Welcome to the weekly reread of The Star Scroll! In this week’s adventure, the Rialla continues, both the marriage market and the races get (sometimes literally) heated, and a midnight meeting raises lots of questions but few answers.
So This Happens: Princess Alasen is an escape artist when it comes to guards and escorts. Today she’s at the rail for the races. The young men are showing off the horses, and she has her eye on a particularly nice mare, which she intends to ask her father to buy for her.
She knows she’s been brought here to choose a husband. She’s watching the mare’s rider, her father’s squire, Sorin of Radzyn Keep—but she’s not thinking of him as husband material. They’re just good friends.
She wonders what his twin Andry is like—probably terribly serious—and then is captivated by a truly beautiful young man who turns out to be Riyan. The person who tells her this is his father Ostvel.
Ostvel recognizes her despite her incognito, from her resemblance to, among others, Sioned. Ostvel notes that Alasen has drawn the eye of another young man, who happens to be none other than Andry.
There is a little bit of teasing and chuckling, then the riders put on their grand finale. Ostvel asks Alasen’s advice regarding a horse for Riyan, and as the crowd breaks up, takes her to talk to the young men. There is hair-ruffling, which Riyan endures with good humor, and some teasing. Sorin introduces her to Andry. The teasing and the meetings and reunions continue at some length.
Alasen finds the “affectionate abuse” surprising—her family does not do this; they’re very much on the side of polite respect—but decides it’s all about how much they love each other. She reflects that she’s learned to tease, too, and that she’ll miss Sorin’s “constant teasing” when she goes off to be married.
Alasen and Andry end up walking together. He tries clumsily to compliment her, and she finds him “rather sweet.” But he’s a boy and she prefers men.
Sioned and Tobin, in the stands, reflect on the high number of young people looking for spouses this year. There is some political exposition, with reflection on how Rohan is giving cash prizes for second and third places in the races as well as the traditional jewels for the winners, to provide bride prices for the young nobles.
The Princesses evaluate the various fields of marriageable youth, and discuss possible matches. Among many others, Tobin notices a limp blonde. That’s the Roelstra daughter Danladi, Sioned informs her. Tobin also notices that Chiana is in full-on attack-the-likely-prospect mode.
One of Chay’s stallions wins a race. Rohan joins the ladies to watch Tilal win the next race. Sioned notices that Kostas has his eye on Gemma, and Danladi looks worried.
Maarken wins his race. Rohan and Tobin then indulge in a lengthy teasing session, with interlude to discuss the breeding of Sorin’s mount.
The teasing stops abruptly. Masul is riding in the race, and he is wearing Princemarch colors. He is gloating. Sioned is glad Pandsala isn’t here—that might have been ugly.
Rohan is furious, as well, and so is Tobin. Sioned is horrified to realize this is the big steeplechase, the same race in which Rohan was nearly killed twenty years ago.
Sioned evaluates the riders and horses. She notices that Tobin appears to be calm, but she is emphatically not. Sorin has to win, Sioned realizes.
As in Rohan’s long-past race, Sioned conjures sunlight to follow the riders. She senses someone else watching, and keeps herself separate.
Sorin is a perfect rider. Masul is aggressive bordering on abusive. Another rider goes over the cliff—Sioned has to break to tell Rohan. He sets off to order the rescue.
When she tunes back into the race, Sorin’s stallion has drawn blood from Masul’s mount. Magical Fire appears on the trail; Masul tries to force Sorin and his horse into it. Sorin’s stallion jumps over it. Sioned is shocked and appalled.
Masul wins by “half a stride,” through vicious abuse of his horse. Tobin drags Sioned to the rail, where Ostvel rescues them from the crowd. Chay is murderously angry. So is Tobin. Rohan calls her to order. They all, including a deeply concerned Alasen, see that Sorin bears the mark of Masul’s whip.
They’re all enraged at Masul, but Rohan keeps them in order and sends Alasen to keep an eye on the pretender. Then he has to calm Chay down, which he does by telling him to take care of Sorin’s horse.
Rohan and Sioned head for the paddocks, and meet Pol, Maarken, and Andry en route. Sioned ascertains that neither Maarken nor Andry was spying on the race. She then manages, through some maneuvering, to draw Sorin aside and get a detailed report. No one knows who conjured the Fire; they speculate, and Andry and Maarken go off to tell Andrade. Tobin leaves, still in a rage, and Sioned takes Sorin to confront Masul, Kiele, and Lyell.
