Welcome to the last weekly Wednesday read of Stronghold!
After all the buildup, the book comes to a flaming finish this week, but first we’ve got to check in with out parade of villains and plot threads. Next week we’re on to The Dragon Token, so let’s get moving!
Here’s What’s Happening: In Chapter 26, Miyon at Dragon’s Rest is in a towering rage over Meiglan’s escape and the scuttling of his plans, but he quickly decides to hang tight and wait on events. Meanwhile in our parade of villains and plots, at Firon, Yarin has starved the resident Sunrunner to death and passed it off as a contagious disease, which allows him to isolate the young lord Tirel and persuade him to sign a document putting Yarin in charge of Firon. Tirel is on to him, but sees no choice. In the aftermath, Tirel’s squire points out that Tirel is too young to legally sign any such document, so it’s actually void. (Rohan’s rule of law comes in handy here.)
The tour continues, though we’ve left the villains behind for a bit. At New Raetia, Prince Arlis and his squire Rohannon discuss history, politics, and the Pol/Andry rivalry, with bonus cute domestic details. Then Rohannon goes Sunrunning, and discovers that Kostas is dead and Arlis’ brother Saumer is a Sunrunner.
Tallain is in a terrible mood, overseeing the baking of bread for his troops and bellowing at his wife, who bellows right back. They’re both exhausted with trying to keep things together in the middle of a war: Tallain in the army, Sionell in the domestic sphere. (Although common women fight and even command, royal and noble women run households—a more conventional gender divide. Interesting cultural bit.) Amid the cute kids and the teasing, they have a discussion of a favorite theme: the barbarism of war and the desire for a more civilized society.
Stronghold in the meantime is crammed full of people. Maarken and Kazander are out on patrol, with bonus horse-neep (the Desert tribes have been…borrowing the services of a certain Radzyn stud). The two of them get along splendidly.
Maarken finds a sunny hilltop and goes Sunrunning. His son Rohannon finds him—doing things he doesn’t have the training to do, for which Maarken pulls him up short—and gives him the news from Raetia plus the fact Saumer has faradhi powers. Maarken has to tell Rohan right away—and after Rohan, Kostas’ son Daniv, who is now Prince of Syr.
Sioned has been Sunrunning as well, but from a different angle, and missing some evidence while catching others. She also considers the family complications between Andry and his children, Tobren and Andrev.
Andrev meanwhile has brought the news to Tilal and Ostvel—including the evidence of Chiana’s treachery that Sioned has seen (which is actually false: it’s a plant by Kostas). Ostvel sees this as the reason they’ve been looking for, to attack Swalekeep.
As this is happening, Andry has quietly and illegally made Jayachin a de facto athri or lord/vassal. Andry rationalizes it with his usual combination of arrogance and egotism, combined with his usual venom against Pol, then continues to ponder war, politics, family dynamics, and the question of what has happened at Firon and whether he should step in. Andry is building power, and deliberately flouting Rohan. And of course Pol. Andry will do anything to flout Pol.
Kazander is out in the desert, away from all the crowds, realizing he’s madly in love with Chayla. Suddenly strangers arrive—and turn out to be Meiglan and company. Meiglan is droopy and whiny. The daughters are properly composed (with some giggles).
They deliver the party to Stronghold. Pol is not tender in his welcome. Meiglan faints dead away.
Chapter 27 shifts to morning, with Pol still snarling, and his parents defending Meiglan. She was “very clever,” says Rohan, who knows from the concept. He took the time to listen to Jihan and her talk about Grandfather Miyon at Dragon’s Rest, unlike Pol, who seems to have stomped off to bed without talking to anyone.
Pol is wary but not terribly perturbed. It’s Sioned who erupts, and schools him in what it means. Meanwhile Rohan schools Pol in how to properly evaluate what his wife did (advising Pol to do nothing, which is an old contention between them). Pol is in full dumb-jock mode, and not acting at all like a loving husband. (He made his bed, is my thought.)
Meiglan overhears this, and mends things with Pol. And realizes that no one else gets congratulated for intelligence. It’s a given with the rest of the family.
(Actually, no. Everyone is always going on about Clever Rohan.)
Domestic interlude with adorable kids and Rohan playing dragon. Meiglan demonstrates that she’s a good mother and keeps discipline, and Rohan is much gentler and kinder to her than Pol has been. (Rohan is Perfect, of course. Pol does not show up well in comparison.)
