Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Stronghold! I yield to public pleading and bite off smaller bits here and henceforth—five chapters at a time. It’s easier on me, too, so we’re on the same page there.
So here we are in the middle of the book, and the middle of the war. The invasion continues, ditto the evacuations—and the good guys fight back.
Stronghold: Chapters 11 through 15
Here’s What Happens: In Chapter 11, the royals evacuate Radzyn with poignant emotion and grim practicality. Rohan has interludes of self-doubt and “I’m too old for this.” The women do what they have to, including the severely disabled Tobin, who can communicate on sunlight.
In Remagev, Tobin’s fiery granddaughter Chayla distracts herself reluctantly with studies and not so reluctantly with Kazander. He, and then she, senses a storm coming over the Long Sand.
The royal refugees are caught in the sandstorm, and Rohan and Sioned are reciting poetry about it: balancing high drama with personal intimacy and, of course, teasing.
Andry in Ossetia has another vision of disaster. When he wakes, he spies Azhdeen on sunlight, destroying enemy ships. He notes that without beards, the enemy have Merida chin scars (one wonders about the utility of ritual chin scars when they’re completely concealed by ritual face foliage). He takes time as always to be scornful about Pol, who is bonded to the dragon.
Chapter 12: The contingent at Dragon’s Rest strategizes. There’s a reference to Pol’s lack of intellectual depth compared to Rohan. The Sunrunner in residence gets news of the fall of Radzyn, and frantic activity ensues.
Meiglan is full of doubts and fears, and distraught in general, but specifically over her failure to provide Pol with a son. Two daughters just aren’t cutting it. We’ve seen that cultural obsession before, but not for a while.
The royals are still trapped in the sandstorm. Kazander rides to their rescue.
Tilal and Gemma are also on the move, with bonus zinger from Gemma about fearful, clingy Meiglan. They’re hunting invaders, and they find and destroy a company of them, along with a pair of their own guards, who have been tortured. Tilal studies the bodies to learn what he can about the enemy.
Mirsath at Faolain Lowland is facing a full army of quarrelsome barbarians. There is reference to Clever, Subtle Rohan. The army sends a native son to demand surrender: Patwin of Catha Heights, who exchanges small talk until it dawns on the defenders that he’s thrown in his lot with the enemy.
It takes them a while. As I said last week, this is a very small island, and very complacent. It hasn’t known real war in centuries.
Patwin offers Mirsath a princedom, and a princess (a Roelstra granddaughter—that family just keeps on being itself). Mirsath shoots him dead.
Rohan, when he receives the news, is all “He should have said yes,” and there’s teasing and banter and Rohan-love. Because he’s so subtle and clever.
Chapter 13 begins with more joking and laughing, as Prince Volog goes on about how fierce (and effective in battle) the women are. They’re beating the enemy handily, and the enemy appear to have some prohibition against fighting back. There’s reference to Volog’s advanced age, so that’s two beloved themes in one place.
The jokes, it turns out, are aimed at distracting Volog from the grief of all his losses—it’s another form of teasing-as-stress-relief. And then, as his squire Rohannon goes off to muse on his life and education, he’s called back to his lord’s bedside. Volog has died, and Rohannon is now the ranking noble in New Raetia. He reflects on his hereditary predisposition toward command, and gets to work.
Maarken in Remagev gives us a recap of the story so far in the Long Sand, with a flashback to better times, then a meeting and strategy session with the royals. Rohan is in professor mode with Pol, as usual. The names, places, politics, and personal and political alliances and rivalries go on and on, summing up the state of the world as our main characters know it. They’re getting a sense of the enemy as a collection of disparate units rather than a unified whole.
There’s much back and forth about how it’s really all about Rohan, and the enemy is really aiming for him (and also Chay’s horses), because he’s the most powerful and clever and subtle prince of all. Rohan tries to demur, but doesn’t get much traction. Pol notes that if they’re actually going after Sunrunners, he’ll be the main target. He’s happy about this.
They devote some considerable time to speculating on the enemy’s motives, and on why he’s left Whitecliff and Radzyn standing; also on the enemy’s culture, clothing, weapons, physical attributes—the list goes on at length.
Then Chay drops a bomb: they’re related, according to Andry, to the Merida. Pol knows what they call themselves: Vellant’im. The discussion goes on from there. And on. And on. With speculation about what the sorcerers have to do with all this.
Pol is also spending quite a bit of time thinking about how wonderful, subtle, and personally magnetic Rohan is.
The royal couple adjourn to their bedroom to discuss the fiery and spirited Kazander, and then the fact that Sioned is going to have to tell Andry he was right about the invasion. Sioned is not happy about this.
