Rereading Melanie Rawn

Reading Melanie Rawn’s The Dragon Token, Chapters 10-13

Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of The Dragon Token! This week we continue with another hundred-page segment.

The war continues, Pol gives—and gets—little love, and we get a powerful and detailed insight into the culture and psychology of the enemy. We also take some time to reminisce about the perfectness of Rohan…

The Dragon Token—Chapters 10-13

Here’s what happens: As Chapter 10 opens, Ostvel and Tilal strategize with the younger generation, sending them off to fight their parts of the war. As often in these books, there’s teasing and banter, and reference to youth versus age. Andrev will be sitting this one out, whether he likes it or not, as will Ostvel.

Tilal takes time to reminisce about the past, including, of course, Rohan. Then Naydra appears to give him Rinhoel’s golden dragon token, and promises to have rooms ready for him in Swalekeep.

Rialt, bound, is dragged out of his cell to face Halian, who wants to know why his niece Cluthine is dead. Amid the shouting, Rialt tells Halian what his wife Chiana is really up to. Halian is in denial.

Chiana appears, having heard the noise. She’s “all big eyes and pretty bewilderment.” Halian succumbs to her blandishments and sends Rialt back to jail, but not before Chiana shows him the dragon token that he had sent with Cluthine.

Naydra and Branig return to Swalekeep. Naydra doesn’t trust Branig. She asks him for some history about Roelstra, Lallante, and Rohan. Which despite Naydra’s concern immediately previous about the noise the horses are making, Branig obligingly gives her, with details about the two factions of sorcerers and the part Lallante played in the long conflict. The Mireva faction seems to be setting up to start all over again with Rinhoel in Princemarch, married to a sorceress, since he has no power of his own.

Branig’s faction wants to prevent this. They just want to live in peace, he says.

Naydra believes he’s lying about what he’s really up to. Even so, they end up more or less on good terms, though Branig is evasive about his own family and how it fits into all this.

Andrev is indeed unhappy to be kept out of the fighting, but Tilal has told him his best value is as a Sunrunner. The various sections of the army deal with adverse weather and road conditions, and close in on Swalekeep.

Chiana, at top volume, is playing warrior princess, and being grandly inconsiderate of the common rabble in the process. She sends Rinhoel to fetch his dragon token, to get a message to Varek.

Halian appears, and she makes no effort to be charming. He’s trying to be all princely and in command, but she has to tell him it’s not invaders, it’s Tilal attacking the castle. Then she lets slip that the invaders will help repel him.

Halian finally gets the clue Rialt tried to beat into his head. He discovers who really killed Cluthine, and both his wife and his son tell him he’s “nothing.” Chiana squeezes her eyes shut, and Rinhoel murders his father.

She can’t open her eyes. He tells her he can’t find his dragon token. He’s taken charge, and she submits to his authority.

In Chapter 11, the gates of Swalekeep open for Kerluthan, and he meets no resistance. As he prepares to address the populace, Branig preempts him, urging the people to take up arms and fight for Prince Pol. The people aren’t sure about that. Suddenly Branig is shot dead. Arrows rain down from the keep on the unarmed people. Kerluthan beats a strategic retreat.

Andrev fills Ostvel in on events. It’s going more or less as planned. The Vellant’im are about to find out what happened, and be lured in. That’s Kerluthan’s bigger, better prize.

Varek is ready when Lady Aurar arrives with Rinhoel’s message, with a detailed snapshot of his camp and his arrangements for the battle. Aurar is not happy that he’s sending only a portion of his army. He turns his back on her female insignificance. She keeps on coming, ranting as she goes—and announces that she is taking command of the troops. She does not realize the fate Varek plans for her.

Varek is not actually in love with war. Which is why he holds this high command. “An army should not be commanded by a man who loved to kill.” Which is an interesting insight into the psychology of the Vellant’im.

The enemy has arrived sooner than expected, and Kerluthan doesn’t know enough to wait. He begins the attack. Ostvel, alerted by Andrev’s Sunrunning, warns Tilal and keeps track of the rest of the commanders and forces. Andrev notes that someone is riding toward the enemy on Tilal’s own horse. Tilal, confronted with a change in plans, is “using his imagination.”

Kerluthan is having a grand time. It’s all so easy—until it isn’t.

Draza is having similar thoughts in Swalekeep—until he receives word that Kerluthan is dead and the battle is almost lost.

Rain interrupts Andrev’s Sunrunning. Ostvel is wise and understanding. Ostvel then rides into Swalekeep, intending to deal with Chiana. He gets the latest news, and inadvertently sends Andrev in person rather than on sunlight, to find Draza and give him new orders.

Tilal inspects a bridge and remembers why Rohan had it built (because we cannot have a scene in which someone fails to remember Rohan). Then he loans his Kadar stallion to Gerwen, one of the Medr’im, and sends him with a false message to the enemy. Gerwen comes back proclaiming success, and saying that Rinhoel’s dragon token was recognized. He receives the stallion as a reward for his exploit.

