You can call me Ella. I am going to analyse and examine fantasy fiction (and sometimes other genres as well) from feminist and socialist point of view.
Imagine a planet with cold giant sun and mysterious native species. Imagine people of Celtic and Spaniard origin colonizing it and establishing a feudal society. Imagine nobility and social prestige based on psi powers. Welcome to Darkover.
My Adventure with Darkover
Having read Mists of Avalon I wanted something else, something new by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I excepted that Darkover would be a stunning mix of Celtic and Spanish-like motives, of fantasy and science fiction. I had been waiting four years until I managed to buy books. I was delighted by Thunderlord and by Two To Conquer. I was dissapointed by the earlier books in the series (like Star of Danger and The Planet Savers). I enjoyed the two sequels to Traitor’s Sun, but I found the book itself irritating. Anyway, the whole series did not meet my expectations. I was expecting something more feminist and more compassionate towards commonfolk. Bradley was considered as a feminist, wasn’t she? I thought that feminists shouldn’t be conservative about social classes and feudalism issues. Usually, they are liberal or socialist at such matters. I thought that in feminist’s books rape culture and patriarchy should be explained, but not justified.
In a nutshell: I expected another Ursula K. Le Guin. I was wrong, and I found Darkover books problematic on many levels. Let me explain, why.
NOTE: Maybe I should not publish this post at all. For twenty six books in the series, I’ve read sixteen (adding Stormqueen!). I am not able to express my opinion about the whole series. I have not read Heritage of Hastur and Sharra Exile, which are often considered as the most important ones. I have not read books about Renunciates and some cooperations by Deborah J. Ross. If these unread books somehow contradict the issues I’ll mention below, let me know.
False Feminism and Inconsequent Patriarchy
If you think that Bradley’s books were feminist from the very beginning, you are wrong. In Star of Danger there is no female character at all, except one random leroni (a female term for a person wielding psi laran powers) dealing with weather issues. An elf-like chieri met at the end of the book, as a hermaphrodite, shouldn’t count, I suppose. As long as we are not searching for any non male character. Instead we have two adolescent boys from Different Worlds, a guest from the Earth and a Darkovan aristocrat. They have a Lesson of Survival, they Learn from Each Other and they establish a Frendship Despite Prejudices. Sooo original. Twain did such motives better, Bradley.
But it is not the point. We have one book without any female characters. Do you think that the first published book in the series (1958), The Planet Savers, will be better? Nope.
Let’s meet Kyla. She’ s Darkovan Free Amazon, a Renunciate, a mountain guide and a warrior in the patriarchal world. The main character, doctor Allison, describes her in such words:
Her nose was snubbed and might have looked whimsical but was instead oddly arrogant. Her mouth was wide, and her chin round.
To Save a World omnibus, p. 40
So what we have here? Stereotypical mixture of childish appearance (snubbed nose and round chin) of a woman and provocative interpretation of that appearance. Really, describing women as kids is awful enough. It indicates that men prefer childish women, obedient and innocent, over the independent and experienced ones.
The further, the worse. Allison and Kyla are going on an expedition to find a treatment for a very dangerous Darkovan disease. Except Kyla the guide the whole party is male. Allison thinks that Kyla may provoke these men to rape only by her very presence. She assures him that she will not make any trouble. Yeah, it is described in that way. Rape culture so much, and all that bad on so many levels.
It doesn’t matter that the men from expedition should be accustomed to Renunciate’s as Darkovans. It doesn’t matter that Allison is from more progressive Terra and yet he holds such opinions. It doesn’t matter that victims should never be to blame. It is not your behaviour or presence which cause rape.
I know, I know. This book was published over sixty years ago. I know that science fiction writings were quite male-centered and sexist at these times. Maybe just popular fiction missed entirely decades in comparison to the classics who had been able to write about convincing female characters (like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina) even in the 1800s. Oh yes, there was hidden misogyny in these books also. But this book was written by a woman and this woman was considered as a feminist some years later. I was hoping that The Planet Savers would outstand sexist undercurrents of these times. I was wrong.
In The Bloody Sun it is indicated several times that the Darkovan women have better position than the Terran ones. Children get the surnames according to parent’s rank in the society, not to the gender. Leronis from laran Towers can have sex casually and are not obliged to stay virgins (except the Keepers). What Bradley forgets to mention is that these questions applies only to small part of the Darkover’s population. Not many people have laran and most of women is bounded by expectations and limitations of medieval-like world. They cannot inherit before men, choose a job or rule independently (as a full ruler instead as a consort). Bradley points out all these matters in later books but even then she justifies patriarchy. In Traitor’s Sun the Darkovan patriarchy is justified by… high children’ mortality rate. Really. Something like “We needed kids on hard-climate planet, and that’s why we were overprotective towards women.” In our history there were many societies where conditions where as harsh as on Darkover, and yet women enjoyed much more rights. There were many queens (like Elizabeth the First from England) who ruled independently. In Celtic Ireland the dominant position in the household was based on wealth, not on the gender. In medieval Norway, the first son got the main estate and the title, but all other children had rights to other goods and estates from both parents. In early modern Netherlands, daughters from the first marriage inherited before sons from the second marriage. In all these places, I suppose, mortality rate of children was not any better than on Darkover. Besides, Darkovan patriarchal and war-centered culture does not make sense anyway. With all these psi powers, laran-wielders should rule here, and knowing that women have these powers as well as men… Looking at it logically, they shouldn’t be discriminated!
What is the most false feminist-like is the attitude towards sex described in the Forbidden Circle omnibus. We have there four main characters: a Terran Andrew Carr, a laranzu Damon Ridenow and the Alton twin sisters, Callista and Ellemir. Altons and Ridenows are prominent noble houses. Andrew rescues Callista the virgin Keeper from Evil! Catmen (I am going to describe racist undercurrents towards native Darkovan species later) and marries her. Damon marries Ellemir who is about twenty years his junior. It turns out that Callista is afraid of sex. So, after quite dangerous try, she proposes Andrew to sleep with Ellemir. And guess what? It is Darkovan custom. If a wife is pregnant, ill or unwilling, a husband can take her sister as a lover. And we can stumble upon on that in other Darkovan books as well. Could you explain me where there is damned feminism here (except that the wife wouldn’t be raped)? Such a custom is rather typical for a patriarchal society where sex is seen as a need for men and a duty for women. You know, a man must have sex, otherwise he’ll be dead. If wife cannot grant him sex, then it must be some other woman. It reminds me of how Henry VIII treated ladies-in-waiting (and not only he). Anyway, in such societies men were allowed to be infidel (discreetly or openly). What is more, on Darkover patriarchal prejudices also follow. No woman enjoy sex during pregnancy; really😅? These great laran – wielders do not know how the women’ body works?
You know, that custom wouldn’t be so bad if women were allowed to do something similar – for instance, taking a lover when a husband is ill or far away for months. But, as you’ve probably guessed, they are not. Double Standard rules!
How could I sum up this book? The author repeats himself. The creepy sex is present as usual. The style is stable. However, the whole historical background and references seem more real, the setting is captivating, and the commonfolk — in comparison to A Song for Arbonne — present again. So, I would say it’s the best of GGK’s books reviewed here so far. But there will be better ones. And in this particular book, some disturbing or just ridiculous issues still could be found. OK, mainly ridiculous.
Whom do we have here?
Jehane bet Ishak — a Kindath (Jewish-like) doctor, actually a nice, clever and non-stereotypical character. She loves her profession and although she has had several boyfriends, she is finally a woman portrayed in the completely different way than Alienor or Arianne. Her job, her background and thoughts are important here, not her sexual life or her appearance. SPOILERS She ends up with slightly older BiDandy-Assassin-Poet-Diplomate Ammar, although I wished it had been Alvar. SPOILERS
Ammar ibn Khairan — A Dubious Bisexual from
Al-Andalus Al-Rassan. He likes jewellery, he likes his enemies, SPOILERS but he remains loyal to his country. Then he migrates to lead a Quiet Life with Jehane. SPOILERS Actually I found him an irritating chap. However, I can’t say if it was because of his own personality and his pointless sex with the dead king’s courtesan, or of because he was made a very stereotypical bisexual person.
Alvar de Pellino— a Young and Inexperienced boy from
Spanish king’s party. He falls in love with slightly older Jehane, but she has only sex with him. SPOILERS He ends as a Kindath-convert doctor living near Jehane in Italy Batiara. SPOILERS
Rodrigo Belmonte — a Chivalric and Handsome commander with Deadly Moustache. Has some hots for Jehane, but he remains faithful to his Beautiful Wife Miranda because of #KnightEthos. He has two sons, Diego and Fernando, the first being a clairvoyant one. SPOILERS Gets killed in a honorable duel by his good friend, Ammar. SPOILERS
King Ramiro of Valledo and his
French Ferrieres wife Ines — an interesting couple in which he is cheating on with some invisible concubines, and she finds sex Sinful, and yet their amorous life is satysfying and rich. And they love each other truly altogether, literally cannot living without each other. SPOILERS At the end, they’ll win. SPOILERS
So here we are. This time, somehow I didn’t find some self-generic tropes and Author’s Appeal irritating. Ammar wasn’t as irritating as Bertran, and in comparison to Diarmuid, he was no douchebag. Another country based on Italy might be suspicious, but, well, I think that I’m the only person who really pays attention to GGK’s worldbuilding self-recurrence. Of course, there were at least two pointless and unnecessary, and a bit improbable sex scenes. The first is between Ammar and mourning Zabira. Why did she want it? To gain some influence over Ammar? To forget about dead Almalik? Who knows…
But the definite winner of this category would remain the carnival encounter between Alvar and some nameless Masqued Sensual Woman. It doesn’t lead to anything, the woman never reappers… It’s also worth to notice that it is exactly the fourth book of GGK with the motive of a feast/carnival with some random sex. Original sooo much. Or some kind of an obsession, idk.
There are things which are just funny, like Almalik’s remark on his son who looks like a leper because he has… A blinking eyelid. As we all know, a blinking eyelid is the most significant symptom of leprosy. My mum has something like that sometimes. How do you think, where should I send her? To Spinalonga or to Thomas Covenant? Not to mention that we won’t see any leper in the Jadiverse, although, one might think, it is quite popular association with the Middle Ages.
