Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Melanie Rawn’s Stronghold! We’re powering through the first ten chapters here, getting into the book and the trilogy and setting up a new range of conflicts as well as revisiting a number of old ones.
Also, Map! Finally, we see the geography that’s been described in such loving detail for three books now—and the world is an island. That explains so much. All these varied landscapes and political entities are squeezed together on a single small land mass. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, but the distances are short and the connections are constant. Everything is tied together in this limited space. And that, as it turns out, is going to matter a Lot in the next major catastrophe.
Stronghold: Chapters 1 through 10
Here’s what happens: The book starts right in the middle of things, with a private moment between Sioned and Rohan. There’s no introduction and no setup. We’re right there, it’s presumed we know who these people are and what they are to each other, and that’s that.
They talk about people we’re presumed to know, such as Chiana (whom we won’t see again for at least the first third), and politics that’s clearly complicated but it’s not extensively explained. It just is, as it would be between two people who know each other and the situation so well.
That’s your realism right there. And teasing, which is the standard mode of interaction between the good guys; of course we have to have teasing, along with references to the characters’ age and their feelings about it. And there’s the passage of time which feeds into the sense of actual people living actual lives.
Then we get some history, some background and filling in from the end of the last book, and some discussion of magic, both how it works and what it does. From here we move on a state dinner and a complicated political situation which Rohan as High Prince has to resolve. This provides an opportunity to work in more history and backstory, as well as a detailed explication of Rohan’s political and governmental philosophy.
In the middle of this, there’s a glimpse of a fundamental conflict from the last book that’s clearly going to be important in this one: the continuing rift between the High Prince and the Lord of Goddess Keep. Sioned as High Princess has strong feelings about this, and isn’t shy about expressing them.
After this immersive first chapter, we move on in Chapter 2 to the problem himself: Andry in Goddess Keep, overseeing one of his complicated new rituals. He reflects at length on what he’s been doing and why, and introduces us to a young Sunrunner/medic named Evarin, who is just as arrogant and cocksure as he is. Andry’s reflections move on a detailed summary of the war between Sunrunners and sorcerers, and the ongoing rivalry between Andry and the future High Prince, Rohan’s son Pol—who is not Sioned’s birth son, and Andry knows it.
Andry has been ethnically cleansing sorcerers, and Pol knows. Andry has also been breeding Sunrunners, and one of his lovers obsesses him: the fey and strange Brenlis, who has the gift of prophecy.
Andry has that gift, too, and he has foreseen invasion and utter destruction. His whole life is devoted to averting that future.
Now Brenlis has left to deal with a family emergency, and one of Andry’s other lovers has a surprise for him: they’ve mastered the sorcerous art of changing one person’s appearance into that of another. This is tied in with Andry’s promiscuity and the not always voluntary nature of his lovers’ pregnancies, and his pride and persistent arrogance.
In the aftermath, with much of the teasing that in these books is used to show affection and defuse tension, they discuss the spell and its effects, and they also speak, not positively, of the conflict between Pol and Andry.
From here the viewpoint shifts to Walvis—who hasn’t occupied center stage in many hundreds of pages—and a series of war games that have, as we learn at length and in detail, occurred annually for almost two decades. His wife Feylin joins him, and we’re given further extensive backstory about the political situation, the means of keeping the surplus noble youth occupied, and the doings of various members of the cast along with their relatives and offspring. There’s further emphasis on the rift between Andry and his family.
A new face appears, with much teasing and bravura: a young and flamboyant man named Kazander, who turns out to be a Desert nomad. He also turns out to be a distant relative of Rohan’s father Zehava—the first time we learn about the history of that side of the family. This leads to an extended passage of backstory, including the fact that in the Desert, prolific production of children is a duty.
From here we move to the castle of Remagev, and Kazander describes a series of portents that concern him, and a ray of hope in the stars: “Pol will prevail.” Though it might also mean he’ll die.
After an interlude with the outspoken and extravagantly beautiful Chayla, Walvis and Feylin look for dragons and discuss Chayla’s marriage prospects. Kazander is smitten, but he’s also multiply married and many times a father. This does not stop him from making a play for her during the continuation of the war games. And so Chapter 3 ends in relentless teasing and some exposition about Pol’s wife and her politically difficult and abusive father.