Rohan retreats to the Flametower, with some background/backstory and a good deal of self-doubt. He’s taking on full responsibility for what’s been happening, with an appropriate burden of guilt. At length. In detail. Summing up his actions and choices of the past four books.
He reflects on Pol, and how Rohan totally understands his son, but Pol totally does not understand his father. He’s “a creature of instinct.” Rohan is a thinking man.
And he thinks. At length. In detail.
Until he sees enemy torches advancing across the Desert. Then he goes down and takes his sword off the wall.
Splendid symbolic gesture there.
In the morning, Stronghold is surrounded. The good guys have a council. Everyone has a job to do. They all admire Rohan’s subtlety and ruling style.
Grandfather-granddaughter time: Rohan and the very opinionated Jihan. He makes her swear an oath to him as High Prince, not to go haring off against the enemy; then her twin Rislyn does the same. It’s play, but it’s serious underneath.
Another council. Meath isn’t sure why he’s there. He’s being invisible, and having thoughts about everyone else, particularly how different Pol and Rohan are.
This is a theme. It has the drumming of Significance.
The discussion turns to the Sunrunner’s oath. Pol addresses it first. Sioned confesses her sins. The Sunrunners come round to admitting that they’re breaking with Goddess Keep.
Maarken and Pol in the aftermath: Pol has lost his trust in Rohan. Maarken schools him—and accuses him of both inexperience and arrogance. Then compares him to Andry. And harps again on his lack of real-life experience.
I have a bad feeling about this.
Chapter 28: Battle. The Desert contingent is brilliant. Tobin is frustrated; she can’t conjure sunlight in the room she’s in, and she’s stuck with the “boring” Meiglan and the children.
Chay is feeling old. Battle isn’t really fun any more. He takes a break and goes looking for his wife.
Tobin gets news through Jeni, who has discovered Sunrunner powers. Meiglan continues to be boring and irritating. Tobin takes a long ride down memory lane, and has a brainstorm: a way to use sorcerers to protect Sunrunners against iron in battle. She sends for Rohan—and Jihan runs into sunlight to find him, which places her in serious danger of being caught in Sioned’s giant conjuring.
Morwenna ponders her mixed magical heritage, with more remembering and backstory. Sioned is in full magical flight. Morwenna sees steel coming and deliberately sets herself in front of it, as she suspects Pandsala did years ago. The magical battle continues, as the physical battle rages.
Maarken has been juggling the two—Sioned grabs power wherever she can—and having “a hell of a confusing morning.” Now he’s making the move he’s planned all along, with Kazander’s assistance.
Chay heads into the castle, with bonus Rohan-love, and finds Jihan and Jeni in trance, “snared by Sioned’s hungry, powerful mind.”
Which shows who the real power is here, and also draws a clear parallel between Sioned and Andry. They both do whatever they have to, in whatever way they can.
And now the denouement: Chapter 29 (the only time one of these books doesn’t make it to or past 30). Rohan nurses an injured arm and realizes the battle is about to take the turn Maarken planned for it. A troop of enemy recognize and charge him, but he’s perfectly secure. Sioned’s power will protect him.
Morwenna in the working sees new colors woven in—and one is pure and gleeful sorcerer. (My guess is Jihan.)
Some of Rohan’s people try to get him to withdraw, but he’s bait, and he’s safe.
Walvis is taking revenge for Jahnavi, and counting kills. He attacks the enemy’s siege engine, and finds it loaded with anti-Sunrunner steel missiles.
Morwenna isn’t strong enough to shield against that much iron, and then the children start to scream. Sioned’s spell is breaking up. Morwenna has to make a choice. Morwenna leaves her Sunrunner half behind and splits off the sorcerer.
Sioned meanwhile gets to work protecting the children. It takes Pol, with his sorcerer powers, to bring Jihan back out of the weaving.
Morwenna and one of the others is breathing but gone—effectively shadow-lost. Meath delivers the mercy-strokes.
Sioned sees the parallel between this and Ostvel’s killing Ianthe for her. She needs Rohan, but first she passes out.
Rohan, outside, sees the missiles shatter the spell, and bolts for safety, bellowing for the gates to be shut. He goes looking for Sioned, but finds Pol first. They have a moment of almost-understanding. Rohan allows Pol to go back out—and gives him his sword. Major symbolic moment.