Or Rodrigo Belmonte. Believe me or not, in my country his rank was translated as a “commander” instead of a “captain”. Because, you know, on Cuba there was “El Comandante”, and Cuba or quasi-Spain, who cares. Spanish language here, Spanish language there, and Spanish is of course magical realism, and magical realism is Latin America, and Latin America is Cuba… And so on.
Or the names. There are hell bunch of interesting and specific Spanish names. But GGK, for example, names two brothers García and Gonzalez de Rada. These names are more popular as the surnames than the given names, but who cares?
And there are things which are disturbing, probably coming from the fact that GGK hasn’t realized some questions about sex. Because, you know, having sex with an equivalent of teacher/lecturer isn’t normal, no matter if you’re a man or a woman. Well, I would put it into the same category as the Prostitutes-Waitresses or the troubadours gaining opportunities from sex.
And, as usual, some social questions like women’s emancipation are summed up into: “Maybe one day it will be better.” Knowing that specific manner of GGK, it is less irritating than the reflections concluded in A Song for Arbonne, and in comparison to Fionavarian “Don’t complain, Jaelle, it is so and it has always been so” it’s a real revolution.
It may seem that The Lions of Al-Rassan is a book repeating almost all the flaws of the previous ones, and that the commonfolk issue is no better than in A Song for Arbonne, except for we have a female physician instead of a troubadouress. I don’t know, maybe I have a weakness for this book. Maybe I like it because of Jehane, who isn’t a stereotypical fantasy character, being a relatively low-born doctor instead of a female warrior, a witch, or an aristocrat. Or maybe I am glad that here, there are no more villains, at least, not the major ones. The Rada Brothers are the Cruel Servants of a Good King, and the eldest son of Almalik deceives his courtesans, and there are, of course, some radicals from the desert. But all they are complex and dubious characters in comparison to Ademar or Galbert, or DarkLord Rakoth Maugrim. And, besides, the most important thing is that the “main players” are grey characters, both in the politics and in the personal life. Almalik may seem cruel and not a nice guy altogether, but we’re suggested that this cruelty is specific for the Asharite (Muslim-like) rulers in Al-Rassan. And maybe it were his descriptions which made me realize something: this time, Guy Gavriel Kay wrote a truly historical novel, and so we shouldn’t perceive and judge depicted characters by our standards. You see, it is a historical novel in the way Kristin Lavransdatter is, or the War of the Roses books of Philippa Gregory try to be. It is a book written from the perspective of medieval mentality and medieval set of values, but by no means lacking of a subtle social retelling. So, for example, we have at last Altar Diplomacy instead of marrying a fisherman’s daughter, and a guy who slapped his sons, but who is no villain. You see, it isn’t justyfying of children’s abuse or loveless marriages: it just shows social conventions different than ours, and we must make up with them.
And The Lions of Al-Rassan make me realise that GGK is a specyfic type of a reteller. Unlike some authors, he doesn’t say: “Look, Olden Days were different than conservatives tell you!”. Because he doesn’t need to do so. He is aware that people have always had premarital and extramarital sex, and that non-heteronormative people didn’t appear out of blue in the 1960s’. He doesn’t show it as a Great Discovery, he shows it as the part of his universe’s reality, and he adjusts it to specific conditions of his setting. For example, Ammar is quite tolerated as a bisexual, because he is literally Almalik’s handyman. Or let’s take Ines. She finds sex sinful, but she enjoys it at once, although she doesn’t like admitting it to her unruly husband. It’s quite similar to Kristin Lavransdatter’s characters’ attitude, although that book was more focused on premarital and extramarital sex. You see, Kristin and Erlend feel that their trysts are sinful according to their religion, but they keep meeting because they are so infatuated with each other. And that is the point which ultraconservatives don’t see: people have sex neverthless of their religion or set of values, they have it even if they find it bad. Considering an intercourse between two adult, unrelated, willing and sometimes even married people evil is another theme, but this time I’m not going to examine puritan aspects of Abrahamic religions. Remember one thing: in Medieval times, people also enjoyed sex, and there was nothing strange in it. And GGK shows it.
Class issues are also retelled here, at least in comparison to A Song for Arbonne. We’ve got poor prostitutes feeling compassion towards Jehane’s mother. They are all outcasts — they as the sex workers and she as a Kindath, a member of a religious minority. We have also a country Asharite boy whose mother was killed and raped by the soldiers of the Rada brothers. This time, the stories of war atrocities are more vivid, more real — because they are committed not by the Evil Ones, but by the one of the sides in an equal struggle.
But the main theme — connected with all the other themes — is religion. There is the whole range of shades and beliefs here. Jehane isn’t especially “believing”, but she is proud of her Kindath ancestors and heritage. Ramiro is quite casual in religious matters, and he uses the religion as a war-pretext very deftly. Ines is truly devoted to Jad, but she is no fanatic or racist as for her milieu — she is terrified at the news of destroying a Kindath city in Batiara under the guise of a crusade. Ammar, on the other hand, remains quite detached from religion, feeling that on the desert, his ancestors might have been closer to their beliefs.
Religion is show also as a destructive power here, an excellent tool for fanatics and politicians. Sounds familiar? And here, it is more believable than in A Song for Arbonne. This time, religious, ethnic and social unrests are no metaphors, what is more, they are blended together. In Fezana, once under the rules of Almalik, the Kindaths started to be persecuted because of unstable political situation, the war between Esperañan Jaddites and Al-Rassanian Asharites. The people find a scapegoat, a group to blame just becouse of its otherness and minority. And the “authorities” don’t care, because they know that otherwise, the folk’s rage would turn on them. Sounds familiar again? Today, we may connect antisemitism with the twentieth century’s history above all, but GGK shows us another aspects of this kind of racism in his parallel universe. In Middle Ages, antisemitism was common, too and some conspiracy theories about Jews come from these times, like that “They eat Christian kids!1!1!”. And, of course, there were hell bunch of slaughters by the way of crusades or of the Black Death epidemy. So, I would say that The Lions of Al-Rassan are above all the parallel of medieval antisemitism, not of the modern one.
And the religious divisions in Jadiverse are the alegory of religious divisions between Abrahamic religions. But here, the beliefs are based on celestial bodies. The Asharites worshipp the stars, the Kindaths worshipp two moons as two sisters, and Jad is literally a solar god. Of course, it lacks of some of our nuances. For example, the Kindath’s religion isn’t shown as the eldest one in parallel to Judaism, and the three systems aren’t so entwined as in the case of Muslim, Judaism and Christianity. But simplifying some historical parallels is typical for fantasy, so I don’t mind. However, I must warn you that it isn’t the retelling of the life of Isabel of Castilla or of the last years of Reconquista. The local Spaniards here are more tolerant, Ines and Ramiro don’t expel any Kindaths and Asharites, and the setting is more based on the eleventh than on the fifteenth century, on legendary times of El Cid. I hope it was rather deliberate decision of the author than setting mitigation still quite typical for the fantasy genre. Still, the book has some cruel fragments, but above all remains optimistic about human nature, even too optimistic, assuming, for example, how easily Jehane is accepted as a female doctor. I’ve mentioned before that omitting discrimination is naive, not progressive, but, well, The Lions of Al-Rassan are more realistic than the previous GGK’s books.
And for the setting… As in Tigana‘s case, it is the main attitude of the book. It is even more admirable assuming that GGK couldn’t use all the typical tropes which we connect with Spain now: flamenco culture, frilly dresses, corrida, the cuisine based on pepper. Instead, we got entwined Moorish-like and Christian-like influences in the architecture and customs, ranchers, horses and divided kingdoms; all which could be obtained from Medieval Spain associations. And, what is more, it is the quasi-Spain before the times of lipienza de sangre, full of various religions and ethnic groups (it lacks only almost-matriarchal Basques☹️). It is the recalling of the world no longer existent – the rich and sophisticated world of Al-Andalus. And Al-Rassan is even more vivid and captivating than the divided kingdoms of Esperaña, because soon it would be gone, which Ammar is stating with sadness at the end of the book. Actually, I respect Guy Gavriel Kay for portraying Al-Rassan with no modern parallels and associations which would provoke some racist and xenophobic comments. His book just remind us in a subtle and unobtrusive way that Medieval Europe wasn’t ethnically and religiously homogeneous, and that the people, despite of different beliefs and customs, still loved and doubted as we do now.
How is it possible? This book repeats the worst flaws of Tigana, adding Subtle Villains and Beloved Author’s Womanizers in the manner of The Fionavar Tapestry. It follows also some previous worldbuilding patterns, sometimes looking like a self-plagiarism. And yet I don’t like it less than Tigana; actually it doesn’t irritate me as much as some particular fragments of former GGK’s books did. And why? Maybe because here the flaws of Kay’s writings sometimes become just hilarious. Because, really, yet another Sensous BDSM Woman, an Evil King having oral sex during Plotting Against the Good Ones, an old lech having only two kids or a man who would turn out to be the main breeding boar of the novel, are just funny.
Interesting Basis, Background the Same
A Song for Arbonne is set in the realm clearly inspired by Aquitaine, or — as general — by the whole medieval Occitania. You can find troubadours and courtly love there, supposedly chivalric knights and beautiful ladies, you can find vineyards and olive groves. The medieval-like image of Arbonne complete fairs and jousting, influential counts and dukes, and brawling university students. There are even more references to typical Occitan traditions: vidans, certain types of songs, an influential female ruler based very loosely on Eleanor of Aquitaine. Even some names are taken from the southern France history — like Miraval or Rudel names. All these things are described vividly and convicingly, even if the architecture, the clothing and the cuisine might have been describbed in more details. However, this quasi-Aquitaine is a French Aquitaine, without — for example — specific southern spelling. You won’t find there nh instead of French gn, and lh instead of ll. Over the mountains, there is a realm called Gorhaut, based on the northern France. And, of course, their language and Arbonne’s are literally the same. It wasn’t so with southern France and northern France. Not to mention that Occitania isn’t separated from the northern parts of France by mountains. The boundaries were fluent, the regions weren’t really separated, and yet… Arbonne and Gorhaut seemed to be more united than medieval France. No langue d’oc and langue d’oil. It’s a pity that Kay didn’t followed the trope of lingual differences; it would only highlight other dinstinctions as well. Another interesting (and quite obvious, assuming the setting) and unused trope are the military orders and heresies. Knights in Arbonne universe pray to the god Corannos, but there are no military orders, which would be very useful for the main villain of the book. Knights don’t differ at all from all these medieval secular warriors. Medieval religious movements (Cathars, Waldensians and so) are another isue. They were often revolutionary in social questions, opposing classism and (as for their times) patriarchy. Their religious concepts might be also stern for modern people. The Arbonne people worship both Corannos and their moon Goddess. Their religion doesn’t cause any social or economic changes, maybe except for the chivalry ethos. Kay? In Provence or Aquitaine, it didn’t work so. The troubadours’ culture was mainly secular, often opposing stern religious trends. The true is that the Arbonne people and, let’s say, Cathars, have only one thing in common: they are/were persecuted religious minorities in the One True Religion-centered area. Arbonne’s religion with its white-clad priestessess and mysterious island resembles more The Mists of Avalon than anything else.
