Welcome to the weekly Wednesday reread of Sunrunner’s Fire! This week the family mourns one of its own, Rohan and Pol demonstrate how their relationship works, and the book ups the ante on several important plots and some potentially devastating conflicts. With bonus operetta-style action.
Feruche: 9-10 Spring
So This Happens: The grieving family gathers in Feruche for Sorin’s funeral. Pol is in charge. Rohan will not enter the place, and Pol does not know why and doesn’t dare ask.
We get a quick overview of the family as it’s currently constituted (and note that Sionell has a little girl; also, Ruala is present).
Tobin wants to know what happened, and Sioned won’t answer. It’s up to Pol. He tells her, with much guilt and self-blame. We learn that Andry also blames him; but Tobin isn’t having any of that, though she also doesn’t blame Andry for what he said in his grief. She recalls the other twin losses in the family.
Tobin continues to grieve, but also to be compassionate toward Pol. Pol is awed. She goes on about how “something astonishing is going to happen” in the desert after so much winter rain: a hundred-year bloom. Then she muses on death and life and rebirth, before asking to be left alone.
Sionell is talking about children. Pol realizes she’s doing it to distract from grief, but he’s still terribly restless.
That night, during the ritual burning of the dead, Pol keeps remembering Ruval. Then Andry attacks him on moonlight, accuses him of letting Sorin die, and rifles through his memories to get information about Ruval and Marron.
Pol tries to be conciliatory, but Andry is vicious about, among other things, Pol’s powers both magical and political. “You’re simply not in my class.”
Pol makes an anger-born mistake: he reveals to Andry that he knows a spell from the Star Scroll. Once they’ve parted, and amicably, he reflects in detail on what he’s just done, and on the widening rift between the faradhi princes and Goddess Keep. Maarken, he knows, is going to be caught in the middle, and soon. The issue with the Sunrunner in Gilad is coming to a head, and Andry is not going to like Pol’s take on the matter.
Pol continues to ponder this in further detail, with further concern about what Andrade tried and failed to do, and a reflection on how the old way of keeping princes and Sunrunners separate existed for a reason.
Luckily for Pol, most of this comes down on Rohan—though he’s guilt-ridden at the thought. Then he reflects that the impulse to revenge against the sorcerers may sway Andry at least somewhat toward Pol, since Andry will be next once Pol is picked off.
Pol is very unhappy. He understands Andry, and he doesn’t like what he sees. Sorin was probably the only viable link between them, and he’s gone.
In the morning, Rohan waits outside of Feruche for Pol to get around to the reason why he’s come to see his father. Finally Pol gets to it: he wants to act rather than react, and go after Ruval. Rohan educates him, at length and in didactic, and Socratic, detail, as to why this can’t happen (with a brief sidenote about how he’s now fifty-one), with extended lecture-discussion about the rule of law, the need for patience, and the reasons why Pol, and not Rohan, is the ruler of Princemarch.
In among all this, we get an interesting tidbit: Desert Princes are always born and always die in a Dragon Year. There is a bit of teasing about this.
Class continues at further length and in exhaustive detail, as Rohan explains most of what he’s done in the trilogy so far.
Finally Edrel appears to announce that Tallain has arrived. Tallain in turn announces that Andry on his way—having communicated this intention through Tobin, who lacks the training to argue with him. Andry has also informed the family that Sorin had a sweetheart who should be told about his death.
There is a bit of byplay about Tallain’s happy marriage with Sionell; Rohan is a bit irritated that Pol didn’t marry her, but she seems to be content. There is also byplay about bringing a bride home to the Desert, with reference to Pol’s increasingly urgent need to do so.
Tallain carries another message as well: Miyon of Cunaxa wants to talk trade. They discuss this, with teasing.
Rohan suspects that Marron and Ruval might be hidden in Miyon’s escort, and the trade proposal might be a cover for something more sinister. Rohan gives orders for Tallain and Riyan (as Sunrunner) to meet with Miyon in Tiglath.
Tallain is openly impressed by Rohan’s exceptional cleverness. Pol grumbles teasingly, but he is, too.
Rohan isn’t, actually: Tallain has figured out motivations and stratagems that he hadn’t actually thought of. The scene ends with more teasing.
