Welcome back to the weekly Wednesday read of Stronghold! We’re starting Part Three with more war, more family drama, more evacuations (with booby traps!), and some quality time with an old and familiar villain and a couple of new ones.
Part Three begins with Tobin front and center…
Stronghold: Chapters 16-20
Here’s what happens: In Chapter 16 Tobin and another Andry offspring, Tobren, are looking after her grandmother and reading about dragons. Suddenly she gets word from Andrev. She’s horrified by what he’s done—but it’s legal. It’s also a sure way for him to revoke his inheritance—because Andry meant for the boy to be his successor.
There’s much speculation about why Andrev did it, and about what happened at Goddess Keep—until, when the moons come up, Sioned hears from the spy. The Pol/Andry rivalry is in full fly, when they should be working together. There is further discussion of killing with magic, which is an ongoing theme; here it revolves around honor and the delicate balance between Sunrunners and princes (and the difficulty of keeping it for those who are both), with in-depth exploration of the rule of law and what it means.
Parents and son have a terrible, wrenching quarrel. Sioned almost succeeds in getting Pol to swear not to kill with magic—but goes one step too far. He stomps off in fury, to his parents’ profound dismay.
Meanwhile in Tiglath, Meath and Chadric finally come to land, by way of a domestic interlude with Sionell and Tallain; we get news of various happenings, and a bit of backstory. Then the narrative shifts to Andry, who finds Tobin practicing walking on her own. They exchange news (including the fact that events are diverging from Andry’s vision), and Andry sets terms for his help with the war: a free hand with the means he uses to fight, and Andrev. She responds bitterly: “And when it’s over, what will your terms be then?”
The conversation does not end well.
Rohan and company discuss events and strategies. Rohan has doubts. There is teasing.
Domestic interlude. (Checking Cast of Characters in the back. It’s getting to that point.) Rialt, the chamberlain of Dragon’s Rest, and company. With cute kids and adorable perfect marriage. They’re on the run to Swalekeep, and worrying about the welcome they’ll get from the notorious but still offstage Chiana. Rialt has to try to convince her to send troops to the war. She is loudly resistant. Later, his wife speculates that she’s gone over to the enemy in return for “a specific princedom.”
(I think we all know which one that is.)
Then we meet Chiana’s son Rinhoel, who is Roelstra all over again, but with more cunning (or so he tells himself). It’s been a while since we had a gleeful villain. It’s like old times.
We get a lot of intrigue-loaded backstory and political skulduggery adding up to a sincere desire to kill off Pol and get hold of Princemarch. Patwin’s death feeds into this—it’s a nice little vengeance plot, as Patwin’s daughter resides in Swalekeep and is a (figurative—in this world, one has to specify) firebreather.
At the end of the chapter, everyone is in inadvertent harmony. Chiana decides to hold Rialt and family hostage, and Rialt and family have orders from Rohan to stay at Swalekeep and keep an eye on Chiana.
In Chapter 17, the enemy’s latest evil device is revealed (with bonus horrible abuse of Chay’s horses). It’s a battery of siege engines. Pol and Maarken are still clashing over the use of Fire to kill, which provides opportunity for a lecture on morals, ethics, and the keeping and breaking of oaths.
It also allows Chay to call Pol a horse’s ass, which is beautiful. Is that the one incident of teasing I’ll approve of? Because OK, I do.
One consequence of this argument is what Walvis finds out who Pol really is.
Pol gets to be a warrior hero at the battle of Remagev, with Rohan facepalming and self-doubting inside the keep. Chayla, in the aftermath, gets to become a healer hero, though it’s not enough to help everyone. Her father Maarken consoles her in a tender scene that turns into a discussion of what’s fair in war. Then she goes back to her work and Maarken receives word that there may be a way out of Remagev, courtesy of the indomitable and apparently deathless Myrdal—and a way to turn it into a trap for the enemy.
Pol is Not happy about Rohan’s plan to flee. There’s a(nother of many) meeting(s) and strategy session. Pol may not be on board with the plan, but he has to take time to be awed by his father’s brilliance and charisma (which is the inevitable counterpoint to Pol’s killer-jock personality and actions). Then everyone leaves and he has a chance to tell Rohan he’s wrong.