Chapter 4 presents Pol himself in full domestic mode. He’s now a husband and the doting father of twins. He’s quite domesticated, not only in a familial way, but also in terms of his duties as a prince. The dragons are now talking to various humans (one human per dragon—McCaffrey hommage there, I’m sure), except Rohan, who hasn’t been chosen. Pol doesn’t think this is fair. I wish we’d had a chance to see Pol’s dragon-bonding actually happening on the page–this being a thing in a Rawn book; some of the most important events take place offstage or in summary.
The domestic details and catch-up from the last volume continue, followed by more catch-up in the form of what’s been happening with the medical-school idea, also from the last volume. Rohan and Goddess Keep are at odds again, with Sunrunners versus certified medics. Woven into this is more of the Rohan/Pol interaction, which is pretty solidly master/pupil, with lectures and student questions on various familiar subjects including the duty of princes, the nature of Sunrunner powers and political power, and the rule of law. Also, teasing.
The teasing quotient already is well above the past three volumes. I may snap. Be warned.
The catch-up keeps on going. We learn all about Pol’s personality versus his father’s, and meet more of the large cast, with more cute kids and…
Then we meet Meiglan, with more catch-up, and a musical performance. We get some extensive backstory and filling in, with an inside view of the relationship between Meiglan and Pol—interrupted by dragons. Meiglan is terrified of dragons, and she doesn’t dare let anyone know.
Pol does know, but hasn’t told her. And that’s part of their relationship. Hiding things from each other.
Pol and the dragon Azhdeen are bonded, and we get a lovely chunk of that, with bonus family hubbub and exposition on what communication with dragons is about.
The chapter ends with Pol explaining ships to Azhdeen after the dragon sends him a vision of dead dragons floating on the sea, and being absolutely flattened by the dragon’s inexplicable rage.
Chapter 5 shifts back to Goddess Keep and Andry flashing back to former days and then ahead to the present in which he’s welcoming a new candidate for Sunrunner by means of a detailed catechism of beliefs about the Goddess—clearly codified by Andry and including propaganda about evil sorcerers. The chapter continues with further discussions of and ruminations about sorcery, sorcerers, and Andry’s campaign of genocide, as well as his campaign to increase the power of Goddess Keep through ritual and manipulation of popular belief.
It’s all terribly cynical. He’s manufacturing a religion out of whole cloth, to create a biddable populace, to feed the power of Goddess Keep (and therefore his own power), and incidentally to save the world from the destruction he’s foreseen.
Suddenly a message comes from Brenlis. Tobin is ill. Andry is banished, but he’s bound and determined to go to his mother’s rescue.
Pol meanwhile has mended matters with Azhdeen, and also receives the news about Tobin. No one knows if Andry has been told, and Pol decides to conjure sunlight to Goddess Keep and tell him, then give him permission to visit his mother. Andry already knows. He refuses Pol’s offer of permission to enter Rohan’s territory.
Pol then takes reluctant leave of Meiglan and departs for Radzyn.
In Chapter 6, the family gathers in Radzyn. Tobin has had a stroke. Sioned manages to communicate with her on sunlight and find out how it happened. Sioned reminds her, and us, that as long as Tobin has sunlight, she can communicate. Hollis, meanwhile, explains the medical theory about strokes. They all worry, but mostly agree that Tobin is too tough not to get better.
Then we meet Betheyn, the late Sorin’s intended, with backstory and history. She’s now living in Radzyn, and she’s watching over Tobin. Sioned shares with her a passage of rumination on aging and loss—familiar themes in these books.
When Pol finally arrives, Tobin is aware and communicating, and teasing.
Teasing, in these books, is love. I will try to be strong.
There is much family interaction, some history, some new faces. There’s more lecture mode on Sunrunning, dragon-communicating, and Pol’s intractable rivalry with Andry. The same themes are circling and circling, while the characters tease and laugh and reflect and slowly, ever so slowly, move us toward the next crisis. Tobin’s stroke is a family disaster, mitigated by her Sunrunner powers, but there’s an ominous note in the background, between the Pol/Andry feud, the Sunrunner/sorcerer ditto, and the dragon’s reaction to the concept of ships.
