The family relationships at the heart of S. C. Emmett’s historical fantasy novel, Throne of the Five Winds, are so toxic they make the Lannisters in Game of Thrones look loving and well adjusted. Then again, what else is going to happen when an aging emperor has six sons with three different women, adopts a seventh son for the hell of it, and still just has the one throne to share between them? Lear had fewer problems, or at least fewer kids, and he ended his days howling on a heath.
Throne of the Five Winds begins with our heroine, lady-in-waiting Komor Yala, accompanying her childhood friend Princess Mahara of Khir to the imperial court of Zhaon. There, Princess Mahara is to wed Crown Prince Takyeo, in a marriage meant to ensure peace between Zhaon and Khir. In Zhaon, the two Khir women are thrown into a world where showing affection is a political act, threats are frequently made but rarely explicitly uttered, and where with rare exception everyone is scheming to get rid of anyone who stands in the way of their own ascent to power. The first in a planned series entitled Hostage to Empire, Throne centers around Yala’s attempts to protect Mahara from both the more cruel variants of court intrigue and the frequent assassination attempts that bedevil the two women’s lives at court.
The intrigue in question might revolve around or be instigated by either one of the seven princes, one of the two princesses, or one of their scheming mothers. The list of potential intrigants includes kindly First Prince Takyeo, malicious First Queen Gamwone, and her brood of three: ambitious Second Prince Kurin, bullied First Daughter Gamnae, and Gamwone’s distrustful second son, Takshin, long ago sent as a child hostage to the country of Shan. There’s also Second Queen Haesara and her three sons: scholarly Fourth Prince Makar, duplicitous Fifth Prince Sensheo, and cheerful Sixth Prince Jin. Confused yet? There’s also First Concubine Luswone and her daughter, Second Princess Sabwone, as well as shy Second Concubine Kanbina and her adopted son, Seventh Prince Zakkar Kai.
All the malice, suspicion, and conflicted loyalties festering—and every so often exploding—in the imperial court ought to have led to a fictional world rich in complex family and character portrayals. Instead, there is something strangely old-fashioned, almost stately, about Emmett’s characters and the dramas they engage in. Throughout Throne, for instance, our heroes and heroines prove themselves to be very good people. They take care of their loved ones; they do their jobs; they commit no morally dubious acts; Yala rarely even has a hair out of place. Our villains, meanwhile, from Sensheo to Kurin or his mother Gamwone, are very bad people indeed, and possess not a single redeeming quality between them.
I don’t mind on occasion reading a novel where the heroine is implacably strong and kind, while the villains she fights are implacably bad. Not every bad guy has to be Richard III. It’s satisfying watching Buffy turn vampires into dust in Whedon’s landmark series because it’s satisfying to see a petite female teenager fight and kick and win. We don’t need to be invested in the thousands of vampires she slays in order to engage in the story (though we engage much more when the vampire she fights in, say, Season Two, is someone whom we are emotionally invested in). Life is complicated and difficult; sometimes it’s comforting to read fiction that is not.
Yet the absence of nuance and complexity in Emmett’s characters also pervades much else in the novel, such as how gender, character, and class intersect. This shouldn’t be the case, since one of the real strengths of Throne is the detailed, careful manner with which Emmett has built this world. Everything has history and meaning here, from tea-drinking to turns of phrase, proverbs, and top-knots. Often, these details feel skilfully integrated into the narrative. Here, for instance, is Third Prince Takshin, on a hot summer’s day, awkwardly trying to speak to Yala:
His throat was dry, and blocked. He had to cough to clear it, but to do so in a court lady’s face was unprincely indeed. So he croaked an affirmative, like a stone frog in a child’s tale. “Yes.” Salt and dust itched all over him … (p. 366)
This is a vivid depiction of an awkward man feeling “unprincely,” but nonetheless attempting to woo a woman in the midst of physical discomfort and extreme heat, and the detail whereby we learn that he ‘‘croaked … like a stone frog in a child’s tale,” is both amusing and evocative of the particular place Emmett has conjured for us. When Throne works, it is partially because of moments like these, when Emmett’s careful layering of detail and object-history builds tension, character, and world, teacup by silk sleeve.
Yet the sheer weight of these details, customs, and rituals, and the way in which they bear down on and imprison especially the female characters in the novel, also presents Emmett—or rather Emmett’s twenty-first century reader—with a problem. For while the intricate detail with which Emmett renders her world helps us feel the heavy weight of tradition and cultural expectation at work within it, we encounter that world through the eyes of a few privileged noblewomen and men. None of them, whether they’re heroes or villains, question the inequities that enable their world to function, with the possible exception of Third Prince Takshin. Granted, conformity and acceptance are much more realistic representations of how individuals operate within a given value system than resistance. In a work of speculative fiction, however, steadfast conformity to the status quo is not unproblematic. Many works of speculative fiction present contemporary readers with repressive, authoritarian, misogynist, racist, or simply hierarchical societies. Yet we usually encounter these societies through the eyes of outsiders: the orphan, the stranger, the sacrifice, the time traveler, the goatherd among the lords. The outsider narrator so inescapable to the genre is a cliché for a reason: it allows authors to both introduce their invented world and problematize its power structures.
