It is only now, as I begin my chapter about Queen Galha, that the immensity of my task has become clear. [...] I have filled pages with writing, effortlessly, until now. Now I sit in the darkness of this empty library with an empty page before me and cannot make a beginning. She was too great, and I am too small, and my only desire is to read of her exploits again and again, until morning finds me.
Prequels (even more than sequels) can be tricky beasts. Returning to a world previously created, and perhaps to characters previously met, is one thing; returning to it in its own past is quite another. The risk of redundancy, of telling a story already told or rehashing old themes, is even higher. One way to do it is to go way back into the past; another is to seriously subvert some aspect of what is already known. Caitlin Sweet adopts both these courses in The Silences of Home (2005), the prequel to her fantasy tale of vengeance and its discontents, A Telling of Stars.
Some background: In A Telling of Stars, Queen Galha is central to the fabric of the heroine's world and worldview. She is a tale told down the generations: the semi-historical founding figure of the land (known as the Queensrealm), widely credited with inventing and achieving everything considered right and good by the distant descendants of her subjects; not least, her famous pursuit and eventual crushing defeat of the so-called "Sea Raiders", whose attempted invasion resulted in her daughter's death. Her story provides the model for Jaele's response when her family are murdered by some of those self-same aggressors - inspired by the legendary Queen's towering vengeance, Jaele pursues a lone Raider, left behind by his fellows, across the land. But as Jaele's journey unfolds, the possibility of a different story comes gradually to light. It is this story that is told in The Silences of Home: what really happened, and how the winners went about writing their history in order to efface it.
Silences is a very different sort of book, dealing with a much larger cast of characters (and many more viewpoints) and a more complex plot. The prose is also deployed rather differently here than in the heavily poetic Telling; although there are still touches ("She smiled as he did, slowly, like flame blooming in wind"), the language is for the most part more immediate, less dream-like.
Thematically, Silences is closer to its predecessor, but more expansive and nuanced. Like Telling, Silences is a story about storytelling, about communication and (lack of) understanding; but here the storytelling is of a different register, that of official history versus marginalised voices. In the Queensrealm, a large measure of the ruler's authority rests in words, in an ability to control the polity's narrative: both day-to-day (shaping the image of the regime) and long term (shaping the community's collective memory). Each Queen is supported in her reign by a Consort-scribe, a constant, silent presence at her side who records every detail of her deeds, "so that all his Queen did could be turned to writing and kept, unchanging". Key to this is the fact that literacy is a rare, closely-guarded skill:
"Do not murmur as you read," her mother had said when Ladhra was a child. "And do not let your lips tell others what you are reading. Words are for you alone, unless you choose to share them aloud. [...] Most of our folk cannot read. You can, and scribes and Queensguards and their children can, as can those who do my work far away. But that is all. [...] Remember that words are the Queen's power - and written ones are the greatest mystery of all, to our people. You must guard this mystery well."
That this official record gets massaged as necessary will not come as a surprise. Initially, we see this through the eyes of the villain of the piece, Baldhron - who, appropriately, is a rogue scribe, nursing a long-burning resentment against Galha for the murder of his mother (a politically-motivated act that, like so much in Galha's long reign, has been kept carefully hushed-up for the sake of stability, and appearances). Baldhron, a young boy at the time of his mother's death, is taken into Galha's service and kept ignorant of the truth, until the day he is approached by a man with proof of the crime. From then on he plays a double game, remaining a royal scribe while secretly joining - and eventually leading - a resistance movement, devoted to preserving written evidence of the darker underbelly of Galha's reign, and ultimately to exposing her.
The latter notion remains a pipe dream until the day Baldhron discovers that other enemies threaten the Queensrealm - a band of selkesh, amphibious creatures who have travelled across the sea in search of a new home, led by a "song" heard by one of their number, prophet-esque Leish, and the martial ambitions of his bellicose brother Mallesh. Baldhron persuades his cohorts that they must work with the selkesh in order to overthrow the Queen - and thus to democratise written knowledge:
"We will show them how to take the city and they will do it."
"And then what?" Serenhan again, with her strident whine of a voice.
Baldhron felt his cheeks grow hot. "And then the selkesh install us as the official scribes of the new realm. And then we tell truth, always, in the light of day and above the ground. We teach them and all of our people to read and write, and everyone will understand and revere and share our power."
It's clearly a somewhat cracked scheme, and matters soon spiral beyond anyone's control. The invasion goes badly awry, but not before Ladhra, Galha's daughter and heir is killed. Galha's ruthlessness, and her active enjoyment of cruelty towards her enemies, is gradually revealed through her chilling treatment of Leish (who is captured a little before the attack takes place) - but it is only in the aftermath that we first see Galha's direct tampering with the truth for PR purposes, as she and Malhan concoct a more rousing, heroic version of the selkesh attack (leaving out the inside actors) and of Ladhra's death. Malhan later justifies this as a part of an expedient political programme, for the good of his country:
"How, Malhan?" [Lanara] said when she could. "Tell me how you've been able to write such lies for so long."
She expected him to hesitate or deny, but he did not. "I love this realm, and I loved her. There was a time, years ago, when I forgot to serve both - when I transgressed, and jeopardized my post and indeed my life. Since then everything that I have done has been both penance and promise. The Queensrealm will be safe while I am here to serve it. It will be safe. This is the reason for all my words."
His words might be true, but there was a silence beneath, between and after them that was truer still.