This turns into a familiar interchange: Pol wants Rohan to “do something.” Rohan explains at length and with unusual snappishness why he has to do what he intends to do. Things get unusually ugly, to the point that Rohan accuses Pol of being Ianthe’s son—that’s a new low for both of them. Then he pushes it further. He calls Pol a barbarian and a throwback. The chapter ends on a bitter note, with reference to Rohan’s killing Pol’s grandfather Roelstra.
Chapter 18 is almost a relief after the fierce emotions just unleashed: Maarken in command, while the enemy bombards Remagev. The family rests and prepares for the evacuation, with commentary (and grinning and glee) on the traps that they’ve laid for the invaders, and much amazement at the ingenuity of the builders who left so many unexpected secret spaces. Meanwhile Clever Rohan (apparently totally amnesic about the fight with Pol) has a clever plan to cleverly lead the enemy astray with horse manure.
Rohan is so clever.
Angry Pol is packing weapons, angrily. Then he stops to ask himself why he’s so angry, which leads to a terrible paradigm shift: what if he can’t trust Rohan? (At thirty-three, he about fifteen years late to be having this conversation with himself, but he’s always been overprotected and immature, so…)
In his tantrum he conjures moonlight, and ends up finding Azhdeen and becoming inadvertently, magically tangled with him. In the midst of this he realizes he’s angry because he’s a failure. His attempts to flatten the enemy magically haven’t succeeded.
This human confusion badly rattles Azhdeen. Pol manages to shake him loose, but not easily and not in a good way for either of them.
Next day, Chay finds Tobin walking and pitches a fit. Tobin wants Sioned, and wants her to either hide or burn the books, especially the one about dragons, to keep the enemy from losing their fear. Tobin has a plan: to partially burn certain books, keeping the scariest parts, and making it look as if they’ve burned the whole library rather than a low-value section of it. Sioned does the burning.
Pol has a bad headache, which Chayla (with teasing and snark about their mutual good looks) helps cure. Then he goes to strategize with Betheyn about the way the castle was booby-trapped when it was built. He has a plan.
As Chapter 19 begins, Sioned has her own plan involving a sorcerous recipe that turns every surface into a burning agony for the enemy who touches it, while Pol and Kazander have a glorious time smashing glass ingots for the soft-shod Vellant’im to walk on as they’re funneled into the trap whose existence Pol has deduced. Then Rohan shows up, wanting to play, too. There’s a quick nod to the earlier fight, and another nod to how Rohan really isn’t as old as he thinks, but mostly it’s comic relief.
Rohan pauses to figure things out. The Vellant’im have sent crack troops. He decides they want the Desert, and they must want it for its gold. He worries about various aspects of that, and worries about saving the dragons, especially their newly reclaimed nesting grounds at Rivenrock.
Night comes, and plans are set in motion. Rohan and Pol “are friends again,” thanks to the glass-smashing adventure. (Just a bit easy, isn’t it? Pol is either a micron deep emotionally, or the plot is driving him hard enough to run over his emotional arc.)(I’d say it’s about equal parts of both since he’s had episodes like this before, with nearly instant about-face and back to worshipping his parents.)
They’re riding in multiple groups by multiple ways, but all ending up in Stronghold. Rohan is cynical about his ability to handle the exigencies of war. Old habits, it’s clear, die hard.
The exodus begins. Kazander leads a crazy, galloping diversion around the castle in front of the enemy—for fun and for reconnaissance. Then Pol rides out with the second diversion. Then Sethric, then Maarken, while Rohan frets and doubts.
With the enemy occupied with chasing four different troops in four different directions, the bulk of the castle’s occupants make their escape by the secret way—and the enemy starts bombarding the castle with rocks.
Rohan wields his mighty charisma to keep up morale, while the Sunrunners, including Tobin and Tobren (with a brief flare about her father Andry’s Goddess-given right to do whatever he wants), wield Fire.
The chapter ends with everyone roaring out a “self-serving” song in praise of Rohan, with frequent repetitions of a word the enemy will understand: Azhrei—and with the appearance of Azhdeen, frantically searching for Pol.
Chapter 20 In Swalekeep, Rinhoel is disappointed that the royals got away. Chiana is fretting and twitching with worry. Rinhoel schools her on how to pursue their plot to get Princemarch, with bonus sneering about her husband/his father. Then he lets his mother know he’s in contact with a bastard son of Miyon by a Merida (a fact the woman hid from Miyon; her people were plotting to breed a royal heir), named Birioc. Birioc and the Merida can do serious damage to Rohan’s cause.
