Part One: Faces in Fire
So This Happens:
Prince Zehava is out hunting dragons with his son-in-law, Chaynal (Chay). The old Prince and the old dragon in rut are a great match—in spite of the disparity in size. Prince Zehava has the gift of understanding dragons; and he loves a good fight.
Meanwhile, back at the Stronghold, Princess Milar and her sister Lady Andrade are arguing about the heir to the princedom, the scholarly and gentle (and very handsome) Rohan. There’s a conflict brewing with a rival prince—a High Prince, no less—named Roelstra, who has a thing about princes who are richer than he is. And Zehava is ridiculously wealthy and not at all afraid to flaunt it.
This is Zehava’s tenth dragon hunt, which is a great thing—he’s ridding the Desert of a dangerous predator—but the current situation, Andrade argues, needs less warmongering and more diplomacy. Rohan is better suited for that, she says, amid a flurry of background and history and ground-laying for the complex intrigues of this long and complicated book. He also a likely candidate for a thoroughly diplomatic and unwarlike resolution: namely, marriage to one of Roelstra’s seventeen daughters.
Milar thinks this is a lovely prospect. Her son! Married to a High Prince’s daughter!
Andrade (who it turns out is her twin), who thinks things through quite a bit more, points out that once Rohan has done stud duty, it’s easy enough for the wily and still fairly young Roelstra to get rid of him, put Zehava in charge of raising his son and heir, and annex the princedom once the already sixty-plus-year-old Zehava has obligingly died.
But Andrade has a solution: marry Rohan off before Roelstra can get at him. She even has a candidate. With looks. And a brain (emphasis the author’s).
While this goes on, back in the Desert, the dragon hunt has literally heated up. Zehava is taking a long, hot time to bring down his prey (only the Prince can slay the alpha male dragon), and Chay, along with his horse Akkal, is getting worried—and doing the math on the effects of eliminating a major breeding sire from the dragon population both present and future. This is population control, with swords and blood—and Chay isn’t sure Rohan will be capable of performing this service.
We get background on Chay, too, while the battle rages to its conclusion a few feet away. The prince is winning. The dragon makes one last, ferocious move, and—
Cut to the fortress again, where Princess Tobin is being a fairly lackadaisical mother to her twin sons Jahni and Maarken. We finally get to see the focus of everyone’s thoughts: Prince Rohan, playing dragon for his nephews to slay. Brother and sister are clearly good friends. Lots of banter, and a rousing good water fight, in which Tobin gives at least as good as she gets, matronly skirts and all.
Then of course things get serious, as Tobin addresses the issue her mother and aunt addressed before her: getting the twenty-one-year-old Rohan married off and producing heirs. Rohan is not exactly on board with this.
He’s also not on board, as everyone else has noted, with hunting and killing dragons. To them, dragons are a dangerous predator. To him, they’re beautiful. “I would rather watch them than kill them.”
With that, and with Tobin’s return to motherly duty, the scene shifts once more to Milar and Andrade, who are playing chess to while away the time until Zehava comes back. Which he fairly promptly does—without dragon, and with mortal wound.
Chay gives a quick summary of the battle’s end and the dragon’s ultimate victory, and while Milar begins to mourn, Andrade does what she can to stitch up the prince and make him comfortable.
Then she turns to Tobin and tells her she has magic. It’s called faradhi, it’s skipped a generation through Milar, and Tobin never learned to use it because she was never expected to need it. This is news to her, but she accepts it right away—along with the fact that Andrade is simply using her.
Faradhi is sun magic, and elemental magic. Andrade begins to instruct Tobin in its use. “Become sunlight, flung out across the land….”
And I’m Thinking:
This book starts off with a bang and plenty of flash. A Prince, a dragon, a hunt. We get a wild and exotic setting, and wild and exotic characters, and names that tell us we aren’t in Poughkeepsie any more. We even get a hint of magic, though for now we’re focused on the physical.
That’s the men’s side. The women’s side is distinctly Stronghold-bound, and heavy on the exposition—setting up setting, background, history, intrigues, and relationships in rapid and sometimes confusing succession. We’re going to need a scorecard, I can tell—early and often.
Still it’s clear who the main players are. We get a distinct sense of individual characters. It’s a little too clear that Our Protagonist is Prince Rohan; everyone thinks about him, talks about him, and even while either lamenting or deploring his unwarlike proclivities, generally acknowledges that he’s the very model of a contemporary Prince.
Then we meet him, and he’s very human, and rather silly. And not all that happy with his imminent need to start producing heirs. He reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond—which I’m sure is entirely not coincidental. Blond handsomeness and all.
Eighties Me is thrilled with the sexy men and the horses that have actual personalities (and correct colors and body parts) and the snappy-tongued women who aren’t just props for the men. She also loves the rich settings, the detailed worldbuilding, and of course—dragons. Wonderful, deadly, beautiful, complicated, ecologically difficult dragons.
2014 Me would like to see a bit less exposition this early on, and really, the key battle happens offstage? And Tobin just seems to, you know, suddenly—have magic?
To which Eighties Me says, “You’ve been editing too many client and student mss. Relax. Just let it flow past you. Enjoy. She did it that way because it was more dramatic, and more tragic, that we learned about it along with the women. You can break any rule if you’re good enough. And this writer is goood.”
All right, says 2014 Me, but could we talk a little bit about those Eighties gender roles, please? Hokay, we’ve got a desert culture where the men fight and hunt and the women wear voluminous skirts and stay in the fort and tend the home fires. That’s fair enough. But do we have to have lines like, “Tobin should have been born a male child,” and, “Not that Tobin was lacking in femininity”?
Oh, sure, that’s Zehava the sexist male speaking/thinking, but still. When we shift into Andrade’s head, we’re still seeing with a patriarchal gaze. Milar gets the looks and Andrade gets the brains. And Andrade’s candidate for Rohan’s bride is “very pretty,…and very well-born…. My dear Mila, the girl has a brain.”
2014 Me understands that that was how we did things back in 1988. But still. Still.
And still, says Eighties Me, this is as female as the gaze got back then, and it’s distinctively female even in 2014. Sexy men in flaring cloaks. Beautiful princes. And smart, forthright, clearly educated women who do a lot more than sit around breeding babies. They’re forces to be reckoned with. It’s clear even in this first chapter, that there will be a whole lot of reckoning.
Judith Tarr’s first epic fantasy novel, The Hall of the Mountain King, appeared in 1986. Her YA time-travel science fiction/fantasy/historical novel, Living in Threes, appeared as an ebook from Book View Café in 2012, and will debut in print this fall. Her new novel, a space opera, will be published by Book View Cafe in 2015. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, two dogs, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.