Another problem is that the background of Gorhaut and Arbonne — in the light of the next GGK’s books — is self-generic. You have city-states of Portezza resembling Italy. Tigana, anyone? You have Arimonda resembling Spain… And, yes, you’ve guessed! The next book (The Lions of Al-Rassan) will be set in another literary universe, in the realm of Esperaña, which is also based on Spain, but where people believe in Christian God-like Jad, not in Corannos. There will be Italy-like Batiara, too, and French-like Ferrieres (although this country won’t be significant for the books set in, let’s call it, Jadiverse), and similar references to Ancient Roman-like Ancients. And here is the problem which I’m going to discuss now, not by the way of the next books.
At first: GGK repeats his ideas and nobody cares. In three different universes he has three different Italies, two different Spains, and two different Frances, and two different German-like references on the background as well.
At second: why could not all his “historical” books be set in the same universe? Arbonne and Gorhaut might have been the regions of Ferrieres, Arimonda might have been Esperaña, and the Peninsula of the Palm and Portezza might have been Batiara, but in different periods. Then Tigana’s parallel of French and Holy German Empire invading Italy would be even more accurate! But not. GGK repeats the same or very similar setting, putting it into several universes. I don’t know myself if it is funny or only ridiculous.
Commonfolk Unnoticed and Women not so Privileged
A Song for Arbonne, as numerous other fantasy books, notices many kinds of discrimination: sexism, persecuting religious minorities, xenophobia. And exactly like all these books, it omits classism. I know that there are several reasons for it: the Western world is more egalitarian than hundred years ago and so on, and generations have passed since serfdom or slavery. And so we tend to pretend that the classism is no longer an issue, and then we don’t need to write about it. No. It is still a problem. We need to write about it. Really, should I write you about all the inequal oportunities in education and employment? Should I write you about nineteenth-century workers working 16 hours per day? Should I write you about feudal times when peasants were considered worse, more stupid, more ugly than aristocracy? Should I tell you about how these superstitions persisted in our culture? Well, you’ve known probably my point already. Classism existed and still exists. GGK nor sees it in this book, neither he writes about that. This is not the story of peasants or petty craftsmen. Even if GGK skips from time to time to some commonfolk POV, it is stereotypical voice of a Loyal Chancellor (being secretly in love with his misstress, of course) or a superstitious soldier. The only significant voice is the one of troubadouress Lisette. Which is a daughter of a prominent merchant, of course. All other important characters are aristocrats: Signe de Barbentain, Arienne, Rosala, Bertran de Talair and Urte de Miraval, Lucianna Delonghi, and Blaise, of course. Blaise, an embittered mercenary from Gorhaut, matches even the trope of Rightful but Lost King. And even if in the later parts of the book, some war atrocities are described, it is made in a very contemporary way. It is not the trope of Tormented Commonfolk and Selfish Feudals, it is the trope of War is Terrible. More modern and more understandable for the readers nowadays, but not really adequate to medieval-like times.
In a nutshell: in this book, GGK doesn’t see feudalism at all, not to mention realizing that this system sucks. It doesn’t mean that his other books are like that. But A Song for Arbonne is not a realistic version of the medieval world, but an idealized and romantized one. You won’t learn there about so-called knights raping peasant women and hooking up serving maids. You won’t learn about the life of serfs, about offices and privileges based mainly on one’s class origin, not on one’s merits. You won’t learn about petty wars and revenges. Nooo. Here the knights have epic romances with the women of their class, and only the villains are rapists. Here commonfolk singers sleeping with the nobles are portrayed as social climbers gaining opportunities from sex. Here the harm of peasants is important only if an Dishonorable King caused it. Here the wars are already on the epic scale, between kingdoms, not between arguing noble houses.
Invisible Feudalism isn’t the only problem in this book. Invisible Patriarchy is troublesome as well. Or rather, it is visible only when the author wants to see it. And the portrayal of courtly love is strictly connected with that. Because, you see, from the long-term perspective, chivalry towards women didn’t liberated them. It created only new and equally harmful stereotypes, as that of a frail female requiring care and defence. It put the women on pedestal and deceived them at once, assuming that they are too precious and weak to deal with business, science, military things and so on. It gave well-born ladies some influence, but only them. Chivalry didn’t apply to low-born women. They could be raped and harassed as usual, and nobody cared. Of course, GGK doesn’t show it. But I’ve got an impression that when an author shows how brutal “The Olden Days” were, we don’t believe, we think that it must be an exaggeration.
However, one of the female characters, Arianne (which is quite subtle and unobtrusive in comparison to Alienor from Tigana, or to Lucianna “BDSM” Delonghi) points out that the courtly love creates a false exaltation of women, whose position in Arbonne is still not equal. She’s right. The women there can’t study, can’t inherit on equal share with men, can’t become soldiers, and even the female artists aren’t numerous. The only difference from the Terrible Patriarchy outside is the courtly love and supposedly lesser consent for domestic violence. However, Arianne doesn’t put it so. Her thoughts about more egalitarian world are again shown as a kind of a dream, an utopy. It is also interesting to notice her postulate about marriage, assuming that fidelity should be expected only in the free relationships based on love. Well, love could be as tricky as an arranged marriage. But Arianne, living with her gay husband (and this time we have a homosexual living in a love relationship with his peer instead of fucking random boys, let’s rejoice over it!) couldn’t know that.
And really, Arbonne isn’t matriarchal or women-ruled. They have only a Widow at Charge, that’s all, and some priestesses. The same could be said about Ancient Greece and Rome (they had priestesses, didn’t they?) and about numerous medieval countries and duchies ruled by widows at some particular times.
However, there is one and important plot in this “Patriarchy Issue” I couldn’t put down so easily. It is the evolution of Blaise’s attitude towards women. He begins as an embittered chauvinist talking like a frustrated incel, but then, thanks to Lisette, to Arianne and to his sister-in-law, he starts seeing women just as human beings who could contribute to the society as much as he could. He breaks with Madonna-Whore syndrome, with perceiving women as some alien and dangerous femmes fatales. It is all showed gradually and convicingly, and — at the end — makes Blaise one of the most believable and likeable characters. Because other characters are another and even more profound problem of this book.
Characters Beloved, Characters Hated
The problem with the positive/grey characters of A Song for Arbonne is not that they are unbelievable or extremaly predictable. The problem are cardboard villains and the author’s attitude towards certain dramatis personae.
Bertran de Talair is the most profound example of that. He is a crucial character, whose love towards the princess Aelis, Signe’s daughter and de Miraval’s wife, has led to political divisions in Arbonne. SPOILERS Aelis died at childbirth, following her baby son. However, her second child, (rescued by Arianne) a girl, survived. She was brought up among priestesses and married Blaise when he became the Rightful King of Gorhaut at the end of the book. SPOILERS Our precious Bertran was so desperate because of losing her that he began fucking half the universe, remaining the most charming and chivalric knight-troubadour of Arbonne at once. We can also learn that the sex with him must be apparently a magic experience, since the women bedded by him become happy, radiant and elegant (as in the case of Soressina, a bored wife of a baron, whose name is again taken after a place, not after a human name). And SPOILERS he abandons his raking to become the husband of Brave Rosala, Blaise’s sister-in-law, who escaped from Gorhaut because of her Menacing Father-in-Law and King Rapist, and in Arbonne, she gave birth to a son, Cadar. Which is actually Blaise’s son. And, oh wait, Blaise will probably have more Secret Sons, as we may learn from Lisette’s vidan.SPOILERS
Oh, Bertran! I don’t know which vibes are stronger here: Florentino Ariza and his thousands of lovers ’cause Fermina married another guy, or General-Deflorator-Once A Social Butterfly. Since GGK admits The Love in the Times of Cholera is one of his beloved books, then why couldn’t he be inspired by The General in His Labyrinth, too? Really, the associations with Marquez’s Bolivar are a bit disturbing here: similar age and class background, brown hair, middle height, political abilities… And, of course there is a thing which GGK hasn’t learned from Marquez. Because, you see, there is the great difference between the womanizers of these two author: at Marquez, we aren’t supposes to like them because of their womanising. Sometimes, we aren’t even supposed to like them at all. In The General in His Labyrinth, we have a severely ill guy, a suffering and lost man, and this is why we should feel sorry for him, or like him. In The Love in the Times of Cholera… Well, I always thought that Florentino Ariza wasn’t written to be a likeable character. He was more some kind of a Strange Emo Eccentric and he was doing some outrageous things, and for the reader, the only wholly admirable thing in his life would be his eternal hope for Fermina’s love. And guess what? GGK, of course, doesn’t write his characters like that. He loves some of them because they are Beautiful/Handsome and Sought After, sometimes adding a Love Tragedy to their CV. Bertran de Talair is literally an elder Diarmuid from The Fionavar Tapestry, he is the author’s favorite, and I’m wicked enough to not like him even for this.
It is also funny to notice that Bertran, after years of sleeping around, has no illegitimate children. Kay? It doesn’t work so, really. Just look at the kids of Edward IV York or Charles II Stuart. I want desperately to write a fanfiction about Bertran raising not only Cadar, but, let’s say, his own child with Greedy Social Climber Elisse, too.
The villains of this book are even more irritaiting, being cardboard and predictable. It is as worse as in The Fionavar Tapestry, but it is at least the last GGK’s book with so obvious antagonists, too.