And I’m Thinking: The first part of this chapter is very moving in its explication of the family’s grief. Tobin is amazing—complex, nuanced, both grieving and compassionate. She really is one of the best-drawn characters in this trilogy.
After that, we get the bitter confrontation between Pol and Andry, with its complex shifts of emotion and motivation, and the clear explication of the difference between the prince and the Sunrunner. Strong stuff, clearly working to move that part of the plot forward into difficulty and tragedy.
But then we get Professor Rohan’s seminar on royal politics and family history. We’ve heard this all before, up to and including the bit at the end about Clever, Clever Rohan.
Rawn knows how to depict father-son relationships. She does so early, often, and well. But for some reason, whenever Pol and Rohan are together, the human element collapses under a mountain of exposition. Rohan is stiffly preachy. Pol is wide-eyed and persistently plot-stupid. They stop being people and become vehicles for political theories.
This level of worldbuilding is impressive. But the story’s stalled while the exposition goes on and on and on. And on.
So, yeah. I skimmed. I’m shallow. I get that Rohan has Big Geopolitical Ambitions That He Wants Badly to Pass On to His Eager Disciple, er, Son. But he’s so very didactic about it. He doesn’t seem comfortable with Pol at all; and Pol drops 100 I.Q. points as soon as his father starts holding forth.
Tiglath: 20 Spring
So This Happens: The Desert blooms in spectacular detail. Sionell compares this gorgeous but ephemeral phenomenon to Meiglan, with a pause to reflect on the girl’s history, character, appearance, and relationship with her abusive father. Sionell has not figured out why Meiglan is there.
While the children play, Sionell continues to feel sorry for poor, frail, unhappy Meiglan. Sionell drives herself distracted trying to understand why Miyon has brought her to Tiglath.
Sionell decides to see if she can extract information about Miyon, while chattering seemingly aimlessly about all the relatives and all the gossip. Meiglan continues to wilt and seem stupid, and Miyon continues to abuse her. Sionell continues to fail to see what Meiglan is up to, or what her father may be up to through her.
In private that night, Sionell unburdens her frustrations on Tallain. Tallain can’t figure out what’s going on, either, though he certainly has noticed the girl has a woman’s body along with the child’s face and (apparent) mind.
The discussion segues into the trade negotiations that Rohan is evading. They decide Miyon wants Tiglath. They speculate that Miyon is allied with Ruval, and wants to go to Stronghold in order for Ruval to seize it.
They continue to speculate about the plans and motivations of Miyon and the Roelstra grandsons. Tallain plans to stall him until Rohan is ready to let him into Stronghold.
Ruval and Marron share a room and a nice dish about how well their plot is proceeding. Ruval wants to try his disguise around Riyan, but Marron, much more experienced in the art of deception, warns him against it.
Ruval is snide and arrogant. Marron is more cautious, and more prudent.
They both let go of their illusions for the night. Marron spends time reflecting on how the process works, and how it feels. Apparently this is a feature of the magic: at night, sorcerers have to revert to their original appearance.
Mireva, never having been seen by the Desert crew, doesn’t have to do this, as Marron reflects. She’ll be moving into action once they’re in Stronghold.
Marron falls asleep. Ruval gets up and slips out.
All is not well in Mireva’s room. Thanys got complacent, didn’t obey orders, and has lost track of Meiglan. Mireva angrily orders her to find the girl.
While Thanys obeys, Mireva reflects on the difficult logistics of placing herself as Meiglan’s second maid, as well as on the fact that Miyon knows what Meiglan is being set up to do. He doesn’t seem to know who Mireva really is, but he’s on board with the overall plot.
Mireva slips out, with a pause to yearn toward the nursery—but that part of the plot won’t happen tonight. She notices that Tallain’s guard is missing in front of Meiglan’s door. She is scornful and snide with a side of anticipatory glee.
Ruval appears. Mireva shuts him up in a wardrobe, just in time to avoid Thanys dragging Meiglan back to her room. Meiglan wanted a midnight snack. Meiglan whines and stammers, Thanys scolds her, and Mireva assists, until Meiglan is tucked tightly in bed; then Thanys departs and Mireval liberates a protesting Ruval from the wardrobe.