Then suddenly in Chapter 7, we’re somewhere else altogether, in Faolain Riverport. Two highborn sisters-in-law are preparing, with snark and snobbery and frequent references to trade and finance, for the wedding of their niece and daughter. One of the merchants notes that the holding is poorly guarded. The ladies’ response indicates the complete inland focus of their defenses—more ominous chords, because Riverport looks out on the sea.
The merchant sells the ladies six black pearls called the Tears of the Dragon, for a vast price. Considering the previous chapter’s developments, this also warrants the bass notes in the background.
And so does the next scene, in which a juggler at Gilad Seahold, apparently innocently and to the utter horror of the noble family, juggles with skulls. The lord throws the juggler out. The juggler, once out of sight, becomes a quite different personality, and takes off chuckling into the night.
Meanwhile Brenlis’ family is after her to take advantage of her position as the mother of one of Andry’s offspring and force him to marry her. She is not happy about this. At the same time, at Graypearl, Meath is enjoying an interlude of education and teasing with him young pupil, Prince Audran, whom he is teaching about astronomy and combat. Suddenly is ordered inside. Strange ships have been sighted—timed to prevent Sunrunners from immediately raising the alarm.
And Meath realizes he’s going to have to use his gifts to kill.
Brenlis wakes to the sight of dragon ships bearing down on Riverport. The port is on fire. She tries to reach Andry on starlight, but can’t find him in Goddess Keep (she doesn’t know her news about Tobin sent him to Radzyn).
When she comes to herself, she sees “tall, bearded men” attacking her family home. She kills them with fire, and one of them kills her. (Oh, that is not going to go well when Andry finds out. Not in the slightest.) The chapter ends from the viewpoint of one of the men, who prides himself on the killing of a “sorceress.”
So ends Part One. Part Two, and Chapter 8, picks up immediately with the coast in ruins and the invaders moving inland, stealing horses and setting to fire everything, and everyone, else.
Meath and the royal family of Graypearl are on the run from the invaders. Meath is too flattened by Sunrunner water-sickness to function.
Meanwhile Andry is trying without success, while riding toward Radzyn with Evarin, to conjure the physician’s face over his own. There is, inevitably, teasing. Suddenly Andry sees a burning farmhouse ahead, and then a troop of all too familiar armed men. Andry’s vision is coming true. He turns and bolts for safety.
Prince Chadric, on the run, muses on what’s happened, and on prince’s duty, and on the fact that he’s too old to do anything about it. The younger generation will have to take charge.
Andry, on the run, and incidentally one of that younger generation, is equally powerless to do more than run. He can’t even kill the invaders—the risk to himself is too great, and he’s too important.
Andry’s ego is in no way affected by this sudden crisis.
Suddenly an invader calls out to the two Sunrunners. Evarin immediately conjures an invader’s physical appearance and talks Andry through the same spell. Just in time: the troop approaches and the leader addresses Andry as “my lord.” They’re speaking the language of sorcerers.
Andry interacts while reflecting on what he’s learning of the culture through language, weapons, and beard styles. He manages, successfully with Evarin’s help, to convince the leader he’s a superior officer, and picks up quite a bit of information about the invaders, what they’ve been doing, and where they’re headed. They haven’t hit Radzyn yet.
The ever resourceful Evarin provides a diversion, and he and Andry escape—but only for a moment. One of the young and low-status invaders attaches himself to them as escort. Andry has to bear with him until there’s opportunity to kill him.
Tobin meanwhile is concentrating on her recovery while Betheyn reads to her from Feylin’s book, On Dragons. Then first Meath and then Andry break in and overwhelm her with visions of the invasion. She manages to call for Pol, and hands the situation over to him.
Rohan can’t handle it. This is Pol’s moment—his destiny. “Pol became Fire.”
As Chapter 9 opens, Meath comes back to himself and explains to another young individual how Sunrunning works. He also reports that Chay is sending a ship to fetch the Graypearl royals. Then he has to tell Chadric how bad things are—before he goes back to further scanning of sunlight and the invaders’ atrocities, as well as what defenses the natives can muster. He finishes with an exchange with Sioned, in which they speculate on why, if these are sorcerers, they aren’t using sorcery. Sunrunners meanwhile are raising a magical defense around Radzyn.