The most hilarious is Ademar, of course, the guy having sex in the front of his courtiers while plotting against Arbonne at once. If it isn’t evil enough, he calls our Noble and Old Signe a whore additionally, and he wants to seduce Pregnant and Helpless Rosala. What is more, raping and burning people alive gaves him pleasure, so even Galbert, our second Evil One, finds it disgusting.
There is also Lucianna Delonghi who loves BDSM and whose husbands had died in Suspicious Circumstances. SPOILERS Blaise was infatuated with her for long time. At the end it cames out that she is Evil Arbonne-against Plotter living in an incestous relationship with her father. SPOILERS Maybe I am a strange person, but I feel pity for the incest’s (and possibly paedophilia) victims. But it’s only me.
Actually Galbert, Blaise’s father and a religious leader, is a complex and dubious character in comparison to Ademar and to Lucianna. He wants power, and his beliefs are only a pretext, which, knowing all the cliches, doesn’t surprise me at all. However, he remains a stereotypical Evil Fanatic figure threatening to our Progressive/Peaceful/Sexually Liberal characters. And here is my main problem with A Song for Arbonne, and with so many relatively progressive books like, let’s say, The Mists of Avalon.
They didn’t overthrow the old conservative (and often harmful) divisions of Good and Evil presented widely in the Western culture since establishing of Christianity. The simple groups of The Good Ones and The Evil Ones remained. They’ve been only reversed, making the conservatives or religious fanatics the Bad Ones, and the more progressive or liberal characters the Good Ones. It doesn’t differ from Evil Pagans or Evil Atheists tropes, it is only based on a different set of values. Of course, you can explain it by the domination of relatively conservative opinions and tropes for centuries, but… Really, especially the progressive ones should know how complex and dubious the life could be. They should rather describe it in the categories freed from simple “Good” and “Evil”, in the categories of mutual economic and social connections and human motivations. Some authors, like Ursula K. Le Guin, or George R. R. Martin, managed to do it. But Guy Gavriel Kay, at least in his first books, fails on this matter.
It doesn’t mean that A Song for Arbonne is a bad book. It’s still better and more believable than most of fantasy and YA fantasy books. And, what is important, here the specific style of GGK is finally established. It’s less pathetic than in The Fionavar Tapestry and in Tigana, but as lyrical and as evocative, and more deliberate. Sometimes I appreciate this way of writing, sometimes I am tired of it, but I must admit one thing: it’s original. It’s GGK’s own. Exactly like his a bit naive but enchanting vision of medieval Occitania.
The Fionavar Tapestry, irritating as it was, didn’t move me deeply. Tigana was a different case. Sometimes I think I really like this book. Sometimes I think I hate it. Why? The setting, despite of several flaws, is very climatic. Dianora is a complex character, and so Catriana.
Elessar Alessan… He is interesting even if author instill us that he is so. Most characters are from the commonfolk.
Then, what is wrong? Let’s see… Stereotypical homosexuals on the backstage, stereotypical Sensous Woman trope, awkward sex again, some kind of the nationalism useless in a feudal society, a mafia-like noble family, too much pathos, justifying the Good Ones because they are the Good Ones, stereotyped Tyrants and Persecutions, and a king who is a Good Guy because he overthrew matriarchy.
Maybe a summary SPOILERS will give us a preview.
Not even twenty-years-old Devin (which is so Italian name indeed) is such a brilliant singer that he owes some incomes of their music group as a partner. He is also constantly wooing Catriana, a new singer and a fisherman’s daughter, who doesn’t care about him. She is one of the tree new members of the group. They are in Astibar, in the city whose duke, Sandre, died recently. The region — and the eastern part of the Peninsula of the Palm — is under the rules of Evil and Cruel Invader Alberico. The western part is Brandin’s, a sorcerous king from Ygrath, a man who erased the name of Tigana land, because his son had been killed there.
Devin and Catriana stumbles upon on a strange conversation in the duke’s palace. They have random and pointless sex in a wardrobe, as it won’t change a lot in their already ambivalent relation. Then Catriana gets angry, and Devin — who is supposedly So Intelligent — doesn’t understand, why. Alessan, one of the new musicians, scolds him for that and he proposes Devin to join him. He explains that he is the Lost Prince (Aragorn sends approval) of Tigana and he is going to fight the whole Peninsula from the invaders. Devin joins him and his friend Baerd, and Catriana. He learns that he is from Special Tigana, too. He cries when Catriana is singing an old Tiganan lullaby, which reminds him of his mother. Assuming their encounter in the wardrobe, it’s… Creepy.
Then it is revealed that Sandre didn’t die. He is plotting against Alberico with his sons and two noblemen. The whole thing is described in the way which reminds not of, let’s say, the Medici or the Sforza families, but of Vito Corleone and his precious children. Anyway, one of Sandre’s son is a gay. So he is a pervert with Obscene Accessories and he likes Young Boys. Remember, people! Homosexual men are paedophiles and want only sex, not some love relationship. The lesbians… Oh, wait, we can accept lesbians if they are dancers in the very faaar background. Anyway, Evil! Alberico kills everybody except for Sandre, and Sandre escapes, and he joins our precious
fellowship team. And then… Well, I let myself to point out the merriest or the most controversial fragments.
On their road, our heroes encounter a sorcerer, Erlein di Senzio, who might be useful for their case (Erlein is another sooo much Italian name; really, it reminds me more of Erlend from Kristin Lavransdatter than of anybody else). Alessan forces Erlein to serve him, because the princes of Tigana are the descendants of the god Adaon, and they are able to control mages. Hidden racism (our hero is Better One because he is a descendant of a god) so much. But what is more important, Erlein is portrayed as a selfish and impolite character, and then, a reader may feel that Alessan is justified. No, he isn’t. And I don’t care that binding Erlein wasn’t pleasant to him, and that he played a Senzian song for the sorcerer, and we are repeated how Moving and Touching it was. No. I don’t buy it.
Meanwhile, we meet Dianora, the Baerd’s sister and the beloved misstress of Brandin in his
haremshaisan. Dianora is apparently a Woman with Past. At first, she fell in love with her brother soon after the Tigana’s conquest. Then, when he left, she soon left their family region, too, and she became a prostitute in a mountain inn. OK, I’m not going to judge the incest plot (which is a bit pointless, anyway, because there was nothing incestous in the relations of these two before Tigana’s fall). But I’m angry again with the trope of a waitress-prostitute. The whole thing is portrayed as there is nothing problematic with the sex for money, as “such women need to exist” and so on. Maybe my imagination is too rich, but it is not difficult for me to realize that the sex with random guys with whom you sleep because you need money, is nasty. It is unfair. And justifying it is exactly like justifying slavery. Or serfdom. Or poverty. Because, ya know, somebody has to do nasty things ’cause the world always had been so.
Anyway, Dianora is one of the most grey characters in the book. She loves Brandin, she sees the whole thing from a different perspective than the rest of the POVs. She is neither a fanatic, nor a traitor. She is torn between the memory of Tigana and between the love towards Brandin. She isn’t also a stereotypical misstress/courtesan. She is clever and cautious, and she is past her thirties. For that heroine, I really have to praise GGK, even if he portrayed the Ygrath people and the Brandin’s court quite inconsistently — who knows which nation was the main inspiration, the Turks, the French or some Celts?
Do we have a believable woman character? Then it’s time for a Walking Stereotype. Let’s meet Alienor, an old friend of Alessan and Baerd. She is supposed to be very feminine and very aware of her feminity. Because she has painted nails and she has herself painted as a naked copulating goddess. Yeah. Remember, girls — only a local form of Playboy photographs make you feminine and self-aware! What is more, she is about forty, but she looks like twenty. And her dressess and hairstyle resemble more of Regency fashion than of any Reinessaince female clothing and style. And she has completely random and pointless sex with Devin, with some BDSM elements. Yes, she is a Sensous Woman prefering Younger Men. And this is why I’m so tired of Alienor. She isn’t feminine — because every woman, ciswoman or not, can have her own definition of feminity. She is so stereotyped that even hilarious.
Meanwhile, Baerd takes part in a spiritual battle between Good Nightwalkers from the Peninsula and Evil Sorcerous Brandin’s Army. Yeah, it’s the level of all these numerous fantasy books, where one side is the Good One, and the other one, the Bad One. Even if GGK declares that he wanted to make the struggle in the book dubious, it isn’t so.
After that Crucial Moment Alessan has an appointment on a mountain pass. He meets with Marius, the king of once ruled by priestesses Quilea. Marius is apparently based on some Ancient Roman priest supposed to guard a sacred oak, and he is the Good Guy. And guess why? Because he overthrew the Evil! Quilean Matriarchy. SPOILERS OK, it wouldn’t be so antifeminist if only the Peninsula was some kind of an equarchy. But on the Peninsula, the patriarchy apparently rules. Women are often prostitutes (and we don’t meet any male sexual workers), usually only widows do any financial business, and the goal of most young women is to marry profitably. So, it’s the patriarchy, and criticizing matriarchy in the face of this… Is just chauvinist. The attitude towards the social issues is another trouble in GGK’s books. In his later writings, he seems to see gender inequalities, but his only solution is something like “Maybe some day there will be a world where men and women will be equal”.
SPOILERS Then Alessan, Devin and Baerd travel to a cloister where Alessan’s mother,
local Javanne Hastur, lives. She is an Embittered Old Woman considering Alienor a whore. We can also observe an interesting turnover there. Previously, the priests in this book were shown as homosexuals trying to seduce Devin, or as Evil! Colaborants with Brandin/Alberico. But now we see Benign Monks supporting Alessan’s case and tending to his dying mother.
OK, but what’s the end? Don’t be afraid, nobody from our fellowship will die. Only poor Dianora commits suicide after Brandin’s death. The Peninsula of the Palm is Free!, Alessan is going to marry Catriana, and he will probably become the king of the whole peninsula. Prince Sandre wants to study magic in Tigana. Erlein finally feels the part of the Team. Baerd is going to marry one of the Nightwalkers. Devin is the fiance of Alais di Astibar, the daughter of Rovigo (which is a place name, not a human name) the sailor. I didn’t mentioned her before because she was as bland and as black-haired as Melanie Wilkes. He is going to visit Alienor again, anyway. Double Moral Standards rules! SPOILERS It is also worth to notice that Alessan is fourteen years Catriana’s senior. Men slightly older than their beloved women will reappear on the pages of GGK’s books.
