Welcome to the weekly Wednesday reread of Sunrunner’s Fire! This week the iron hits the fire in some dangerous and devastating ways, and a major character falls headfirst into more than one trap.
Chapter 19—Stronghold: 33 Spring
So This Happen: Andry has deliberately gone riding out to Rivenrock and left lower-ranking Sunrunner Oclel in his place rather than attend Rohan’s audience with Lord Barig. Rohan understands the message being sent, and the insult. Meanwhile he tries to figure out what Oclel is up to on Andry’s behalf.
Oclel turns the proceedings into a religious debate over the role of the Goddess in this affair and, as Barig spins it, everyday matters in this part of the world versus where he comes from. Barig is not a devotee of the Goddess. Sioned smooths things over, in steely fashion. Oclel pushes it one step further by “suggesting” that the Goddess be worshipped more devotedly in Medawari. Rohan pulls the discussion back on track, then hands the floor to Sioned, who sums up the issues at hand and opens debate about the Sunrunner caught in medical malpractice.
The debate goes back and forth over the ground established long since. Sioned is passionate about matching the punishment to the intent of the crime. Rohan adores her and reflects on how they share the belief in the rule of law. When she’s said her piece, he says his. He sums up, again, and states that the offender has the right to be judged—not by the prince of the realm where she committed the crime, or by Andry, her superior in the order, but by the High Prince. Sioned cites Andrade’s wishes to place one authority over everyone, and states that Rohan is it.
Rohan expands on this, and affirms it. He has authority over both sides. He pushes it home with a barb: that Andry and Prince Cabar want restitution. Rohan is the only one who wants justice. Rohan is not happy to be put in this position by either the prince or the Sunrunner. He dismisses everybody but Sioned, who asks him what he plans to do with the Sunrunner. He doesn’t know, but he knows she has to pay some sort of compensation, which will infuriate Andry, plus do some sort of service to atone for the death she caused. He then teases Sioned to guess what he has in mind.
Finally she guesses, with plenty of teasing from Rohan: He wants to found a medical school. Andry will be furious, because Sunrunners who want to be healers will have to be certified by the school, and the school will be located in Cadar’s princedom. Rohan is not excessively concerned about Andry’s reaction. Sioned warns him to be careful. Rohan still isn’t swayed. He read the scrolls, and they give him authority over some “Sunrunner questions.” He jokes that Lady Merisel must have been a redhead.
Sioned is in the hall, arranging flowers, when Andry storms in. He is of course outraged. He tries to lean on Sioned’s status as a Sunrunner. She isn’t moved. They argue about power and jurisdiction, and about power some more. She schools him in the rule of law according to Rohan, and the use of power, also according to Rohan—then bluntly accuses Andry of wanting all the power, and of being jealous of what Pol will come to as High Prince. He smashes a great deal of crockery and storms out.
Sioned realizes she’s made a big mistake. “Andry was one step away from becoming their open enemy.”
Rohan meanwhile is lecturing Pol on, again, “the ramifications of power” and the power of perception. Rohan has been actually letting others act but allowing everyone to think he’s wielding power. As a result, he’s perceived as being much more powerful, and more willing to use his power, than he is. Pol is his devoted disciple. There is some discussion of father-and-son relationships and the passage of power. Pol is flattering. Rohan is didactic. Rohan goes into more detail about his plans for the medical school, which segues into a rumination on how he and Sioned have worked together on just about everything Rohan has done. Rohan takes a moment to wonder, silently, if Pol wants a different kind of woman.
The discussion moves on to how Pol as a child used to want to be part of his parents’ interactions, then to how Andry is turning the worship of the Goddess into a public thing, and building his own power through it and Her. Rohan goes back over how he imposes limits on himself but no one realizes it. Pol is just about to unburden himself of something when Barig comes roaring in with the news that the offending Sunrunner is dead by suicide: deliberately shadow-lost. He accuses Andry of ordering it.
Rohan is furious with everyone in this situation. He sends for Andry. Barig is sarcastic, smug, and accusatory by turns. Rohan is sharp. Barig asks to be dismissed.
While they wait for Andry, Pol and Rohan discuss what the Sunrunner did and why. Rohan says Cadar won’t make a public accusation. Rohan knows his secrets. And that, too, is power.
And I’m Thinking: Some key political plots come to a head here, and it’s a right mess. Andry’s gloves are pretty completely off, and the affair of the Sunrunner has ended in a terrible tragedy. Rohan is caught square in the middle.
I admit I’m not a fan of the political parts of the trilogy. It’s all very repetitive and, as a historian, I find it simplistic. Rohan is so obviously grafted into this more or less primitive, explicitly barbarian culture, and he’s so very intent on telling people just what he’s doing and how and why and what for, and we’re all to know how very clever and forward-thinking he is. This is clearly near and dear to the author’s heart; there’s a Theme being pursued, and that Theme is spelled out in extensive detail here as often elsewhere.
Rohan is so wooden in his relationship to Pol; there’s so little real ease between them. It’s all lecture mode, all the time. We’re told early, often, and at length, that Pol is a spoiled child who’s never been tested. Which is also true of Andry, and does not bode well for what will happen once Rohan is out of the picture.
Rohan’s Theme is certainly being tested here, and Andrade’s grand plan is not holding up well in the real world of fallible human beings. I’ve heard this series called grimdark, which I think is far off the mark—all those perfect marriages (visible here in the way Sioned and Rohan handle Barig et al.) and all that teasing and joking do not fit the specs—but it is trying for a more complex political and economic underpinning than the usual Eighties epic fantasy, and it’s also aiming at a more sophisticated view of the genre. The point of it all has a lot more to do with power politics and economic realities than dragons and magic.