Mother and son speculate in some detail about why the Vellant’im are here, and why they, like the Merida, seem to have no sorcery. They decide the sorcerers are all dead, though Chiana still finds it puzzling.
Rohan’s ruse hasn’t totally succeeded, but the enemy haven’t pursued him with much enthusiasm. Azhdeen stayed with him surprisingly long but then left. Apparently he liked the song.
There is teasing and badinage, some fighting, and some news of the other groups. Rohan has to keep up his reputation for cleverness.
Chiana and Rinhoel talk sweet to Birioc, and they negotiate the division of the royal lands once Rohan and Pol are dead. Birioc insists on Feruche, among other plum properties.
Suddenly a new guest arrives and greets Birioc as a brother: an invader named Lord Varek, who lets drop some information about who his people are. Birioc allows as how his own grandfather was also named Varek. They’re related, the Vellanti says. He wants Rohan dead, and also Walvis of “Remagev of the dragon.”
They settle down to negotiate. Chiana is frozen out (the invaders are extremely misogynistic). The Vellant’im want Rohan “and his faradhi son,” but Varek won’t say why. He dismisses Goddess Keep as “unimportant.”
Chiana sweeps out in outrage at being ignored. Rinhoel stays and perseveres. Birioc participates, and plots and plans to become Prince of Cunaxa. And maybe grow a beard.
In Firon as winter sets in hard, a coup is in process, observed by Mirsath’s brother Idalian. The Sunrunner in residence is being held under guard and out of sunlight, the seven-year-old prince is being pushed aside, and his Uncle Yarin has seized control. Idalian, severely homesick for his lost Riverport, determines not to let that continue.
Meanwhile, Ostvel and Tilal, with Rialt, discover that Waes is untouched by the enemy. The city is completely empty.
The cast of characters, however, is not. We’re introduced to a collection of minor players, all with backstories full of names and relationships, followed by Ostvel and Tilal taking a short trip through their memories of Riallas past. Andrev interrupts with salvaged food, which allows Ostvel to reflect on the delicate political and familial issues revolving around Tilal’s new squire. This leads to the speculation that Rohan may give Ostvel Meadowlord to hold for his son Dannar. Then they speculate again as to why Waes hasn’t been touched—and both arrive at the same conclusion: Chiana.
Which, through somewhat convoluted chains of reasoning, is how Ostvel comes to think that he’ll be getting Meadowlord by summer. Chiana is going to pay dearly for her betrayal. There is teasing, small talk, family talk, further growling about Andry, and optimism about who will win the war—leavened by Ostvel’s wondering how high the price will be.
And I’m Thinking: As with all the perfect marriages, Pol and his parents have a perfect relationship. There are very occasional spats, and some are painful, as in this section, but they always reboot to happy-normal Rohan-worship with Pol as devoted student. I’d like to see that go deeper and be less “Oh, we had a problem! Oh dear! Oh well! All better now!”
The one exception is Andry versus everybody, especially Pol. That runs exactly the opposite from Pol and his parents: no matter how hard everyone may try to mend the rift, they always end up returning to square one, with Andry on one side and the rest of his family on the other.
Meanwhile we literally have a cast of thousands, and all the good guys get their own histories, families, personalities, and moments of screen time. Certain themes circle around each other; in this section, aside from war, Rohan/Pol, and the first appearance of Chiana (whose name, let’s not forget, means Treason) in the book, it’s the endless, festering conflict between Andry and his family, especially Pol; and now Andry’s eldest son and heir-designate is a runaway to the Rohan camp.
As for the repeated assertion that Sioned is the real protagonist of these books, so far I don’t see it. She doesn’t get much screen time compared to certain others, and what she does have is almost exclusively (maybe there’s not almost about it) in support roles. The front and center of every scene in which he appears (and he is in a lot of them), and the constant in everybody’s mind, sooner or later, one way or another, is Rohan. He’s the one it’s all about. He’s been the one it’s all about since the first book of the first trilogy.
That for me equals main character, i.e. protagonist, i.e. the central figure in each book. I presume from the overall pattern that’s taking shape that Rohan dies or is killed off and Sioned finally gets to have some independent life, but so far, three and two-thirds books in, she’s all about Rohan all the time, and everything she does and thinks and feels is in some way, directly or indirectly, about him.
We’ll see how that evolves, or if it stays the same.
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.