Another visit to the enemy camp, and further insight into his mind and strategy. The enemy troops don’t understand the failure to give up once the leader has fallen. They do understand that if they don’t fight (having fled the magical dragon at Faolain Lowland, so this is their second and last chance), they’ll be shaved and castrated and their wives given to other men.

Draza meanwhile is fighting desperately to stay alive. This seriously offends his princely dignity, until he has no mind for anything but holding ground—until he realizes he’s won. “It felt very strange.”

Tilal is in great good humor as he enters the abandoned enemy camp and plans the next stage of the battle. He does a great deal of chuckling and smiling, because the enemy is losing.

(In another book I might be braced for him to get killed. Hubris and all that. Here, it can be hard to tell.)

Suddenly he sees Andrev riding toward him, bubbling over with news. Tilal’s giggles die the death as he reckons the count of casualties. He sends Andrev back forthwith to Swalekeep (and the men delegated to escort him wields a powerful weapon: the threat of Tobin’s wrath), as Gerwen arrives with news that the enemy are coming.

The royal menagerie has been turned loose in Swalekeep. Aurar is dead, killed by Rinhoel (who is on a roll), and Chiana has her dragon token. She hears with pleasure the screams of the animals’ victims. That’s a definite turn down the path of true evil, mirroring Rinhoel’s newfound predilection for cold-blooded murder.

The very sulky Andrev follows Ostvel on his inspection of the keep and the bloodily murdered bodies of Halian and Aurar. Andrev is suitably sick, but recovers and remembers his duties as a squire. Ostvel orders the surviving wild animals to be released from the city.

He finds Naydra, now terribly aged, with Polev and little Palila. Naydra tells him Rialt and Mevita are dead. Palila saw—she went looking for the dragon token, and spied on the murders. She is now mute. Naydra, meanwhile, has killed Rialt and Mevita’s murderer with Fire.

She’s discovered, late in life, that she’s a Sunrunner. As Ostvel “had always known.”

Ostvel wonders what Pol will think of this.

Part Three and Chapter 12 segue directly from this touching and devastating scene. Tilal rides into the keep and discovers what’s happened, and at the same time (with time shift—it’s already dark in Skybowl, which is kind of puzzling considering how small the island is) Pol rides home exhausted from another bitter victory and confronts his mother.

She’s drunk and bitter. She mocks Pol for determining to end the Merida permanently. Pol isn’t sure what he’s doing there.

There are the inevitable comparisons with Rohan. Sioned says she and Rohan never wanted Pol to be like his father. Pol pushes the “I Need You” button again. She starts talking at him about all his predecessors including Roelstra—and Andrade. He reminds her of Andrade, she says, in his arrogance and refusal to accept opposition. But he’s not a manipulator as she was.

(Hm. What does this say about Meiglan the manipulator?) (No, wait, if it’s one of the Desert family, anything they do is good. That’s been a given throughout the series.)

The conversation turns into lecture time, reminiscent of how Rohan and Pol could only ever interact, but it’s much darker and more emotionally difficult. Pol is pushing his mother to be something she never really was, and in a way stepping up into a small part of his father’s place. But he’ll never understand her, he reflects. Only Rohan could do that.

(Perfect Rohan is always Perfect. Even Posthumously.)

The next scene is a sharp contrast: Sionell in Tiglath, waking to a “warm, safe, married feeling.” (Poignant after Sioned’s widowed grief, and on top of the snapshots of Pol’s less than equal marriage.) Tallain is back, and she checks him out thoroughly, then insists he fill her in on what’s happened, which he duly and obediently does.

The domestic details continue. And continue. Finally Tallain confesses the real reason for his return: what Pol did to the captives, and how coldly he seemed to do it.

Kazander interrupts. She discovers they’re evacuating to Feruche. She states that she is staying, and she’ll be practicing her archery against the Merida. Just like her mother Feylin, and her teacher Tobin.

Strong women for the win.

Many in Tiglath also refuse to leave. They run triage on who will go, with a note on how everyone loves Tallain, and another note on how Tallain may have to be ruthless like Pol, but “with honor in it.” (Never mind that Pol did what Rohan did before him. Rohan always gets a pass for being Perfect.) Pol can’t even be ruthless right: he should have killed them all, Tallain says.

When everyone who’s leaving has left, they sit over wine and wait, and talk about Birioc and Meiglan and Jahnev. Then Sionell succumbs to the drugged wine, and Kazander carries her off to safety.

Hollis arrives in a room called the Attic in Feruche, with detailed description of the clutter there, and regret for Sorin’s death. Family are waiting, and she gives them the news from the war, with the count of the dead.

Pol patronizes Meiglan, who is barely holding it together, and Hollis mentally criticizes him for it. (As if the whole family didn’t constantly lay it on thick with Good Meggie, nice Meggie, have a biscuit!)