Meath fills Rohan in on the status of the Sunrunners, alive and dead. Rohan asks/orders Meath to report on the battle.
Sioned meanwhile wakes up and is bitter about how magical gifts can kill. They strikes sparks off one another, until Meath breaks in. There’s a new enemy coming: the warlord, who has no beard, because he has nothing to prove.
Rohan orders that Pol lead the charge. He has to. Rohan has failed. Pol is the man this hour needs. More deep, resonating chords of Significance.
Chay, Myrdal, and Betheyn open the entrance to a set of secret passages in the Great Hall and make plans to use them.
Pol joins Maarken and Kazander in the battle, and Pol takes off in the lead. Maarken recognizes the banner of the enemy warlord, and receives Sioned’s message to make sure Pol is seen to be leading the army. Maarken checks the sunlight to see where everyone is, sees that they can’t win, and is struck down.
Myrdal shepherds the exodus into the secret passages. Meiglan meanwhile is being limp, and Rislyn is refusing to leave. Myrdal lures the twins with the idea of a “magical maze” that they must guide their family through, as proper athr’im should.
Myrdal continues to strategize about getting everybody out, including Rohan. Who has an arm wound, but he’s been showing pain in his left arm rather than the right. (We know what that means.)
Myrdal feels responsible for all of them. She promised Zehava long ago to keep “him” safe. That being Rohan, of course. It’s always about Rohan. It’s also full circle, from the first book to this.
Maarken comes to as his squire pulls an arrow out of him—removing the iron that is such a danger to a Sunrunner. He sends the squire with troops to help Pol attack the enemy warlord, and strategizes about getting the rest of the troops back to Stronghold and battening in for a siege. Maarken pauses for a bit of history about how Zehava won Stronghold, not particularly honorably, from the Merida.
The situation now is impossible. A siege won’t work. He pulls back.
In the castle, Meath is incredulous and Chay understands. Maarken is saving the army to lift a siege later, while leaving enough to defend the castle until everyone can be got inside and the gates shut.
Sioned gets it, too. The evacuation is well under way. She also gets it that Rohan won’t leave. Which means she won’t. Or Myrdal. She orders everyone else out.
The enemy breaches the gates. Maarken sees it from outside. So does Pol. He’s heading for the Desert, while the warlord marches toward Stronghold.
Sioned finds Rohan near the grotto, perfectly and beautifully dead. Chay hears her howl and tries to pull her away. She hacks off her hair and casts Fire toward the Flametower, immolating the whole of Stronghold. Chay carries her off. They find horses and people, and make their escape.
And I’m Thinking: Well. That’s a barnburner of a conclusion. Rohan has to die—all that adoration and perfection has built to critical mass. The fact he dies offstage by heart attack rather than onstage or by violence, and that we don’t get any hint of his last thoughts despite spending so very much time in his head, fits both his pacifist leanings and the way the books are structured. The really beloved characters get offstage deaths. Too painful to write?
It’s a bit disappointing here. All that buildup, and all we get is a beautiful corpse.
There’s certainly been a lot of action and a lot of drama and a cast of literally thousands. The Desert contingent has bottomed out, now it’s abandoned Stronghold. We still don’t know what the enemy wants, or why he’s keeping certain places intact. That’s a mystery to carry into the next book.
So now we’re seeing a real shift in the series. Rohan’s idealism has failed in the face of the foreign invasion. Old patterns and old styles of behavior are back, and Pol the killer jock is just the man for the job.
With Rohan finally out of the picture, we’ve lost the center of the first two-thirds of the series. Pol is not the man his father was, and we’ve been told over and over that he’s an arrogant, conceited, not very intelligent, egotistical jerk. Will he improve on his prior self now his father isn’t there to show him up? Time will tell.
Sioned meanwhile is having a serious power problem. She’s worse than Andry in some ways, and now she won’t have Rohan’s soothing presence to ramp her down. She’s on a clear trajectory toward the vengeful crazy.
These books are definitely about the uses and misuses of power. The Sunrunner’s oath is a bit of a bust—nobody really keeps it under duress, and it turns out it’s not about ethics, it’s about the Sunrunners’ vulnerability to cold iron. That weakness, and the oath that’s the result of it, is about all that keeps them from taking over the world. (Well, that and a basic problem of competence, especially among the leaders.)
Considering the enemy’s reaction to Sunrunners, I wonder…
I’m sure we’ll find out.
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.