Our main guide through the restrictive, patriarchal structures of Throne, however, is Yala. And Yala is a perfect epitome of feminine virtue, not just according to the Khir—pretty much according to our own time as well. She is not only unflaggingly competent, loyal, and kind; she is also intelligent, witty, well-educated, and always precisely and elegantly dressed. She always says the right thing, always has a cool hand ready to soothe an irate brow, and she’s an excellent horsewoman to boot. At times she feels less like a character in a fantasy novel, and more like a fantasy herself. Fair enough. I am remarkably inelegant; I don’t mind reading about a heroine who would never spill tea on herself or stumble over the hems of her silk robes.
But when Yala becomes the unwitting, passive participant of a romantic subplot that has her courted by three different princes, her ostensible perfection becomes more problematic. Despite her surfeit of suitors, for most of Throne’s 654 pages, Yala experiences no feelings of attraction, lust, or even revulsion for any of them. Were romance not a significant plot device in the novel, to paraphrase Marvell, Throne’s coyness would not be a crime. And Yala does have a lot to do: she has only the one hidden sword with which to defend her princess, and there are assassins aplenty lurking in the shadows of Zhaon. A decent argument could also be made for her emotional ties being wholly bound up in Mahara. Yet the fact that Yala is either unaware of or uninterested in her suitors means that all the romance, desire, and lust in the novel is narrated by men. This renders Yala a consistent object of romantic desire, but never its subject. That the novel is marketed as ‘‘East Asian-inspired” makes Yala’s passivity in romantic matters more troubling still, since it veers quite close to Orientalist stereotypes about Asian women as—well, like Yala: competent, dutiful, submissive.
Zhaon evokes the history of China, much as Yala’s Khir evokes the customs and history of Khitan or Japan. At the same time, neither country maps exactly onto the other, meaning ”East Asian-inspired” for once feels like a tagline that’s reasonably well-earned. Emmett has, as the expression goes, ‘‘done her research”—though possibly to the point where research has overwhelmed both plot and character. While the details are rich, plentiful, and textured, it isn’t enough to build a world; if the characters within it don’t seem to genuinely live, breathe, and interact with that world in complex ways, it never becomes more than a façade. In one scene in Throne, for instance, Mahara pricks her finger while sewing. Yala takes her hand, ‘‘deft and certain, with her head bent and a string of silver beads falling from her hairpin, she was the embodiment of a noble Khir girl attending to her lady” (p. 349). Since there is no one in this scene but Yala and Mahara, from whose perspective are we seeing Yala as ‘‘the embodiment of a noble Khir girl”? It is surely an odd way for Yala to see herself. The otherwise inobtrusive, omniscient narrator has chosen to insert themselves here, and the result is that instead of being taken into Yala’s or Mahara’s consciousness, we are taken out of it and taught once again to see Yala as an image, an “embodiment” of an imaginary construct of femininity.
However, one could also argue that throughout Throne Yala’s wit, her sense of humor, the way she handles the lumbering men around her with tact and efficiency, is a kind of resistance in itself; that her competency allows her to maneuver around the restrictions her society imposes on her, even if the heavy, static weight of tradition, and her own choice to conform to it, does not permit her much else. In this reading, the mere fact of her intelligence makes her more than the epitome of dutiful daughter and perfect, would-be wife that she seems. And there are plentiful hints that Yala is not just a creature of duty and not just striving to embody others’ ideals of Khir noblewomen. For instance, we are told that, when she was taught swordsmanship by the Khir dowagers, every practice session “ended this way. ‘You are Khir,’ Dowager Tala would say softly. ‘This is your duty.’” Alone in Zhaon, practicing her swordsmanship by herself, not just lady-in-waiting to Mahara but also her bodyguard, Yala amends the invocation firmly: “‘I am Komor,’ Yala whispered. ‘This is my pride.’”
I have hopes for Yala’s development as a character, then—perhaps even for Hostage of Empire as a series. This is entirely a result of how Throne of the Five Winds ends. For most of its 654 pages, it’s a long, slow burn of a novel—until suddenly, in the last two hundred pages, the pace abruptly speeds up and gallops headlong toward an ending that is genuinely satisfying, unexpected, and even moving. Despite my stated reservations, for most of the novel Yala is an engaging, if rather static character. But by the end, her entire world, as well as the loyalties by which she measures her worth, have changed to their core. Her erstwhile perfection lies in tatters. How will she react, faced with this new reality? How will she change? In exploring this, Hostage of Empire as a series could get really interesting.
About halfway through Throne, Yala is discussing whether or not ‘‘freedom lies in accepting one’s lot.” She admits, ‘‘I have bent before the current all my life,” and plucks ‘‘a series of jagged notes, ugly and clashing,” from her instrument (pp. 377-8). It is an eloquent scene: anger and repression, “ugly and clashing,” clearly throbbing beneath the surface, at odds with Yala’s usual, calm poise. Hopefully the Yala we encounter in the next installation of the series will be more inclined to openly express those ‘‘ugly and clashing” emotions. At the very least I hope Yala will be more inclined to take charge of her own life and her own body, and grab whichever destiny or prince she chooses by the—well, I’d say balls. But that would likely offend the lady in question.