I think I’d call it politico-realistic rather than grimdark. It’s by no means a crapsack world—it’s a great world to live in, as far as I can see, even with all the squabbling princes, and especially if you’re one of the good guys, or one of the good guys’ subjects.
Chapter 20—Stronghold: 33 Spring
So This Happens: Marron is “disgusted” by the way Rohan lets the peons eat with the nobles. He also notes that Andry is making a big deal out of invoking the Goddess at the start of the evening feast.
Marron has had about enough of playing servant. He reflects at length on this, with a finely honed sense of injured royal pride. We learn that he’s the one who spooked Meiglan’s horse, and that he’s about to put a spike in Mireva and Ruval’s carefully developed plans. He has his own plans. He’s going to be High Prince. He’s already deciding where he’s going to spend his time at various seasons. Meanwhile he’s waiting, and waiting and waiting, for dinner to be over. He’s also thinking about demanding Feruche when he makes his move.
Then Pol stands up and makes a speech…about Feruche. He’s giving it to Riyan.
Marron is absolutely outraged. Pol is the one who is supposed to claim the place, so that Marron can challenge him. Marron is so furious that he lets slip the spell that conceals his true face, as he moves on Riyan physically and with sorcery.
An old woman removes the screaming Meiglan from the room. Rohan and Sioned hold still while Andry and the Sunrunners try to apprehend the sorcerer. He defends himself with white fire, while Rohan reflects on the fact that sorcerers can cast illusions over themselves. Pol lets Rohan know he recognizes Marron. The other brother has to be nearby. Rohan orders him to send Riyan and Morwenna to search. Pol is startled to learn that Morwenna is part sorcerer. Sioned tells Pol to let Rialt round up the Cunaxans. Pol is part of the sorcerers’ drama here, she’s sure.
Miyon meanwhile is putting on a show of outrage at finding a sorcerer among his own guard. Nobody is fooled. Andry wants Marron locked up. Nobody knows how to do that.
Marron reaches the high table and reveals his identity with a flourish, and challenges Pol as a “usurper.”
Nobody is impressed. Marron cites Rohan’s own law against attacking or forcibly detaining a prince without formal charges. Pol and Andry engage in spitting at each other over dragon murder and Sorin’s murder. Riyan accepts the challenge. Marron doesn’t want that. Andry claims Marron’s death for himself. Marron attacks Riyan with sorcery, through Riyan’s Sunrunner rings. Andry destroys Marron with Fire.
Riyan and Ruala walk in the garden in the aftermath, discussing how Andry knew about the rings. Riyan came here to cool his fingers in the fountain. Ruala followed him, admiring his bravery and talking about what Andry has done to change tradition. She expected him to do what he did.
Riyan doesn’t understand what happened with his rings. Ruala tells him, in detail, from her very old family history in the Veresch. She knows about the scrolls, and she knows how Lady Merisel (who is apparently her ancestor) gathered and enspelled the gold from which Sunrunner rings are made. Sunrunners don’t know the history any more, but still use the gold that warns Sunrunners with sorcerer blood against sorcery.
They discuss whether sorcerer blood is inherently evil, and how people easily fall into black-and-white perceptions of the world, with a further nod to the theme of power and its uses and abuses. The discussion turns back to Sunrunner rings, how some now are silver, but must have a little of the old gold in them, and how the ruler of Goddess Keep’s rings are always melted down at death for the successor. Andry didn’t do that, but the metal still came from the original store.
Riyan wonders why Ruala’s grandfather didn’t warn the Sunrunners about the sorcerers and the rings. Ruala points out that the sorcerers are now in the open, and Sunrunners know how to find them. Ruala invites Riyan to visit her grandfather and learn more about what he knows. With one thing and another, the scene ends in a kiss.
Pol has left the rest of his family to deal with Andry. He is alone, pacing and gnawing over what Andry has done. He meant to go with Riyan to deal with the rest of the Cunaxans and find Ruval, but Riyan has disappeared. Pol decides nothing more will happen tonight. Ruval will show himself soon enough. He looks down into the garden and sees Riyan and Ruala’s kiss. His thoughts turn to Meiglan. He’s falling for the trap, and he knows it. He thinks about finding a stronger woman at the Rialla, but he can’t stop thinking about Meiglan.
Suddenly she appears, all stammery and trembly and beautiful. Pol dithers at length, and so does Meiglan. He remembers Morwenna coming to him for his initiation, and the memory blurs into Meiglan seducing him. He gives way, then revolts, convinced she’s been lying about her innocence.
She is all trembly and stammery. He is hard and nasty. She trembles and stammers. He is harder and nastier, and tries to throw her out. He’s starting to feel odd. And suddenly he’s caught up in colors and pulled away from Stronghold.
And I’m Thinking: As usual after a didactic chapter, the action comes thick and fast. Marron is literally too stupid to live, and the good guys are downright casual about it, until Andry flames him to ash. Then it’s Pol’s turn to be unbelievably and destructively stupid.
In the meantime, some of the secondary players get to reveal some essential information, and in the process, get together. Riyan and Ruala are everything Pol and Meiglan aren’t. Makes me wish all the higher-ups would off themselves and leave these sensible adults in charge.
Pol is pretty horrible here. When he’s finally tested, he does not show up well at all. He throws himself into the honey trap, then blames the trap. Serves him right that the trap is a lot more subtle and sorcerous than he has the brains to understand.
Here of course we’ve got an echo of Rohan’s abduction by Ianthe. Will be interesting to see how it comes out this time around.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café 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.