They confer briefly, revealing a plan that involves Meiglan, but not to the point of full-on sexual initiation. Ruval is not enthralled with Meiglan or her choice of perfume.
Mireva hands him something nasty-tasting from a pouch and orders him to eat it while she keeps the other half for himself. She then orders him to assume the appearance of another, unnamed male.
Sioned’s baby wakes her, crying for a toy. Hollis’ twins are also awake and need settling down. On the way back to bed, she notices the guard at Meiglan’s door.
Suddenly there is a scream. Meiglan is awake and crying that there’s a man in her room. The guard hasn’t seen anyone.
Riyan (with an eye on her nubile body) helps calm her down. He lights up the room with Fire, with some teasing from Sionell about wanting to see Meiglan’s body better.
Sionell gets rid of Riyan and concentrates on soothing Meiglan, who is adamant that she saw a man. The man she describes is Pol, down to the rings. But Sionell knows Pol is nowhere near Tiglath, and assures Meiglan it’s a dream.
Meiglan is stammery, fluttery, and suspiciously naïve. Rialt makes sure she has wine to help her sleep, then Sionell withdraws with the squire. Rialt wants to discuss who Meiglan saw in her supposed dream, but Sionell isn’t cooperative.
Sionell returns to her room (with detailed description of the tapestry on the wall) to find Tallain gone. It finally dawns on her why Meiglan is here. She pauses briefly for regret, but she’s happy with her life.
Meiglan is the diametrical opposite of all the strong women in Pol’s life. She’s a honey trap. Sionell can’t stand the thought that Pol might fall for her.
She ruminates at length over the personal and political ramifications of this, until Tallain returns. There is some comic relief about how he’s been convincing his daughter and Hollis’ twins to go back to sleep.
She tells him that Meiglan had a dream, but doesn’t go into detail. There is some teasing, and Sionell reflects that she’s happy, yes, she’s happy. They go to sleep.
And I’m Thinking: Sionell doth protest too much. She’s also become cloyingly domestic, as has Hollis. And she’s massively plot-stupid, as is Tallain, about Meiglan, till suddenly she gets hit with the clue gun.
Sionell’s transformation from tomboy to doting Mom doesn’t perturb Eighties Me much: she shrugs and goes, yeah, well. Happily Ever After. And hey, Tallain takes baby duty—that’s awfully enlightened of him.
2015 Me is seeing a pattern of ingrained sexism through the whole thing, even with the depiction of strong women and relatively egalitarian men. Women get married, start breeding, and turn into variations on the same patriarchal theme. Sionell the married woman is happy, yes, she’s happy. Did she mention she’s happy? She’s happy!
Meanwhile the honey trap is baited with a classic dippy-blonde damsel in distress (but is she really?). The men all have identical reactions to her, about which their women are teasingly indulgent. It’s almost creepy, the way they’re all leering on the male side and indulging on the female side.
On the other claw, we get a picture of domesticity that’s relatively rare in epic fantasy of the period, and a level of accessibility in the characters that makes clear to me, at least, why Rawn’s books were so successful. Readers could honestly relate to the family interactions and the character arcs. And beloved characters sometimes were gutted (alas, poor Sorin), but then the story devoted ample time to showing happy marriages and practical but more than acceptable life decisions.
Meanwhile, the Evil League of Evil is plotting away. The children are at risk—big lurch of tension there—and Meiglan is a poster child for parental abuse. Or is she? And that doubt helps move the story onward.
That story is told in operetta fashion, with midnight escapades, handsome villain locked in a closet, and wicked sorceresses working wicked sorcery to confound the good guys.
I am a bit confused about what happened to the guard. He’s conspicuously not there, then he’s back. It’s never quite clear, at least to me, where he went or why.
After the stiff didacticism of the previous chapter, this is lighthearted fun with a satisfying dark undertone. Sionell finally gets over being plot-stupid and gets back to being formidable, which is an excellent thing. And there, looking ahead to the next chapter, we see that the story moves on to Stronghold. Which means it will be getting down to business.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new space opera, Forgotten Suns, will be published by Book View Cafe in April. 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 has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, two dogs, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.