The stage is thus set, at the halfway point of the book, for Galha's pursuit of the selkesh back to their own shores - not the glorious, triumphant march of later legend, but a crazed act born of pure rage and malice, a vengeance that destroys (whether immediately or by slow decline) everyone it touches, including Galha herself. (It also stands in contrast to the more normal, public method of execution known as the "Queen's Justice", in which the condemned are killed swiftly and cleanly via the Queen's bow and arrow).
Woven in around this main thread are the lives of those sucked into the maelstrom created by Galha's rage: Lanara, the daughter of Galha's girlhood friend, who is of an age with Ladhra; the shonyn Nellyn, whom Lanara starts a relationship with while acting as Queen's liaison to his people (there's a definite theme of falling for the edgy outsider, and the difficult consequences thereof, in this novel...); and Alea and Aldron, an Alilan (gypsy-ish tribal travelling folk) couple cast out by their people for Aldron's misuse of his power. This power, known as Telling, is an ability to create visible illusions with words; in Aldron's case, these illusions are so strong that they can shape the real world... something that Galha, in one of the book's most powerful sequences, realises she can use.
Lanara is a character somewhat in the mould of Jaele from Telling, a study in self-absorption, in a will so strong and stubborn that it consistently fails to understand even those it is closest to. Her mission among the shonyn is part of an ongoing initiative to bring the shonyn within the Queensrealm - to teach them Queenfolk ways and language (read: to "civilise" them), and open up trade links. She comes to love Nellyn, without ever truly noticing how much damage she does to him, or how alien to him are the concepts that are encoded within her language (the shonyn have no notion of past or future, only an eternal now). Writing a report home, she relays the following exchange, which takes place after Nellyn reacts with jealousy to seeing Lanara with another man:
Nellyn opened his eyes and looked into my face, and he said, very clearly despite his broken nose, "That was the first time." For several minutes I could not speak. He had referred to something in the past. He had finally grasped the knowledge so many other Queensfolk had tried to convey.
"The first time for what?" I finally asked.
"He turned his head to the door flap and seemed to listen to the rain. "Anger and pain. And then knowing."
I was not sure that I understood him, but I said, "And what will happen now?"
He looked at me again. His eyes were very bright, but I do not think with happiness. "Change," he said. "I... will change. I have changed."
I laughed and hugged him and congratulated him on his success, and he smiled, though his eyes were still strange.
Nellyn leaves his people behind to join Lanara when she returns to the capital, and it is primarily through him that Sweet explores the other major theme of the novel: exile, dislocation and homecoming. Despite his love for Lanara, Nellyn is never able to fully adapt to a Queensfolk way of life; lost and misunderstood, he pines for home. But he discovers that he no longer belongs there, either:
I've come back, he thought, the Queensfolk words clear and heavy, accepted. I've come back, but I will never return. He sat, a shonyn alone in time, as the rain softened and scattered into mist above the Sarhenna River.
The same may be said of Alea, and of the selkesh. Time and again the protagonists find that return is not so easy, and they are not welcomed back. They desert their homes in pursuit of something more immediately compelling, something apparently grander - in Alea's case for love of wildchild Aldron, in the selkesh's case for the distant song of conquest - only to discover when things don't work out and they try to turn back that this pursuit has altered them (and/or their home) in some fundamental way, and that it is lost to them. In the case of the selkesh, their homeland is destroyed, by Galha, as a direct consequence of their travels, something of which they were explicitly warned:
"Your new land," she repeated, and began to turn away. "You were fools to leave the golden waters of our ancestors, and you are fools still. Will you hunt for land until no land is yours?"
All return to find their homes changed beyond recognition, no longer matching the ideal that they have so fondly maintained. Here it links back to the theme of misused words and lies; as Lanara comes, bitterly, to recognise:
"You can never forget your home, and if you return to it, you want to protect it, keep it the same as it was when you loved it before."
"Not with lies," Alea's voice, at least, was stronger.
"How can you say that? How can you be sure you wouldn't conceal or change what you knew, if it meant your people would be spared confusion and misery?"
My only real criticism of the novel is twofold. One is the character of Baldhron, who is much less fleshed-out and interesting that the other characters. For all his clear motivation, is something of a stock villain of the slightly unhinged variety, given to frothing fits of rage; a man who never fails to give a sly smirk as soon as his object of secret hatred has his or her back turned. The result is that he is something of a cypher, a symbol of Galha's wrongdoing and a plot device to give the selkesh a way in and thus to kickstart the story proper.
Much less clearly motivated are the selkesh themselves, and here I think Sweet fudges the issue a little in her determination to subvert the Galha=good/Sea Raiders=bad mythic history of her world. Because the selkesh, while undoubtedly exploited for political ends, and met with utterly disproportionate punishment for their ambitions, are not the good guys, either. Most of the selkesh sections come from dreamy, mostly well-meaning Leish's perspective; we see little of how his message stirs the rest of his people (beyond brief glimpses of Mallesh's rabble-rousing), and only occasional engagement with the essentially war-mongering, bloodthirsty nature of the selkesh quest for a new homeland:
Beneath his feeling of calm was the insistent stab of desire.
Mallesh was right, Leish thought, blind for a moment to the riot of colour and forms around him. I do feel his need, for more - for mine. It was this need that made him speak to cruel-eyed Baldhron, and learn from him. It was this need that would drive him into the palace beside Mallesh, seeking blood. Even though this search will forever twist the song that is in me, he thought.
Still, overall this is a really excellent novel, a prequel that genuinely deepens the original's story and themes - and a clever, moving, beautifully-written tale in its own right.
"I cannot promise absolution or sympathy or even pity, if those are what you need."
"I know. I've been silent this long because I've known so well. But it's not pity I need. It's... I need to speak so that this thing can be real. No matter what you think of it, once it's said, it will be real."