I’ve pointed out some problems I had with this book. I’ll return to it, but now I’m going to praise Tigana for something. Because, you see, this book is very climatic and truly inspired by the Italian culture. GGK evoked many Italian and Ancient Roman associations: belcanto, famous sculptors and artists and their aristocratic patrons, cherished poets, warring and divided duchies, the Decameron-esque frivolity, unique flora, the oak symbolism. I was surprised discovering that even the ring-diving was inspired by an Italian fairytale, and the Nightwalkers — by the benandanti, and that the name of Dianora isn’t made-up. Oh yes, some names — like Devin, Alais or Garin, or the khav drink — weren’t Italian at all, and the whole vision apparently lacked some powerful merchants, bankers and city-states. But the vision as the whole is Italian-like, and only that should matter.
What is more, Tigana isn’t mostly about aristocrats or only about aristocrats. Oh yes, it follows the pattern of common people meeting kings and engaging in The Great Politics, but most characters are from the commonfolk. Devin is a son of a farmer, Catriana — the fisherman’s daughter, Baerd and Dianora — the children of a sculptor. Nobody judges them by their origin or considers them not good enough because of their commonfolk roots. What is more, here not only warring and schemes are described in details — but the work of musicians or sculptors, too. The daily life isn’t highlighted enough for me, but still, it is much better than in the most fantasy books.
So now, let’s complain again. Brandin and Alberico were supposed to be based on the rulers of France and Habsburg Empire which torn Italy apart in the sixteenth century. But there is nothing French in Ygrath except for two or three names, and the Empire is supposedly German-like only because the Evil! Alberico’s soldiers are stereotypically fair-haired. You see, these two countries, the invaders, are just underdeveloped. We know almost nothing about their customs, and we are shown only these interactions with the autochthons which are the cruel ones. Then, we cannot imagine any parallels to the France and to the Holy German Empire, because the given information is too scarce. The Peninsula of the Palm is the only fully described and developed setting.
Another problem is that Tigana is just another one high fantasy, without that peculiar sense of realism which will be essential for the next GGK’s books. It is not even the question of too pathetic style, not really different from The Fionavar Tapestry one. You see, it is the world where the politics is made by Tolkien-esque Team of Characters and one Epic Final Battle, and where a prince could marry a fisherman’s daughter, and where a child confesses that her father has stroke her only once (just compare it to even nowadays acquiescence for children’s corporal punishment). And the marriage of Alessan and Catriana is just improbable, out of a fairy tale. In a normal Medieval or Reinessaince world, with all that Altar Diplomacy, rulers didn’t use to marry commonfolk girls. They might rape them, harass them, make them their mistresses, but they didn’t use to marry them. A marriage with a girl without allies or influential kinsmen was just unuseful. Omitting classist barriers and prejudices in such books is not liberal or progressive — it is naïve. Let’s not pretend that an Early Modern Period-like world would be egalitarian, OK?
This leads us to another problem. Because, you see, from a Reinessaince-like perspective, the main plot does not make sense. Nationalism is a quite fresh concept. And – before turning towards fascism – it was usually connected with nineteenth century liberal ideas of freedom and equality. The American War of Independence, the uprisings in nineteenth-century Poland or Italy, or in the countries of South America (Simon Bolivar and Jose San Martin send their greetings) weren’t only about the independence of a particular country or an ethnic group, but also about some social and worldview questions. As for their times, they were quite liberal, antimonarchist, pro-democratic, or even revolutionary. Such issues like freeing the peasants from the serfdom, voting rights or freedom of speech were raised.
However, they aren’t raised by Alessan and his buddies. He has exactly nothing to offer the commonfolk. All his offer comes to replacing the feudal rules of Brandin and Alberico with the feudal rules of himself. And guess what? In a real world, it wouldn’t work. Peasants weren’t interested in nationalism, because the national identity didn’t exist. The neighbourhood was the whole world often, the dialects in one country tended to vary, and so on. They were, of course, some commonfolk uprisings – like Wat Tyler’s – but they were usually about economical issues, not about any kind of nationalism. If you have to work hard for the privileged ones, you aren’t going to feel any national bonds with them.
So, the idea of national uprising would work. But on a smaller area. Or in a different setting.
You see, Tigana has irritated me on many levels, and believe me or not, Devin was the most irritable. But the warm and evocative atmosphere of Italy is undeniable. The story is more dense than “The Farseer Trilogy” plot, the setting is more imaginable than famous Martin’s Westeros. Even if the plot follows typical fantasy pattern, just try to read this book for the Peninsula of the Palm.
Oh, here are the GGK’s books which I’ve found the most irritating! Here are almost all the flaws of his writing: too pathetic style, creepy sex, irritating protagonists and cardboard antagonists, stereotypical women characters, bitchy womanizers whom readers are supposed to like, and not efficiently used tropes from real cultures and myths. Do you think then that I consider Kay a bad writer? No. But here will be GGK at his worst, so — beware!
The plot is quite simple: Dave, Kimberly, Jennifer, Paul and Kevin are students from Toronto. They are drawn into the world of Fionavar by a mage called Loren Silvercloak. They are supposed to defeat
Sauron Rakoth Maugrim. Dave gets lost on the plains of Native Americans Rohirrim Dalrei, but the others manage to arrive to the capital city of Brennin. There is an Old Sick King there, with his brilliant gold-haired son Diarmuid. We are constantly repeated how Brilliant and Charming he is, although he has all the traits of typical fuckboy and he is verbally harassing Jennifer. The elder son, the withdrawn Aileron is frustrated and left the city.
Some other characters are: tearful leader of Dalrei, princess Sharra from Cathal (her father’s main activity will be brawling in taprooms) and Jaelle the priestess who is embittered because she is The Terrible Feminist.
Here is the beginning. But the further, the more funny. What will we have there except tons of pathos and sugar? SPOILERS Sharra will get engaged to Diarmuid after a very turbulent relationship. Evil!Rakoth will rape Jennifer to have a demi-god child. Jennifer will turn out to be Guinevere, that Guinevere. Kevin will die in sacrifice-sex ritual, because sex has always moved him deeply (lol). Dave will knock up a goddess. Kim will be a seer, and once she will even have sex with Loren who is looking like a man roughly eighty years old. The child of Jennifer and Evil! Dark Lord won’t choose the Dark side. He and Diarmuid will die heroically — each in their own way — during typical Battle Good Vs. Evil. But 90% of characters will end happily, so don’t worry about them, dear reader. SPOILERS
Well, the true is that the biggest flaw of this trilogy are its characters. I don’t mind all the parallels to Middle-Earth (I suppose that if Kay hadn’t edited Silmarillion, they wouldn’t have been noticed so eagerly), Narnian-like plot device of wandering between the worlds and typical trope of Dark Lord. I don’t mind that the main commonfolk representative are our five characters from Earth. I don’t mind stereotypical portrait of Celtic-like Brennin with all these Irish Gaelic names, priestessess of Goddess and fertility rituals — and yet it isn’t Celtic enough and climatic enough for me. It is just a trivial vision using the most popular Celtic tropes taken from The Mists of Avalon. I don’t mind that cultures based on Native Americans (Dalrei) and Middle-Eastern (Cathal) are also stereotypical. Remember, Dalrei have shamans and pavillons, and in Cathal there are slaves and gardens! I don’t mind because these cliches at least aren’t racist in comparison to Eddings or C. S. Lewis. In Fionavar Tapestry people differ, but they are never described as ugly because of their skin colour, and they are not condemned to support the Evil One because of their ethnic origins (so much better in comparison with Narnia books or The Belgariad). Descriptions of Evil!Dwarves or urgachs and svart alfars depicted as random monsters are actually more disturbing (I suppose that this particular kind of racism we “owe” to Tolkien).
Anyway, Fionavar at least is colourful, even if quite generic. The characters are much more problematic to me. The main trouble is that the author often inclines how we should perceive particular characters. For example, we should love Diarmuid, and find Aileron too serious and too dull. Actually, I hate Diarmuid and I love Aileron. I don’t care what GGK would think about that. Diarmuid is just impulsive and shallow womanizer. If he was charming at least… But he isn’t. He is almost a rapist bastard. At first he harasses Jennifer. Then he seduces Sharra. Yes, seduces, because their sex couldn’t be find wholly consensual. Then, when Sharra rejects him in Brennin, he tries to break into her bedroom. He receives only cold shower from a bucket. Team Sharra! I don’t care that he is friendly towards Kevin and Paul. I don’t care that eventually he remains faithful to Sharra. I don’t care that he dies heroically at the end I suppose that his death was mainly to convince sceptical readers that he is Sooo Good and brave, and unselfish. And, besides, sometimes it is more easy to die heroically than to live with the weight of responsibility. That is why I prefer Aileron. He was always underestimated and I pity him as a human being and as unfavorite author’s character. He is just calm and responsible, and I would choose him over brilliant dandy guy like his brother.
The true is that I just don’t like Diarmuid. I don’t like all these womanizers portrayed like progressive apostles of love. Because there is damned difference between polyamory or free love, and between typical patriarchal dudes fucking everything which moves except for other dudes. In free love or polyamory, every member of a relationship can choose how this relationship should be like. Womanizers have sex with many women even if their partners want monogamy. Because, you know, boys will be boys and so on. They are also not despised for their behaviour, while women leading similar sexual life are victims of slut-shaming. Ok, that is not much of it in “The Fionavar Tapestry” — Kay’s books aren’t like that — but, on the other hand, some problems aren’t noticed, either. For Kay it seems to be completely normal that serving maids in inns are literally prostitutes and have sex with the inn’s customers. No, it is neither funny, nor normal. It is the part of patriarchal system and does not differ much from raping a peasant woman or a servant girl. Because such women have sex not because of desire or love — they just need money, no matter how our Kevin and Diarmuid are precious and handsome. It is also quite improbable that these girls wanted to work as waitresses-prostitutes. As in our world, they were probably too poor or uneducated to gain a different job.