Sioned tells Lyell to see to his horse—having recognized the colors on the saddle blanket. Masul is condescending to everyone. Sioned notes that “his lack of subtlety marked him as someone else’s son, not Roelstra’s.”
Masul then tells a startled Sorin he won’t be filing a complaint for slamming into Masul’s horse. Sioned intervenes before Sorin can erupt, and drops in a mention of Fire. Masul denies any knowledge of Sunrunner matters. She needles him about the dangers of playing with Fire, and dismisses him. He doesn’t take that well, but he does leave.
She then talks Sorin down and persuades him to wait until tonight, when they’ll meet in Andrade’s tent to discuss the situation. Meanwhile she tells him to smile, and teases him about all the pretty girls who will be after him. He reluctantly gives way.
And I’m Thinking: This chapter must have needed a scorecard to write. It’s not terribly hard to follow despite the overabundance of characters, which is impressive, and the action pares itself down to two clear rivals, with a bit of enhancement from others in the race. There’s lots of horse geekery.
But oh, god, the teasing. It’s unusually self-aware—Alasen’s reflections on it are pretty much spot on—but it just. Won’t. Stop.
That’s a personal reaction on my part, and 2015 Me is also thinking about how we’ve changed our attitudes toward that kind of family interaction since 1989. Not that 1989 Me is terribly happy about it, either. A little teasing goes a long way, says the teased child.
That line about “affectionate abuse”—yep. Emphasis on abuse. I’ll say the Desert crew generally is pretty light-hearted with it, but still. They go on. And on. And relentlessly on. And please, what is with the hair-ruffling?
I hit a wall with it in this chapter. These characters are nicely drawn and likable and it’s easy to keep them straight, but the whole “just like ordinary people aren’t they funny just like us ha ha” thing has me on my last nerve. I am going to have to skim, I’m afraid, if it keeps up (and I know it will; it’s clearly a thing).
At least the action is as exciting as ever. The villains are just a little bit over the top, but that’s entertaining rather than maddening. I find Sioned’s rapid dismissal of Masul’s parentage kind of hard to credit—his lack of subtlety could be a combination of maternal genetics and non-Roelstra-fied upbringing—but we already know he’s not Roelstra’s son, so whatever.
Alasen is getting some good screen time here. It’s clear there’s a conflict taking shape between Sorin and Andry—there’s ominous music in the background. And then there’s the bit of byplay with Kostas, Gemma, and Danladi. Lots of good story-friction setting up as we move on.
So This Happens: A midnight meeting gathers in Andrade’s tent. The attendees are carefully chosen and their identities carefully obscured from outsiders.
We get a short flashback to Masul’s conduct in accepting the jewels for winning his race, and in attending the banquet that followed. Rohan and company are still furious.
This is very much a family gathering, including Urival and, everyone notices, Alasen. Sioned pokes Maarken into announcing that he plans to marry Hollis, who she feels should be present. Maarken’s parents are duly shocked, but they quickly recover and appear to be thrilled.
Andry, sent to fetch Hollis, returns without her. She refuses to come, “because it would be under false pretenses.”
Everyone is baffled, but they don’t ask too many questions. Maarken stalks out. Andrade gets the meeting under way.
Sioned recaps the Fire incident at the race, and her confrontation with Masul afterwards, in which she believes she led him to think “one of us” had done it.
They speculate as to his motives, and as to whether he’s afraid of Sunrunners. Chay observes that whatever the truth is, “he’ll be worried about us.”
This is the first time he’s used the word us in this context, as Tobin notes.
Rohan moves on to discuss how they can turn this to their advantage. He asks Pandsala if she can convince Masul she did it for him, but she says she’s been too obvious about her feelings.
Rohan then asks Urival if it really is impossible that this was done by a corrupted Sunrunner. Urival says he suspects a sorcerer, though they’re supposed to work only starlight. Ostvel recalls old legends from Camigwen’s Fironese home to support the possibility that they may also have used sunlight.
