Casuel raised himself on tiptoe to look out of the window where my few fingers of extra height saved me the effort. A spatter of rain made him duck and look through the lower pane, brushing wavy brown hair out of his dark eyes. I wiped drops from the end of the spyglass and took a moment to study the sky. Slate-coloured storm clouds threw down rain to batter the bruised seas, crushing the crests of the waves into flat smears of spume. I savoured the sharp salt freshness carried on the wind but then I was safe ashore.
The bowsprit dipped deep into a mountainous sea, wrenching itself free a breath later but the whole ship seemed to shudder, embattled decks awash. Imagination supplied the cries of the panicked passengers inside my head, curses from hard-pressed crew, the groan of straining timber, the insidious sound of water penetrating stressed seams. [...]
"Are they going to sink?" the wizard asked in a hesitant voice.
Perilous times at the beginning of The Warrior's Bond (2001), the fourth instalment of Juliet E. McKenna's Tales of Einarinn series. This will be a shorter post, necessarily - in part because I'm being stalked by deadlines, but also because it's tricky to discuss the penultimate volume in a five-book series in a way that will be meaningful to anyone not acquainted with the backstory. But it would seem a shame to pass it over completely without comment; McKenna is a writer who deserves, I think, more attention. For all the generic-Fantasy covers her books have been saddled with, McKenna tries to do things a little differently. She doesn't always succeed, but even the attempts make for more satisfying reading than many of the better-selling genre series out there.
Chief among McKenna's virtues as a fantasist is the strength in depth of her invented world, Einarinn. Strength, that is, in both the sensory detail and the vividly lived-in feel of it all, and in the historical depth. (Yes, there's my interest, right there...). Einarinn (or rather, the part of it in which this story, and most of the rest of the series, are set) is a place with something of the feel of later seventeenth-century England - except that here magic and its practitioners exist, even if both are viewed with distrust for their role in past upheavals. There are two types of magic: Artifice, which works primarily upon the mind, in the form of telepathy and perception-alteration, as well as healing; and the more mainstream/institutionalised wizardry, which operates upon inborn affinities with, and the ability to manipulate, one or more of the elements (earth, air, etc.).
"So what is it, Allin, to be mage-born?"
"Oh, I don't know how to explain it." She blushed pink. "Imagine oil spilled on water but you're the only one who can see the rainbow when the light strikes it. Imagine hearing some counterpoint to music that everyone else is deaf to. You touch something and you can hear the element within it [...] You can sense it, you can feel how it affects things around it. Then you realise that you can change it, you can shade that rainbow to light or dark, you can mute that note or make it sound twice as loud."
Einarinn is a land with a rich history that continually affects the present, from the public performances of historically-themed plays to the vast libraries kept by noble families, whose standing depends on antiquarian proof of their geneaologies. It is also a land not entirely itself, one whose social and political institutions are still struggling to cope with the aftermath of a ruinous civil war (now some generations past) and - more prosaically - with demographic change (population growth, increased urbanisation) and the opening up of new trading frontiers across the sea. Not to mention the mysterious raiders from the north who turned up the first volume, and who have cast a shadow over the narrative ever since.
Nor is any of this just background; the history is integral to the way the world works, and the stories set in it. The plot of the first book pivoted on the theft and hunt for an antique artefact, whose value lay in what it might reveal to scholars of the less well-illuminated corners of Einarinn's history. The second book, meanwhile, saw the rediscovery of an overseas would-be colony long (as in, centuries) thought lost; this being fantasy, the colonists did not fall prey to disease or angry indigenes, but were cursed into an enchanted sleep. A survivor of this colony is an important viewpoint character in this fourth book: Temar D'Alsennin, a naive young nobleman whose family line has died out since he first crossed the sea, and whose quest for heirlooms and relics, which might release his fellow colonists from the cursed sleep that still afflicts most of them, forms the focus of the story this time around.