And this lead us to another problem and another character. Oh, Jaelle! She is supposed to be irritating and embittered, and guess why? Because she is a local feminist and she sees that the position of Brennin women is shitty. Flashbacks with Evil! Darkovan revolutionists so much — let’s overdraw every group/character which sees inequalities and fights against them! And again, I like a character which I wasn’t supposed to like. Because Jaelle is right, no matter that Kay doesn’t see he created a patriarchal society. Jennifer may talk that our world is patriarchal, too. It is, but Fionavar is more. Really, in Canada in the ’80s women at least were allowed to study, to take part in political life, to inherit equally with men — nothing of this can be said about Brennin women. The only influential ones are the priestesses.
From gender roles we may as well return to sexual questions. Because sex in these books is creepy. And characters become even more unbelievable because of that. And I warn you — in the next books, there won’t be much improvement in this question.
The problem is not casual sex. When, let’s say, Bradley describes in her later Darkover books sex between people who are neither lovers nor married couple, it makes sense. They have sex because they are friends/ they need consolation/ they want to overcome their fears about intimacy/ whatever. Anyway, it makes much more sense in comparison to The Fionavar Tapestry‘s encounters! At Bradley, something cames out of sex at least. People learn that they are good friends, that they are happy together or not, that they feel something towards another human being or not. Yes, for this I must praise her, even if I’ve found Darkover cycle so dubious.
In this trilogy often… People have sex and their relation doesn’t evolve at all. They just part, or they meet several months later and “By the way, I’m pregnant. How should I name your kid?”. Sex is so random here that it could be omitted as well. Liane and David, David and hunting goddess, Diarmuid and random lady-in-waiting, Kim and Loren… Who cares. Oh, wait. Kim and Loren are a bit problematic to me. Not because Loren is old. It is because that he is about… Sixty years Kim’s senior? It’s creepy, no matter that it is a mad feast time. Yeah, sexual feast/carnivals will become GGKʼs specialty. As well as useless encounters between random characters.
Another problem is the style. Pathos, pathos, pathos. Everything is dramatic and profound, everything should move the reader deeply. It doesn’t. Sometimes it is just boring, sometimes irritating. Subtle indications on the level of “THIS EVENT IS CRUCIAL AND IMPORTANT!” don’t help, either. Indicating how you should perceive a particular scene just makes me angry.
When there is no pathos, there are typical fantasy POVs instead. There is nothing outstanding in GGK’s writing, although I must admit that over the years, he’ll establish his specyfic, original style.
You see, these books are better than Shannara or Belgariad cycle. Only one positive characters, our Divine Diar, is particularly nasty. The world is colourful even if generic. The characters have their own drawbacks and problems, they are not heroes in the meaning of old myths. Many of them are quite believable.
But there are just better high fantasy books. More classical, like LoTR. More subversive, like the whole series about Thomas Covenant. And The Fionavar Tapestry is by no means the best work of Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s the worst one, but also the first one. I can console you that later, it will be only better.
I didn’t know how to start this post, because the books of Guy Gavriel Kay were always problematic to me. I’ve read them all except Ysabel, Under Heaven and River of Stars. And after reading, I’ve had almost always ambivalent feelings about plot devices, characters, style, creepy sex, stereotypes and worldbuilding.
Usually I analize some particular book series written by one author, examining them through certain questions like racism, feminism or commonfolk attitude. Here I am going to do something different — analyze usually stand-alone book in more short form, but still touching these questions. To sum up, the posts probably will be more similar to reviews than to articles or essays.
Naïvety, Hypocrisy and Conformism
I must admit that ASOIAF — plainly written and overloaded with sex and curses as it is — is at least more realistic. Oh yes, Mr Martin also doesn’t care about commonfolk, but at least he is well aware that feudalism isn’t helpful for ordinary people. He is aware that being an assassin will twist you somehow sooner or later. He is aware that public executions are useful. He is aware that people would have extramarital sex, no matter what the customs or precautions are. And for all that, I admire The Song of Ice and Fire despite of its drawbacks.
Well… The Farseer Trilogy is not so sober. Which makes some particular fragments very funny. For example, Chivalry created a political scandal fathering Fitz. Because having an illegitimate child is a shame and disgrace for a royal family member. Tell it to Edward IV York. Or to Henry II Plantagenet. Really, bastards were common in the royal families. And usually they weren’t treated like outcasts, they were provided with land, profitable marriage or some important church office (if we are talking about Europe). What is more, in some cultures (Celtic Wales) only children not acknoweladged by their fathers were considered bastards. So, yeah, our Fitz brought up in the stables is poor in comparison with historical royal bastards.
At first I was surprised that in Six Duchies both men and women are condemned for having illegitimate children and extramarital sex. It is apparently less hypocritical than customs which had lasted in the Western society till, roughly, 1960s. But then I realized that adding a relative gender equality to it is quite improbable. Historically in less patriarchal societies women weren’t condemned for extramarital sex or illegitimate children (for example Etruscans). Criticizing people for informal relationships was common, on the contrary, in the puritanical and patriarchal societies. I’ll come back to this question anyway, in the next section of the article.
Attitude towards sex is just strange here. Burrich is the most funny example. In the Assassin’s Aprentice he warns Fitz about premarital sex. Because it leads to prostitution (facepalm) and having a bastard is a shame. What is more, it seems to be that for about ten years of his stay at the Buckkeep, Burrich had sex only once. Yeah. Also, he is almost a drunker, but he is Alooone and Lamed, so who cares. Remember, kids: drinking is understandable. Being an assassin is understandable. But premarital sex is not. At least this could be the conclusion of the first book, even if the following ones are more dubious in such questions.
I am tired of unhuman sexual relationships described so lightly in so many books, where men especially treat sex only as a need, with no friendship or love (like almost all Darkover male protagonists before meeting their True Love). I am tired of characters going to prostitutes or treating their sexual partners like sex workers. But the opposite site is equally ridiculous. Really, couldn’t there be any friends-lovers, or lasting but informal relationships among these characters? But not, here you can have only marriages or random sex at the feast, or Great but Forbidden Love of Fitz and Molly.
There are many worse things than extramarital sex between two adult, unrelated, willing people. And in these books, they are being relativised much more eagerly. The whole question of Fitz being an assassin bothers me especially. I know that our culture is based on Dubious Criminals (just look at Robin Hood and then at all these mafia movies). I know that human choices tend to be difficult. But Fitz doesn’t become a killer because of poverty, revenge or something like that. He becomes a killer quite accidentally, because he needs the acceptation of his royal grandfather. I don’t care that he Doesn’t Like Killing. Murder is dubious and it would be nice if it was highlighted more frequently. But not, it is usually “I’m so poor being an assassin, I want a peaceful life oneone!!!”. Justification of killing is even more ridiculous in these books (maybe except for the case of the poor Forged Ones). For example, Fitz kills a rapist baron because the king ordered him so. He doesn’t regret it. Rape is a terrible crime, and here a servant girl was raped, additionally. The criminal should be punished, but… Why by an assassin? Shouldn’t the punishments be more official? Public? To show the people king’s justice? To prevent crimes? The crown is the crown, Hobb! Not the Corleone family. This is probably my worst problem with the whole plot of Fitz’s work. It is unrealistic and a bit naïve. The mix of sermons and assassinations is just strange.
Also, I’m very amused by the one particular aspect of these books. It seemed to me that they try to satisfy everybody: more liberal ones and more conservative ones. I really don’t like talking about political correctness, but I don’t know how to name such an evasiveness otherwise. There are no non-white characters? But look, the Farseers and the OutIslanders are dusky, you can always imagine that they are looking like black people or Native Americans! No LGBT people? Oh, but you have Fool, whose gender is nondescript and who loves Fitz at once! And you can always read the prejudice against the Wit as the symbol of intolerance! No sexual behaviors dubious from the traditional perspective? Just wait for Fitz and Molly affair, and then for Fitz comforting Starling!
Patriarchy or Equarchy? Who knows…
Reading The Farseer Trilogy at first I was positively surprised by the gender roles in the Six Duchies. There was the absolute primogeniture instead of “The eldest son inherits everything”, the women were soldiers, swordmasters, crafters, artists, there was Molly who always wanted to be financially independent. I was delighted by Burrich taking care of little Nettle, and Mountain Kingdom seemed to be even more egalitarian. So far, the universe was supposedly more equarchal than patriarchal. Gender roles were questioned, some women were soldiers, some men — babysitters. But then I saw some flaws to this picture. More than flaws. Ladies in waiting like taken from a typical medieval court with sewing and gossips. Blaming women for childless marriages, like in the case of Patience. Mentioning that Buckkeep needed a “woman hand” of Kettricken — really, I suppose that a man wouldn’t grow ovaries because of the castle management. And then poor Starling. She blamed herself for the war gang-rape because she used to have premarital sex. And because the rape is a disgrace only for maidens and widows. Or something like that. Slut shaming and victim blaming so much. I am even not going to explain on how many levels it is so bad. I can say just one thing: this is only the proof of inconsistent worldbuilding. The world condemning extramarital sex so much and blaming the victims of sex crimes cannot be woman-friendly. Also, to be less serious, the mix of women soldiers and stereotypical court ladies is quite improbable. Maybe Hobb wanted both Women With Power and typical Medieval-like kingdom. You couldn’t have both. It just doesn’t work. So I have still no damned clue is there equarchy or patriarchy in Six Duchies. Especially that sending women into war is not exactly egalitarian. It is only the affirmation of patriarchal values based on violence and killing. In such system you are equal, because you join the men. On the other hand, except Burrich you have no other man who would really cross stereotypical male roles. Sooo… Yes, these books are more problematic than I supposed.
Commonfolk Concern Illusion
I’m enough experienced in the fantasy literature to know that depicting commonfolk is often only a pretense. You know, for example, the main hero was brought up on a farm, but he is from a royal family (Belgariad so much). Hobb, although in comparison with Eddings is much better and non-sexist writer, makes the same errors and tricks when it comes to the descriptions of commonfolk. It is actually funny that even conservative Tolkien wasn’t so classist. Frodo and Sam were no noblemen, and yet they saved the Middle-Earth, and they didn’t do it directly because “Aragorn is the Rightful King!”. What is more, born into a poor gardener’s family, Sam would later become a mayor of the Shire’s capital. Ok, I must confess that I’m sentimental when it comes to Tolkien, but really… LoTR is not bad as for a book published over sixty years ago.