Hollis continues her report, most of which we’ve seen, until she reaches Goddess Keep. Andry’s gone, Antoun (who is Not in the Andry faction) is one of the devr’im now, and Torien appears to be in charge.

Pol is snappish. Maarken snaps back. Chay breaks up the incipient fight.

Betheyn shifts the discourse to the big question: why the Vellant’im have come. This turns into a schooling session, which eventually concludes that what they want is revenge against Sunrunners, going all the way back to Merisel’s time.

Suddenly Hollis has a brainstorm. Gerik, Merisel’s lover/partner, was Desert born and originally called Azhrei.

The narrative shifts in Chapter 13 to Lord Varek reflecting on the beauty and strangeness of this foreign land. This is some of Rawn’s strongest writing, not just deeply felt and intricately detailed, but subtle in its exploration of the character. He’s not dehumanized and he’s not a sneering villain. He has his own sufficient and logical reasons for doing and being what he is.

This is a long way from the uniformly horrid Roelstra. Much more complex and morally and emotionally ambiguous. We can feel the pain of the latest defeats, and get some sense of how severe the losses have been.

He gives a great speech in which he unifies warring clans, and sets them a task: to destroy the Azhrei and win the Tears of the Dragon. There’s a lot of cultural detail here, and a lot of complexity in how the culture works.

Varek ends by sacrificing himself for his failure at Swalekeep. This is grand heroism, and it’s completely free of authorial judgment. It’s what it is, and within its context, it’s a very powerful and noble act.

Shift then to Ostvel, with now-standard “I’m too old for this,” and grim remembrance of the costs of the war. Ostvel does not want to be Prince of Meadowlord now Halian is dead.

Alasen appears, newly arrived from Castle Crag, with teasing. She’s here to help, and she’s not leaving.

Rohannon in New Raetia is coping with his newly discovered powers. The local Sunrunner refuses to teach him anything useful. He’s been experimenting on his own, with dranath, and using what he learns to help Arlis with the war.

He’s stowed away on Arlis’ ship, sailing toward Einar, and he discovers he doesn’t get seasick. Neither he nor Arlis knows what this means, but we do. He’s a sorcerer. Arlis puts him to work with reconnaissance, because he’s planning the first sea battle on a grand scale that this part of the world has known.

Alasen is boggling at a different kind of grand scale: the downright appalling opulence of Chiana’s bathroom. She and Naydra exchange badinage (Naydra seems to be back to herself again) before Naydra leaves her to her ablutions.

In the equally opulent dressing room, she and Naydra discuss Chiana, the war, the “half an army” Alasen has brought her husband, and Branig and what he told Naydra about his faction of sorcerers, as well as Naydra’s discovery of power.

Alasen has a plan, and is manipulating Naydra (because good guys can do this) in order to advance it. Naydra has plans and strategies of her own, and suggests a move on Dragon’s Rest, where Miyon happens to be—and where Rinhoel would want to go.

Alasen shares this with Ostvel, with regret that she’s come too late to the decision to use her Sunrunner powers. Obligatory “I’m too old for this” from Ostvel (so far there hasn’t been a scene in which he hasn’t done a round of it). They strategize. Alasen volunteers to lead a force to Dragon’s Rest, and shows him what she found in the pocket of Chiana’s bathrobe: a dragon token.

This is the one Chiana took from Cluthine, and Ostvel points out that possibility and the danger attached. Alasen insists. They end with teasing and making love.

Rohannon is finally and horribly seasick—too sick to observe Arlis’ great battle. (Offstaging in a big way—reads, I fear, like “Author wasn’t up for writing a sea battle so practiced avoidance.”) When he comes to, he’s on share at Einar and Arlis is a happy victor. The chapter ends with a whimper, as Rohannon queasily falls asleep.

 

And I’m Thinking: There’s a lot going on here, and some of Rawn’s best writing so far in the scene with Varek—in which we learn a great deal about his culture, and the enemy’s motives are confirmed. Characters who have just discovered their powers are a theme, and each deals with it differently, but even Alasen has let go her fears and stepped up.

The women are in splendid form here. Meiglan is limp and drippy and Pol is an insensitive jerk, as usual, but even she does her best (“poor thing,” as everyone else ever so patronizingly thinks of her) to hold up her end of things. Everybody else is fighting with all stalwart heart, and the men aren’t getting much of a word in edgewise, either. (Tallain is going to pay for what he did to Sionell. Oh, is he.)

The scene with Sioned and Pol is a heart-wrencher. I do feel however that Sioned has wallowed long enough, and so for that matter has needy child Pol. Time for her to climb up out of the wine cask and get to work blowing things (and characters and plot) up.

Pol I’m not sure is redeemable. The fact he’s made a near-enemy of Tallain is painful, and it’s clear nobody else likes him much, either. Except “Meggie,” but she, poor thing, is not renowned for her judgment.

Luckily most of the airtime goes to the secondary characters, and they’re as splendid as ever.

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.

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