Finally Rohan and Chay meet in private and agree that Maarken has to be given the title of Battle Commander—both because Chay has aged out of the job (nobody tell Tywin Lannister about this), and because Maarken needs “the advantage with Andry that the rank will give him.” The chapter ends with teasing, and with Rohan going back to bed with a still highly unhappy Sioned.
Chapter 14 catches us up with Tilal and Gemma and their various plans and strategies. They’re trying to decide whether to go to Waes—and deal with Chiana—or go to Goddess Keep and have to deal with Andry. Neither is a particularly attractive option. There’s an interlude in the stables—Kadar Water has a breeding program equal to Chay’s, and its lord wants Tilal to help save the horses from the invaders. There’s also an extended interlude in which Tilal leaves his squire here, as he’s the only son of the lord: one of the poignant domestic moments that distinguishes these books, with bonus back-and-forth about Rohan’s reign of deliberate and carefully maintained peace, which has left many of the younger generation with no combat experience.
I’m a bit in love with Tilal’s newly acquired Kadar stallion. He has personality to spare. That’s another thing Rawn makes a point of doing: her horses are characters in their own right.
Tilal and company ride out of Kadar Water, intending to split up, with the family taking refuge in Athmyr. Some distance into the day’s ride, as the sun comes out, his daughter Sioneva collapses in Sunrunner trance—her first, and the first indication that she has powers, which have not so far shown up in this family. She’s thrilled with the experience. Andry has sent a message: he’s seen ships sailing toward Goddess Keep.
That makes Tilal’s decision for him. After a tender parting from his family (and over Sioneva’s objections), he rides for Goddess Keep.
In Goddess Keep, Andry explains at length and in considerable detail, with notes on Sunrunner genetics, how he knew about Sioneva: “Endless genealogies—and the mirror” (found/stolen at the end of the last book) which can identify Sunrunners and sorcerers. We also learn that his exchange with Sioned was not pleasant, and that Andry has plans of his own for taking back the island from the enemy. He then demonstrates the mirror for Torien, naming various family members, most of whom are powerless or “halflings” (carriers of one Sunrunner recessive gene). As each is named, he or she appears in the mirror. Then Torien casually mentions Brenlis—and the mirror is blank. She’s dead.
As Chapter 15 begins, Tilal approaches Goddess Keep with his army (and his obstreperous stallion and his many reservations about Andry). Meanwhile, at the Keep, the enemy ships are on their way in. There’s high tension, there’s strategy, there’s personal drama. There’s even a bit of class tension: commoner Sunrunner having opinions about nobles fleeing to safety and abandoning her family.
Andry is a surprisingly good father, though he manages to say exactly the wrong thing to his adolescent son. (Andry has a tendency to be the giver or recipient of misfires like this.)
The Sunrunners drink dranath from elaborate custom goblets, and get to work on an equally elaborate spell—which the enemy breaks with iron. The two with sorcerer blood, who are immune to iron, manage to save the rest.
Tilal and what’s left of his army limp into the Keep, severely not happy about the fact that they’re superfluous. Tilal lights into Andry without mercy, for taking his time, letting good men die, and killing with the mind. Andry is scornful and haughty, and speaks slightingly of Rohan and Pol. The meeting does not end well.
Tilal wants to leave immediately, but is talked out of it. He uses the opportunity to make friends with Andry’s son Andrev, who wants to be a squire. He also converses with a heavily disguised partisan of Sioned, who promises to send word on the moons of what’s happened here.
When Tilal leaves Goddess Keep, he has a stowaway. Andrev offers his service as both squire and Sunrunner. Tilal is grimly happy to accept it—and completely unconcerned about Andry’s reaction.
And I’m Thinking: There’s a lot going on here, on a lot of fronts, and some emotional arcs get extremely short shrift. Brenlis is dead, Andry finds out, boom; next we see, he’s carrying on as if nothing happened.
Andry is Andry with brass bells on. He makes a serious enemy of Tilal, and he obviously doesn’t care. He’s too busy being large and in charge.
Meanwhile the Rohan-worship goes a few miles over the top. It’s always all about Rohan, just as it’s been since the very first book. There is no opportunity missed, at any point, to go on about how Clever and Subtle and Utterly Charismatic Rohan is—and how vastly inferior Pol is. It almost seems as if the author resents Pol, or can’t face what he means: that eventually, as tremendously much as she hates to, she’s going to have to kill off her most dearly beloved character, and this shallow jock is what’s left.
Some of that may have to do with a key theme of these books, which is genetic determinism. Nurture can make a difference—witness the Sunrunner-trained sorcerers, and the Rohan-raised Pol—but ultimately, Nature will out. Pol may have been brought up right, but he’s still showing his inferior genetics.
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.