ceases to apply. The Grass King is the ruler of the WorldBelow and the symbolic embodiment of the element of Earth. Everybody in Aude's world knows that, because they read about it in the holy Books of Marcellan. Most people take Marcellan's stories as religious metaphor. Aude, however, believes that she saw a glimpse of the WorldBelow when she was a child, and she has been searching for it ever since.
What neither Aude nor Marcellan himself suspected was the effect that those books and the knowledge they spread could have on the real Grass King and the magical creatures who live in the WorldBelow. The idea that human belief shapes the world—particularly the magical world—is not new. Sperring takes a subtle approach, tying the disaster that Marcellan causes with his book into her book's overall theme of action and consequence. I appreciated how careful she is to keep the characters' intentions separate from their actions. In the Grass King's world, as in ours, simply meaning well isn't enough. In Aude's case, even innocence can't protect her from the consequences of her ancestor's actions.
As a heroine, Aude is not as much of a self-rescuing princess as I would like. While Jehan battles monsters, Aude broods and goes through her captor's clothes. On the other hand, she does her best to arm herself, and she willingly crawls through sewers not once but twice while looking for a way out of her prison. Sperring spares no detail of the claustrophobia, the stench, and the "glutinous droplets licking her face" (p. 334). Aude refuses to go quietly, fighting the supernatural warriors of the Cadre with her nails and her teeth after they have taken away everything else. She also refuses to sit still in the face of injustice, even if she has no idea how to make things right.
Readers like me, who enjoy elegant prose as much as action, will appreciate Sperring's use of language. The pace will frustrate some readers, but I didn't mind when Sperring took a moment to describe a bee: "The stripes across its wide back looked soft and plushy; its wings were a filigree tissue finer than the silken veils of the Cadre" (p. 201), or a stone forest: "Jehan realized that what he had taken for bark was the swirl of strata. . . . The leaves were sheets of crystal, shaded brown and dark green and ocher" (p. 248).
As much as I enjoyed the rest of The Grass King's Concubine, the ending felt perfunctory. I wish that Aude played more of a role in the end of her story, and that coincidence played less of one. Endings like this one work well within the folktale mode of storytelling, but fit less comfortably into a novel like this one. None of the social issues that were so important to the beginning of the book were resolved at the end. In a way, it is a good thing, because while fairytale problems can be solved with willpower and the correct application of magical items, I would hate to see deep-seated social injustice cured in the same way. At the same time, I found the resolution of Aude and Jehan's relationship unbearably sweet. Sperring has written a couple that I can root for, and that makes me happy.
Readers who are looking for a beautiful and original work of fantasy should pick up The Grass King's Concubine. Sperring has said on her blog that she has plans for a sequel. I'm glad to hear it, and I will be interested to see what she does with the plots that are left hanging at the end of the first book. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable read, and I think that fans of thoughtful fantasy should give The Grass King's Concubine a try.
As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.