Hobb tries to convince us that her books concern the commonfolk. No, they don’t.
Let’s begin with Fitz. He is a bastard and his mother was from commonfolk. He was brought up by the stable master, but then he lives in the royal castle since he is eleven. What is more, he uses his royal position often (for example, by taking the lessons of Skill), even if these Evil! People would call him a bastard. He is no commoner. He lives among the royalty and he is acknowledged as the Farseer, even if an illegitimate. Even Patience, the wife of his deceased father, comes to like him. The real common people do not have their own voice here. They are only useful when it comes to show that The Good Ones care about them, and that the kingdom Is Suffering from the war. They are also helpful to indicate who is loyal and who is not towards Shrewd and Verity. And to show that low-born girls marrying much older aristocrats are Stupid Social Climbers overfeeding their pets, and that only Wise Fitz can change their behaviour. Mansplaining and classism so much.
Except Burrich, Molly and Starling, there are exactly no important and significant characters born as the commoners. It doesn’t matter that Fitz is working as a herdsman during his second travel to the Mountain Kingdom or as a rower during the war. It seems to me that Hobb invented him such jobs just because she didn’t know how to show the life of ordinary people or enrich the plot full of journeys and political intrigues. Because, yes, The Farseer Trilogy is no different from the 90% of fantasy books (I don’t count here harlequins so-called paranormal romances). They are almost always about war, intrigues, royalty, killing, magic/magic schools (delete where not applicable). And in Medieval/Early Modern-like setting they are usually focused on aristrocracy. All these things apply to the Fitz’s story.
Even his relationship with Molly would fit the pattern The Prince and The Commonfolk Girl. Fitz cannot marry her because king Shrewd wants him to have an arranged marriage. Earlier, he discovers the port and the city (Discovering Ordinary Life) thanks to the childhood acquitance with Molly. The question of “I won’t be a
gangster an assassin no more Kay Molly!” must wait a bit. We’ll got it later.
Feudalism Sucks? Again… Not!
Are you tired of all these books and series where the solution for unjust rules is The Rightful Monarch instead of some, let’s say, good democratic republic? We’ll, then you should be tired of The Farseer Trilogy as well. The Six Duchies is a typical feudal kingdom with castles and aristocracy, and with peasants who don’t have the land for themselves. Unjustice of this social order is never raised, and the social order — never questioned. It seems that the commonfolk is happy under the rules of the Farseers, and for all the calamities only the OutIslanders and Regal are to blame. But this system is just ineffective, and the war makes it clear. The king is actually unrestrained by any councils or parliaments (still I don’t know it is a patrimonial or an absolute monarchy) so all the decisions are made by him. The garrisons, for example, are only in few bigger cities, and in the case of invasion, the princes of particular lands must gather their own, private armies. What is more, the Good King does not see that he had An Evil Son… And voila! One-person-rules are sooo effective, indeed.
Hobb just doesn’t see one thing: that undemocratic monarchy is unpredictable. If Regal were the eldest child, he would do all these terrible things (like not helping at all the attacked duchies or killing the Forged Ones on arenas) lawfully. He would have the right to do it, and only another kind of feudal violence might have stopped it. So nice that Verity is the oldest prince and The Rightful Heir… How convenient. It is even better. The Farseers are the Good Ones, because — according to the Fool’s prophecies — they are crucial for saving the world from the outburst of Forge epidemy. Kings are good because without them only the zombies would remain. Facepalm. It is actually the core of political and social attitude of these books.
Another question is the blind loyalty towards king promoted here. Maybe the word blind is too blunt, because positive characters still have the right to question their loyalty, especially when it comes to some private questions like marrying for love. Fitz is angry towards Shrewd for forbidding him to marry Molly, and it is portrayed as perfectly understandable. Till he meets Chade, and Chade — as many times before — tells him that king knows better what is good for Fitz. And, sooner or later, Shrewd and Verity are more important for Fitz than Molly. Somehow I am not surprised at all that she leaves him. Anyway, Farseers are more important for him than anybody else.
You see, Fitz’s loyality is disturbing for me because it is so personal. He may declare that he loves both the folk of the kingdom and the Six Duchies themselves, but it is not the land and the people. He loves Verity and he feels obliged to Shrewd. You see the difference? It is not something that should be promoted, I think. You should love your region/country/neighbourhood/people around you. Not a Strong Leader (Darkover flashbacks).
This personal, feudal and almost mafia-like loyalty is typical also for other characters. Chade, the Shrewd’s bastard brother, has been working for him for years. After king’s death, he actively and openly supports Verity. Burrich admits that his love and loyalty towards Chivalry made him a better man. Although… Not, it is not even something like that. It is like “I was a frustrated and angry descendant of slaves, I was behaving like an animal, and then your Marvelous Father made a man of me.” You see? That stupid commonfolk always needs a leader to obey and admire.
And, of course, the bad ones and the morally ambigious ones support Regal. His partisans are Ruthless. They Use Tortures (but nobody cares that Our Precious Chivalry actually had forced Evil! Galen to be loyal to him. Mind rape, anybody?). They are Making Fun in Fanciful Clothes while the Commonfolk is Dying. So subtle, indeed.
I’ve read the whole Narnia and Earthsea series, and I know well not only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin, too. As you see, I was more focused on the classical fantasy series than on the books which have became popular more recently. The Song of Ice and Fire is an exception. I’ve read dozens of fantasy books, but usually not the most famous ones. I’ve only heard about Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Robin Hobb or Brent Weeks. A few months ago I decided to read some of both very popular and relatively recently written fantasy books. I choose to begin with Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy. It was commonly praised as a really well written fantasy, lyrical and original. I was a bit sceptical, because when it came down to the style, books of George R. R. Martin — also widely praised — dissapointed me. So, did I like The Farseer Trilogy? Did I find it more original than a typical fantasy book? It is not important, but I’ll try examine these questions at first. Did I expected some subversive or revolutionary descriptions of social tensions, forms of governing and so? Not. And maybe it’s better that I didn’t expect it.
The Style and The Tropes
Many reviewers claims that The Farseer Trilogy is exceedingly well written and original. Well, if we look at the style of these books, we’ll see that one thing distinguishes the trilogy from most fantasy books. It is written not in the third person narration or in a typical POV (like ASoIaF) but in the first person narration. The whole story is told from the perspective of Fitz, a bastard son of prince Chivalry.
Honestly, I do not find it original. Describing the story from the first person narration of a single hero is nothing new to literature. It is actually a method much older than POVs or the stream of consciousness. It was commonly used, for example, by Robert Luis Stevenson. And sometimes The Farseer Trilogy resembles a lot all these nineteenth-century adventure books in its mix of quite detached style and first person narration. The style — as for fantasy books — is very good, apparently better than at Martin’s. I can imagine the Six Duchies much more easier than Westeros. But for me it couldn’t be compared with the prose of Tolkien or Le Guin, or Sofia Samatar. It is outstanding in comparison with most YA and fantasy books, but out of its genre it is just decent. Some descriptions are too long and detached — especially in the Assassin’s Quest when it comes to Fitz’s journey to the Mountain Kingdom — and the vocabulary tends to be… Strange. Probably Hobb wanted her characters to sound archaic, but instead it turns out to be anachronic. I was more amused than captivated by the descriptions of feasts and outfists, and Kettricken’s manners of speaking to Verity made me angry. Damn, even Kristin Lavransdatter didn’t adress her husband in such humbling and formal manner! And yeah, Sigrid Undset’s trilogy (especially in the new translation of Tiina Nunnally) is a good example of making your characters from Olden Days speak normally, with natural and comprehensible dialogues.
And the perspective of Fitz has one, very big flaw. The story told by only one character must be limited. But Hobb found two excusions: fragments of Fitz’s writings, and his Skill ability allowing to perceive things from the distance. From his chronicles we learn about details of the war in the interior Duchies, from his Skill dreams — about that what happened to Molly and Burrich in the last book. The problem with such plot devices is that Fitz is often not there, where something important is happening. Maybe it was intended to be original, but instead I found it dull and uninteresting. And this detachment makes Molly and Burrich plot too distant and not vivid enough. I can’t really care about their feelings and daily life, because they don’t tell about it themselves. It’s quite convenient to describe the whole plot of these two by Fitz’s dreams. And portrayal of Burrich and Molly leads us to another question — the tropes used in the trilogy. Without quite good style of Hobb, these tropes would look much more predictable. We have the whole gallery of archetypes here: a Royal Bastard (Fitz), a Good Old King (Shrewd), a Villain Prince and a Noble Prince (Regal and Verity), an Eccentric Woman (Patience), a Brave Queen (Kettricken), a Loyal Servant and a Harsh But Loving Guardian at once (Burrich), an Evil Sorcerer (Galen), First Love (Molly) and a Mysterious Assassin (Chade). These characters of course have their own dreams, goals, secrets and distinguishing looks, but in their cores they seem to remain archetypes. Nicely developed archetypes (except Regal who is so pretty, cold and greedy villain that it is even funny), but still archetypes. What’s more, it’s hard not to suspect that some of them were actually borrowed from other books, with tropes and customs as well. Kettricken with her pride and courage, with her height and golden hair, reminds me of Eowyn apparently too much. Specific naming custom of giving children names having meanings in the contemporary language is actually exactly like that one in the Earthsea realms. But ok, maybe this was inspired by the Puritan customs (all these names like Harmony or Verity) or the Spanish ones (believe me, names like Soledad or Ausencia have their meanings in Spanish, although I don’t know why people want to call their children “Solitude” or “Absence”). And, besides, Verity reminds me always not of a black-haired, bearded prince, but of Verity Poldark.
There are also numerous predictable plot tropes, especially when it comes to love stories. Molly and Fitz’s story is quite similar to all these stories about kids’ friendship changing into love, and then their Secret and Forbidden Romance (and Hidden Pregnancy as well) is so much like all that guilty-talking in Anna Karenina or Kristin Lavransdatter. When Molly decides to marry Burrich, it’s quite clear that there is another pattern: From Aid to Love and An Old Guy, but A Good Guy. I would be enchanted by their story, if only Burrich wasn’t so much older than Molly. It’s about twenty five years of the age-gap, and Molly is twenty. If she only were five or ten years older, I wouldn’t mind Burrich still being about quarter of century older. Because Molly would be a woman then, not actually a girl. And that is another troublesome aspect about this relationship. Molly married foster-father of her boyfriend. She married a guy about forty five, and SPOILER they had six sons together SPOILER. I don’t know why so many kids with so old man (yeah, believe me, having kids too lately is unreasonable not only for women, but ok, it’s different world). I don’t know why only sons. Maybe there is more inspiration from Kristin Lavransdatter here than I supposed. Anyway, I can’t explain you why, but for me the end of this plot is nasty.