Andrade notes that using starlight is as strictly forbidden as killing with fire. Ostvel replies that Sioned has done it, and pulled in every available Sunrunner in the process. The conclusion he draws is that a sorcerer might have been trained as a Sunrunner.
Urival is appalled. The discussion goes back and forth for some time over whether there is a difference between the two kinds of practitioners, and if so, how they can be told apart. Pandsala says her mother came from somewhere called “The Mountain,” and reminds them that she’s different: she can cross water without trouble. Sioned admires her courage.
Riyan (who might be a sorcerer through his mountain-born mother) draws a parallel between breeding sorcerers through Roelstra and breeding Sunrunners through Andrade’s various machinations. Which brings the discussion back to Masul.
Alasen then reports on her spying mission after the race. Her report is thorough and includes notes on Chiana’s conduct around Masul (and Halian and Miyon).
Rohan sums up the meeting so far, and then dismisses everyone in order to have a private conversation with Andrade.
Maarken meanwhile is hesitating outside Hollis’ tent. He enters and confronts her. They start off quarreling, with her insisting she’s “shamed” him, then upbraiding him for his apparent assignation with Chiana.
Quarrel turns to passion—and is interrupted by a shocked and trembling “Sejast” carrying a cup of taze. Hollis thanks him and sends him away—though not before Maarken notices something “very dangerous” in his eyes.
Maarken brings Hollis the cup, and she tells him the boy brings it to her every night. “It helps when I’m tired.”
They discuss him briefly and rather desultorily. She smoothes things over by offering Maarken some of her taze. He has to leave; he hopes she’ll ask him to stay. She says she can’t see herself as one of his powerful family, and begs him not to “push” her.
He tells her she’s his Chosen and he won’t back off from that. Then he leaves, but not for Andrade’s pavilion. He goes down to the river, feeling as if he’s drunk a whole lot of wine.
Rohan faces Andrade and Urival, and asks them if they can conjure the past in Fire. They are shocked. Andrade doesn’t know if his request is possible. She’s never tried.
She proceeds to do so now, over Urival’s objections. She conjures a vision of the night on the barge when Chiana and Masul were born. She has to pull out before she gets to the actual birth.
Urival is furious at Rohan for making her do this, but she waves him off. She thinks she can manage it in public, though only as a last resort. Pandsala can’t; she doesn’t have the training.
Andrade sends Rohan to bed. As he leaves, much moved by what she’s done for him, he hears her tell Urival to fetch the Star Scroll. “He had what he wanted. And it terrified him.”
And I’m Thinking: This is a major turning point in the Desert family/Sunrunner alignment. Since we know most of what’s really going on, we get a lot of unreliable-narrator moments, and one huge case of the plot-stupids: the complete failure of anyone to catch on to Segev or his plotting. They’re all fixated on anything and everybody else.
But that goes along with the Sunrunners’ ingrained aversion to sorcery as a concept, with no actual knowledge of what it is. It’s tradition. They’ve only just begun to examine, or understand, the assumptions behind it. They don’t yet have a clue as to how far ahead of them the sorcerers are.
Alasen continues to earn her screen time, though shifting Chiana’s reaction to Masul offstage is a big letdown after all the snarking that’s led up to it. That could have happened onstage and not taken up a whole lot more space, and been much more satisfying. Same goes for Masul at the banquet. The whole plot has been leading up to these scenes—and what we get instead is a postmortem.
I find myself wondering if there’s some (or maybe more than some) author regret for killing off Camigwen—also offstage, in the novel that was never written but really should have been. She’s constantly referred to, and she has so many plot-important things to contribute, which have to be introduced at third or fourth hand.
The good guys’ reaction to the idea that some of them might have sorcerer blood is interesting. It’s got almost religious (or racial) overtones, with its concerns about whether evil is intrinsic to the type of magic, or whether it’s not what it is but how it’s used. The good guys are frankly horrified by the possibility that some of them may have, gasp, sorcerer blood, and Pandsala is considered to be enormously courageous for admitting that she might be a sorcerer’s daughter.
The meeting is a bit frustrating for pointing to the scenes that aren’t there and should be, but it does manage to accomplish a couple of useful things. It balances the action of the race in the previous chapter, and sets up the next round of events, while Maarken’s interlude helps keep things moving in further important directions.
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 is now in print. 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.