(If you think this doesn't exactly sound like a rip-roaring page-turner, you're right. McKenna's plotting is politicking- rather action-oriented - although it's not without intermittent convincing violence or tense chases - and, perhaps not surprisingly, it charts a luxurious course through the details of her world. This, as in the other books in the series, is a story that happens around her characters' lives and environment, and at times it does seem as if McKenna is more interested in the latter two than the former, sacrificing forward momentum. Much as I like her priorities, I think I'd prefer a better balance between the two.)
Temar is living history loose in the world, and his cognitive dissonance - at the ways language, society and the landscape around him has changed - functions, of course, to illuminate his character and give the reader an 'in' to this fantastical world. But it also adds texture to the world - how the city has expanded, how the former imperial palace is now a law court - and demonstrates - as when he is dismayed to see how the bonds of reciprocal obligation between nobles and dependants have decayed into mere show, or when he is embarrassed by the more permissive attitudes now governing relations between men and women - that Einarinn is one of those rare things in secondary-world genre fantasy, a society that has changed, and is still changing, in myriad ways both subtle and overt.
Temar studied the coarse piece of paper. "What is a rope dancer?"
"Some foolish mountebank risking life and limb to entertain the uncouth." Casuel tried to take the handbill off Temar.
"Exotic beasts can be seen at Vaile's Year, birds of the Archipelago and a great Aldebreshin sea-serpent." Temar peered at the crudely printed text, smudgy promises of delights cramped close together. "Or there are any number of puppet shows, a wine-drinking contest, a display of tumbling and feats of strength, it says here. I see the Houses still put on plenty of entertainment for their tenantry."
"None of this has anything to do with the nobility."
The sensory detail side of things, meanwhile, is particularly strong in this volume. The Warrior's Bond takes place largely over the course of the Summer Solstice festival in the bustling coastal city of Toremal - meaning, of course, a great deal of eating, drinking, and entertainments of varying degree of salubrity, together with all the less picturesque aspects of a crowded early-modern city in high summer. Everything, from the feel of the clothes - noble fashions running to the impractically restrictive, as newcomer Temar discovers - to the texture of the streets underfoot, is here; sometimes a little over-described but on the whole conveyed incidentally, as part of the characters' experience, rather than as extraneous background colour. Meals are tasted, not just laid before us; weather is more than just a tone-setter. That splatter of rain in the passage I quoted above, for example, or - just prior to that - the effect when the window was first opened (feel that chill breeze?):
Opening the upper light of the window, I steadied the leather-bound cylinder [of the spyglass] on the sill, ignoring the flutter of paper riffled by an opportunist gust darting inside.
"Saedrin's stones, Ryshad!" Casuel slapped at uncooperative documents, cursing as his candles were snuffed.
McKenna's other main virtue in the Einarinn series is the wonderful thief, Livak - canny, proactive, practical and drily funny, a fully-rounded adult in a genre so often filled with farmboys and princesses. Livak is the main character in the first and third volumes, but is absent, sadly, for most of this story; most of the narration duties go instead to her lover, Ryshad Tathel, the titular 'warrior' who is rather less interesting if likeable enough, with Temar (also a touch bland, for all the fascination his perspective brings) and the wizard Casuel Devoir filling in the gaps. Prissy, pedantic snob Casuel brings a spark every time he's in the frame; he's the archetypal social climber, a self-satisfied chap who is excessively deferent to people he thinks can help him in some way (and rude to everyone else), and secretly convinced he's better than everyone:
As he set the flame in front of his small mirror, he forced the burnished metal to submit, to reflect the image he wanted rather than the room around him. What Prince of Toremal could do as much, he thought. What Emperor? Constraints of distance were nothing to those who could manipulate the very elements of the physical world.
It's a mark of McKenna's skill, though, that Casuel never becomes either teeth-grindingly annoying, a waste of space or a hollow cliche; he is, to everyone's irritation, a invaluable source of information and useful ideas, with a well-meaning if largely self-serving heart underneath it all. Indeed, in many ways it's fun to dislike him, and on closer acquaintance his faults become more bearable foibles.
(who wrote this post to the accompaniment of Kate Bush's Lionheart. 'Hammer Horror', anyone...?