In the relationship of Verity and Kettricken, there is also something disturbing. He is at least fifteen years older, and he is so preoccupied with OutIslanders war that he treats his wife quite indifferently. Kettricken does everything to catch his attention, and all that is just… Sad. Oh yeah, finally they fall in love when Verity must leave for searching of the Elderlings, but the next events in their story are even more disturbing. SPOILERS Regal takes charge, Kettricken must escape, and she losts her child. And then she blames herself for it. And when she and Fitz reach Verity, he is pouring his memories and feelings into a stony dragon connected with the Elderlings. It is crucial for defeating OutIslanders, and Verity is exhausted. He knows he’ll die, but he wants a heir. So Fitz is sleeping with Kettricken, but mentally it is Verity, end Kettricken gets pregnant. It’s… kinky. SPOILERS And, besides, the whole final plot with dragons and Elderlings is insufficient. I can only tell you that it is something like ending the plot of LoTR with the Gollum’s death, and then summarizing the rest on about twenty pages. This was one of the most dissapointing finals I’ve read, especially because the books didn’t have other huge plot flaws.
Yet I must admit that the Hobb’s universe is quite original. Oh yes, the Six Duchies is quite a stereotypical Medieval Kingdom, but it is internally consistent and described vividly. Some aspects, like the naming customs and the position of women, are unique. Yes, I was a bit distracted by the differences of the Buckkeep and Regal’s palace — the first is typically medieval, and the second one reminds me much more of Renessaince buildings. I found a desert in the moderate climate zone improbable, too. But these worldbuilding flaws weren’t big and at least explainable to an extent.
What is really original is the Mountain Kingdom and the forrest realms of the Elderlings (Martin? I supose I know the origins of your Asshai!). I am well aware that this quaintness came mainly from our wont to Western culture tropes and customs. Then Mountain Kingdom, a strange crossover of Rohirrims and maybe… Tibet and Japan? seems to be original. I liked the idea of Sacrifice in particular, and the attitude of the royal family towards work. It is so different from feudalism, authoritorianism and absolute monarchy, but from democracy, too. It is just something alien and original, something which we have to accept even if we are accustomed to different rules.
Mysterious ruins of Elderlings hidden in the forrests — again, we can find similar ruins in our world as well, in Middle and South America, for example. But from Western point of view, it is exotic, and so the lands of the Elderlings are also exotic and mysterious.
As you see, I had very mixed feelings about the style and the tropes in the Farseer Trilogy. I was irritated by many plots and characters, but still I think it was worth reading, especially for the realms and particular customs depicted there. In the next part, I’ll come to the social questions.
NOTE: In the previous parts, I examined the questions important for particular worldview and set of values. I tried to prove (but this was by no means my main goal) that Darkover series is not as progressive as some people would think. That it is not feminist by the modern standards, that it has many classists and racists undercurrents, and so… But now I’ll examine such questions like insonsistent worldbuilding and literary cliches, which are issues regardless of the reader’s worldview.
Inconsistent and Illogical Worldbuilding
From the current perspective, the science background behind the Darkover books is not up-to-date. The planet orbits a red giant sun, is colder than the Earth and the orbital period counts for about 1.25 Terran years. And gravitation is about 0.95 the Terran one. All that information, put together, seems to be contradictory. There is a red giant star, and yet orbital period and gravity are quite close to the circumstances on Earth? Ok, maybe the star has roughly the Sun’s mass (it is possible), but still, the red giants are much more luminous than our sun. People wouldn’t be accustomed to such luminosity, and what is more, the planet would be fried. But OK, the series started in 1958, before all these researches about habitable zones and so. Well, when it comes to gravitation, gravity circumstances might be met, but what bothers me more is the planet’s climate. Darkover is said to be colder than our Earth, with roughly Norway-like climate conditions on its equator. And yet there is a great sand desert with Dry Towns, and this desert is by no means far away from other lands; it should be in the same climate zone in which the other parts of Darkover are! And yet it is hot at day and cold at night, like typical earth-like desert in Africa or Asia. Assuming that in our world there are no sand deserts in boreal and cool-temperate climate zone (which Darkover would suit into), the Darkovan desert shouldn’t exist at all. And, besides, green plants on a planet with red sun are not so obvious. But, again, the first books were published over sixty years ago, when nobody cared about hyphotethical mix of plants’ colour and received light.
Maybe I shouldn’t be nitpicky about some plot flaws and inconsistencies as well. Maybe I shouldn’t care about Cleindori and her two different biological mothers (it depends if you read The Bloody Sun or The Alton Gift). Maybe I shouldn’t care about Kermiac Aldaran and his daughter Thyra, who would be roughly about one hundred-and-thirty and ninety yers old in The Heritage of Hastur, if we took Rediscovery seriously. Maybe I shouldn’t care about how few information we have about Darkovan judical and tax system. Maybe I shouldn’t care about language mix leading to guys called Fransisco Alvarez and Gwyn-Alar Aldaran leaving in a very close neighbourhood. About talking that cahuenga language resembles pure Gaelic, and yet the given samples do not resemble it at all. About fashion mix when you have jerkins, vests, tunics and hooves in roughly the same period. Ok, I shouldn’t. Because there are other inconsistent universes like Middle-Earth and Hain of Le Guin, and yet I love them. Because not everybody is damned philologist like Tolkien. Because if I wrote a fantasy book, the fashion mess would be the same. So… Ok. Let’s don’t care about all these inconsistencies.
Having read The Bloody Sun, The Winds of Darkover and The Forbidden Circle omnibus, I noticed a pattern. The main Terrans characters are all male with some kind of a military or agent past. Their relationships with (often numerous) women used to be brief and trivial until they would meet a Darkovan True Love, usually a bit younger girl from an aristocratic family. Thanks to such a woman, our male protagonist finds a True Home on Darkover. In later books, we have another pattern – a rebellous, go-ahead girl from the commonfolk and a shy, unsure aristocrat like Domenic or Gareth. Honestly, even if this is also some kind of a cliche, I would still prefer such relationships to Experienced Men and Beautiful Virgins in the previous books. Maybe it is actually Deborah Ross’ merit? I found Thunderlord and The Children of Kings much nicer than some original books, so… Thunderlord is also a bit predictable – you have Different but Loving Sisters, a Marriage Shift, a Loyal Servant and Related Rivals. And yet it is more climatic and optimistic than Stormqueen!, and Edric is by no means a Toxic True Love, and even Gwyn-Alar has only one particularly stupid action. And what is more, finally the resolution for wife’s infertility (or, at whole, for marital problems) is not that Darkovan custom of sanctioned male infidelity! So, really, this is nice, easy and readable stuff. Also, at last we don’t have any stereotypical Womanizers-Bastardmakers like Bard di Asturien, Esteban Lanart or Mikhail and Kermiac Aldaran (maybe in this family it is some kind of tradition?).
The books about modern Darkover have some other cliches as well. In Part Two of my essay I’ve examined Regis Hastur as typical Mary Sue. I mentioned Lew Alton, too. He would be quite interesting as a Broken Ruler (really, this trope is very rare in fantasy), but instead he is typical foreground Broken Man character. He had had problems with drinking, he lost his arm due to Sharra’s outbreak, he feels guilty of Deeds From the Past, he is a widower… And Marguerida remembers him as a difficult father, when she was a small child. And here I have a problem. From Sharra’s Exile summary it seems to me that unconscious Lew had been raped by Thyra Darriell, and then Marguerida was conceived. Bradley? Do you really think that a man couldn’t be raped? That he couldn’t feel humiliated? That he might find difficult to love a child conceived of rape? Marguerida is by no means to blame. Yet I think that Lew had reasons, very terrible reasons to have some problems with instant and paternal love towards his child. Although Traitor’s Sun and The Alton Gift are full of retrospections, this particular question is never mentioned.
From these books we can soon acknoweladge that Regis is not the only Mary Sue in this universe. Marguerida is a talented composer, a local feminist and a capable Chatelaine at once, brought up out of Darkover. She has rare golden eyes (the Cullens send approval) and she is always loving and understanding towards her kids. She has shadow matrix imprinted into her hand, and thanks to their Great Love, she can work with Mikhail together without any real matrix stone. In The Alton Gift, the vaccine for dangerous trailmen fever is produced almost only by Marguerida’s effort. Her first son, Domenic, was conceived in The Other World, and he is able to sense the whole planet by his laran, which is Very Unique. And do not forget that he doesn’t want to be a Ruler, that he is always compassionate towards the commonfolk. And that he was a strange and aloof child. Well, I smell two Mary Sues. Not to mention stereotypical villains like Belfontaine or Embittered Old People like Javanne Hastur.
The problem with Darkovan characters (except from some early books like The Planet Savers, The Star of Danger or The World Wreckers) is not that they are really poorly written. They are usually quite believable and very often likeable. Some – like Melora or Gareth – are even original, at least by the series’ standards. But then these characters have very stereotypical Trauma, or they do something apparently too great for one person, and it is so Mary Sue-like.
Maybe it is my whole problem with the series: some things are interesting, fresh, considerate and vivid. And then, when you expect a consequent and consistent work, all the bias, discrimination and stereotypes attack from supposedly feminist and progressive books.
It is not like that I despise all the series. Thunderlord and Two to Conquer are ones of my favourite fantasy books. Darkover, cold, montainous and feudal, is a fascinating place itself. I’m just aware that this series begun as poorly written, typical “sword and planet” stories, and that they are many more progressive writers like Ursula K. Le Guin or China Mieville. If you want to read Darkover books just because you’ve heard that Bradley is feminist, then, well, you’d better pick up something else. If you just want some kind of science fantasy and dynastic family saga without class and racial issues highlighted, then these books would be perfect.