A Telling of Stars (2003), the debut novel of Canadian author Caitlin Sweet, is a lyrical, measured fairytale of a young woman's coming-of-age through grief and the pursuit of revenge. Jaele lives with her parents and her brother in a small cottage on the coast; her mother fishes, and her father weaves and tells the children stories of fabled warrior Queen Galha, who once saved her realm from pitiless invaders from across the sea. But Jaele's warm, contented young life is torn brutally apart one day, when the Sea Raiders of her father's stories fall upon the family's homestead without warning, burning and pillaging and leaving only Jaele (who manages to hide) alive. One of the Raiders is left behind - and Jaele, as soon as she can formulate the coherent intent, sets out in hot pursuit, determined to kill this man she saw murder her mother.
The chase (not, it must be admitted, an especially hurried one) takes Jaele through Sweet's fairytale land of forest (whose water tastes of "ancient green") and exotic towns, 'fishfolk' and seers, tribal warfare and the silent dance of icebergs. The stages of the journey mirror Jaele's emotional and psychological state, charting her progress to adulthood and some measure of peace. They also bring out the thematic concerns of the novel: revenge and its discontents, captivity and freedom, how societies interact with their environments, and the myriad roles and possibilities of storytelling - as memorial, as affirmation of identity, as vehicle of culture, as mediation, or as incitement:
"To use words as violence is a terrible crime. It did happen once, long ago, but that Teller's deeds and name cannot be known."
But the places Jaele travels to, and the people she meets, also breathe with a vibrant life of their own above and beyond the motifs they service, presenting her with new challenges and experiences. Acerbic, secretive Ilario, wending his restless way around the city of Fane, was a particular favourite (and made for the most moving section of the book), as were the enlivening but self-destructive Alilan tribe. Each new locale is a strikingly different world: a unique environment, set of values, and way of seeing the world, glimpsed through rituals of hospitality (particularly shared meals) and in particular the ways in which they communicate.
Silence, then a sound like sunlit rain, falling, dancing around her. The iben sang, and Jaele strained towards the words.
This comes out most clearly in the various societies' and individual's approach to storytelling: in this, theme and world-building (and Sweet's diverse modes of beautiful prose) most effectively complement and deepen each other.
...and then a rush of crackling joy as he strained and strained and was still in the weaving of her body. Then the tears - her tears - hot sparks searing her cheeks black, and a terrible wound ripped from its hiding, her voice calling blood on the sand and Aldreth's voice matching hers, Telling of a forest of light and peace where he would hold her wrap around her until she fell asleep by his heart.
Storytelling is both the receptacle of a community's past (and thus its identity), and the shaper of its present actions and reactions. Jaele is frequently called upon to explain her reasons for travelling, or driven to do so by a belief that she will thus find aid for her revenge; in turn, she learns (even if she doesn't always comprehend) the histories and ways of those she meets. The iben sing, the fishfolk speak through gestures underwater; the mysterious Keeper fashions friezes of stone. The Tellings of the desert-dwelling Alilan are as vivid and uncompromising as their way of life, magically able to create visions - and attendant emotional responses - in listeners' minds. As a young Teller, Aldreth, tells Jaele:
"Revenge is something I understand even more keenly than most Alilan: my Tellings are sometimes so vivid that I emerge blind with rage and blood-need."
The key is memory - how the past may be remembered, and reconstructed, through its retelling. For much of the novel, Jaele's only method of honouring her family, the drive for revenge, is shaped by the vengeful role model of Galha (herself evoked through the memorialisation and myth-making of stories). Anything less than revenge feels like betraying them, and the way in which they died - and, worse, forgetting them. This is seen most clearly in Jaele's conversation with one of the shonyn, a people who live on the banks of the River Ladhra (named, notably, for the daughter whose murder sparked Galha's own vengeance trip) - and who make no distinction between past and present, remembering all (or, perhaps, not requiring memory at all):
"So listen to me: these people are in your mind, your life. They are here, present."
"No. They are gone, past. I will never see them again, so I will forget. Slowly, but it will happen." Her voice was high and tremulous, and she cleared her throat roughly.
"We shonyn do not forget."
"Well, then, you are lucky," Jaele almost spat, "because I do - I will. That is why this past of mine is so important, so sad and lonely: because no-one wants to hear about it. Not Dorin. Not you. It sits in me and rots."
Jaele herself is, at times, a difficult character to like (while, it must be said, never less than understandable). She is short-tempered and self-absorbed, eaten up by survivor's guilt:
[Dorin:] "And you hid, didn't you? You hid until the Sea Raiders were gone, until it was all over."
"It's not the same" --but her voice was splinter-thin now. "And I'm not hiding any more, am I? I'm going to avenge them, as Galha avenged Ladhra. I have sworn to do this, and I will."
Utterly consumed by her mission, and that fear of failing her family again, she is seemingly incapable of empathy. She operates on the blissful assumption that, once her sufferings are made known, those she meets will join her on her quest for revenge - and, moreover, that she can see through others' suffering to the simple ways in which they can be made free. Time and again, she misinterprets the situations she encounters, falsely perceiving dichotomy and simplicity where there is nuance and complexity.
"I will help you," she said again. "We will go above together and fight the tree silga. I have a weapon; surely you could make some. But we can decide these things later. Afterward you come with me to the Ladhra River and Fane and the ocean, if need be, and you could help me in turn. We hate--"
The process of appreciating the nuances of things is, of course, Jaele's coming-of-age - and nowhere is this more apparent than in the continual reevaluation of that lone Raider, object of her vengeance. I owe to Vicky the observation that in some ways A Telling of Stars is a skewed love story, with Jaele and the Raider inexorably drawn to each other by shared guilt. She cannot resist following him; and he, at length, seems to be unable to bring himself to escape her, even when he has the opportunity. Her obsession with the Raider - even if it is with the prospect of his impending violent slaughter at her hand ;-) - interferes quite explicitly with her relationship with Dorin, a childhood sweetheart of sorts (and another part of her life that she must outgrow, by recognising that they are not suited to each other):
Dorin wound his fingers in her hair and drew her to him. "It is us now, Jaele," he said after he had kissed her. "Not him. Not any more." But there is still the sea, she thought quickly, before she layered silence over protest and fear.
The result is a beautifully moving final encounter on the Raider's home ground, in which Jaele is finally able to move past her hatred long enough to recognise her quarry's suffering, and thus his humanity (or humanoidity :-)). Her need for revenge falters when its emptiness as a means of memorialising the dead is revealed, and when the dichotomic perception of her youth - born of partisan, vengeful legends - is exposed as a fallacy in the cold, complex light of maturity.
They have laboured, they have made this place so beautiful it is real, it is sacred.
She covered her eyes and wept. I am sorry - so sorry - I have failed you all, I did not run at their backs so that they faltered, I did not run after him, not fast enough - and now I cry in this place that is theirs.
At first this seems a failure, a source of bitterness; but it also, ultimately, brings her some peace, and leads her to a new method of remembering, one that (hopefully) leaves a less damaging legacy: recording her story.
Caitlin's website is here.