Andry has found new allies on his way to Radzyn, and the young invader is now dead. These allies are Medr’im: “roving enforcers of the High Prince’s writ.” Andry is surprised to find they respect him and trust his powers, despite being Rohan’s men. He contacts various places and people on sunlight and gets a sense of their status.
Then an army of invaders descends on them. They split up: Evarin and one of the Medr’im aiming for Radzyn, and the rest for Goddess Keep by different routes.
It doesn’t work. Andry has to weave the ros’salath, and makes a deliberate decision to let two Medr’im die when they go after the enemy instead of following him. That’s Andry the killer egotist in full fly.
Sioned and Rohan, and then Pol, share a much interrupted interlude in among all the flying magic and the many things that have to be done. There is, of course, teasing, and reference to the parents’ advancing age.
Sioned needs to rest, but first she has a plan to set in motion, based on the Star Scroll. She is also most insistent that Pol not fight in the battle.
Which considering his age and rank, is not going to be easy to enforce. But overprotective mother will be overprotective.
And so the chapter continues with badinage, discussion of princely duty, and a bit of pillow talk, until they receive the news that the dragon ships have arrived.
Having reached a sharp climax, the story veers off in Chapter 10 with a passage of historical and political exposition—a frequent technique in these books, evidently to extend and heighten tension while providing a bit of a breathing space. In this case, we have a multipage summary of a long-ago marriage arrangement that turned into true love. The happy couple, thirty years on, are caught in the war and burned in their bed.
There follows another vignette, this time featuring the new heir to Riverport, his strong-willed cousin Karanaya, and a Sunrunner whom she commands to destroy invaders with Fire; and a further short check-in on Chadric, who has been rescued but can’t make it into harbor at Radzyn: the dragon ships are already there.
Then finally we return to Radzyn, where the royal family discusses what to do about the dragon ships. Pol is set to strafe the enemy with Fire; Maarken and Hollis refuse, because of their Sunrunner oath. (I detect a theme here, and it’s familiar: that oath has been honored more in the breach than in the observance throughout the series.)
Sioned helps Pol. Then Rohan revokes his oath never to take up a sword again. It’s crisis time, and oathbreaking time. And Pol takes time to reflect on how “They were too old for war.”
Aging being a big thing in these books—we’re reminded constantly that the original cast is well into old age. We also get a sharp contrast in generations between the elders who have known war, and the young men who have never fought a genuine battle.
Andry on the road, trapped and magic-less in the rain, reflects on his own impotence and wishes he were in Radzyn. This loss of control for Andry is extremely rare, and he is not happy.
Meanwhile Meath on shipboard is terribly water-sick, and the royal children discuss something they felt, which they don’t specify, but which indicates they have magic—probably, since they’re not water-sick, it’s sorcery. In the meantime Pol assists Sioned in weaving the ros’salath, while reflecting at length on his dual heritage: both sorcerer and Sunrunner.
The spell shatters, and nearly takes the spellcasters with it. Hollis speculates that the enemy broke it with iron.
And on the walls, Chay recognizes the enemy’s battle cry: Diarmadh’im! He’s watching Maarken command the battle below. Pol appears with news of the failed spell, and learns about Andry’s vision. There is the usual amount of spitting and hissing about Andry. Rohan diverts him by manipulating him into going to Maarken’s aid.
Down on the field, there is a spat between Maarken and Pol over the use of Fire, cut off by a major enemy assault. Maarken is wounded; Pol deposits him in the keep and gallops off into the fight again. The idea of protecting him by keeping him out of the fight is pretty much forgotten.
Sioned tends to Maarken, with teasing (to cover fear), and they conclude that this battle can’t be won. They discuss options. At mention of the Long Sand, Sioned lights up and praises the Goddess. On that note, the chapter ends.
And I’m Thinking: This certainly moves faster than much of the first trilogy. The exposition and the ruminating are condensed and the backstory gives way quickly to the ongoing action.
The craft is surer here, and the structure is much more unified. The beloved themes get plenty of space, but they’re part of the larger whole. And the digressions and flashbacks feed straight into the overall line of the story.
In non-editor-ese, that means it’s a faster read and a lot more goes on, but it’s all set up to make sense as a whole. Adding an external threat to this small, self-absorbed, complacent culture succeeds in blowing it wide open—and for once all the infighting and the petty wars and politico-religious rivalries have to back off in favor of raw survival.
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.