Banner of the Damned is a damned good book.
I had to get that one pun out of the way first. To be honest, I didn’t expect to like this particular big fat fantasy half as much as I did: my fancy for Sherwood Smith’s work is an off-again on-again sort of thing. For me, her YA novels have proved mildly diverting, and while I enjoyed her Inda quartet (Inda, The Fox, King’s Shield, and Treason’s Shore), I can’t say I found them strongly memorable. And I came back to worry at Coronets and Steel and Blood Spirits like a broken tooth — you can’t stop prodding at what doesn’t fit, much as it hurts.
But Banner is different.
Banner of the Damned isn’t the best epic fantasy I’ve read so far this year.* But it’s certainly one of the more interesting fantasies of the epic sort to emerge in the last few years, in terms of what Smith has chosen to do.
*that honour goes to Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts (which may be the best epic fantasy I’ve read so far in my life)
Banner is set in the same world as Smith’s Inda quartet, but four centuries later. It comes in at just under seven hundred pages of text and spans — as near as my rough calculation reckons — something over thirty-five years, although the majority of significant events take place inside a ten-year stretch. Another author might have taken twenty years and ten books to tell the same story: Smith does it in a single, self-contained volume.
To encompass any length of lived time within a single novel without losing the reader’s attention takes skill. It requires a compelling protagonist with a vivid voice, a master’s control of pacing and tension, and — in the case of a novel rooted in first-person perspective — some tricks to illuminate what’s going on (so to speak) back on the farm.
Emras, Banner’s protagonist, is just such a character. When the novel opens, she’s thirteen, a scribe in training in the land of Colend.
Or rather, when her defence testimony opens. For that’s the conceit from which Banner hangs: that Emras is writing out her testimony, since she’s on trial for her life. We don’t learn the crime of which she stands accused until quite late in the book** — if we learned it any earlier, it would rob the proceedings of tension and disrupt the story’s natural progression — but the conceit of a retrospective account permits our narrator to use, when appropriate, a longer perspective, and for Emras to pull back and refer to events from the standpoint of other characters.
**And by then, we understand that although she meant well, Emras isn’t innocent.
Emras is dedicated to her idea — the scribes’ idea — of the Peace, to keep which is their third rule. And to her work. She’s earnest, determined, and loyal, even as the progression of time and events place strains on her loyalties. The story follows her as she matures and joins the staff of Princess Lasva of Colend, sister and heir presumptive to the queen. Colend is a court famous for its style, and Lasva, a princess renowned for her beauty. Politics and personal heartbreak combined result in her marriage to Ivandred, prince and heir to martial Marloven Hesea. When Lasva travels across a continent to Ivandred’s home as his bride, Emras goes with her. But Marloven Hesea is viewed with suspicion by half the world as probably tainted by the magic of evil Norsunder. So Emras is charged, both by Colend’s queen and by the Sartoran Council of Mages, to be on the watch for Norsundrian magic.
But Emras knows nothing about mages or magic. In warlike Marloven Hesea, home to a brutal and suspicious king, she finds a tutor. While Lasva tries to interject Colendi diplomacy into Marloven life, Emras begins to master magic herself, in contravention of the first rule of the scribes: Do not interfere. As her mastery progresses, she starts to suspect that all is not as it seems with her teacher. Norsunder, the evil beyond time, is at work in Marloven Hesea — just not in the way that anyone’s expected. Including Emras.
I have two small problems with Banner of the Damned. The pacing of the last quarter is on the uneven side, as for a time Emras retreats more and more from engagement with the world.*** And the dénouement feels less like a conclusive wrapping-up than a trailing away of loose threads....
***The pacing throughout is remarkably smooth for a book that spans so much time, but it’s — inevitably! — imperfect.
Which is, I suppose, true enough to life. We don’t always get certain endings.
But I found Banner tremendously enjoyable, despite its flaws. Kudos to Smith for giving us a book with an asexual protagonist, in a world where absolutely no hay is made over one’s sexual orientation or the number of one’s lovers (as long as there are no vows of exclusivity) as long as the nobility make their treaty-marriages and bring forth treaty-heirs. That on its own is cheering: it’s immensely refreshing to see characters being (at times relentlessly) sensible and practical about matters of love, lust, and marriage. The characters are interesting, believable, and well-drawn,**** the politics — national and personal — compelling, and there’s plenty of action and excitement to go around.
****In a shocking twist, Banner is filled with women who talk to each other about things other than men. Be still, my beating heart.
I liked Banner of the Damned. Quite a lot, in fact. So if you’re looking for solid, interesting epic fantasy, I recommend it to you.
Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin.