Rereading Melanie Rawn

Reading Melanie Rawn’s Skybowl: Chapters 1–5

Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Star Trilogy! This week we begin the last volume of the trilogy and the conclusion of the series. It’s the longest of all the books, with all the threads it has to tie up, so will take a bit longer than the previous volumes. I’ll do five chapters a week, and we’ll advance to the end.

In these opening chapters of Skybowl, we pick up right after we left off in The Dragon Token. All the players are advancing toward the big showdown, and complications abound–while a long-standing and bitter rivalry declares a (probably temporary) truce.

Skybowl, Part One: Chapter 1

Here’s What’s Happening: Hoo boy. Before we even get to the first chapter, we get an Author’s Note: “A summary of casualties, how they died and where, may suffice as a reminder of events in Stronghold and Dragon Token.” Followed by five pages of tiny type, first the dead, then the living, labeled Sunrunner or Sorcerer. Because it’s important.

It’s like, “You want your epic extra dark, with blood sprinkles? Here you go. Bodies! Bodies everywhere! Oh, and survivors. We got your survivors here.”

Note that this predates the first Game of Thrones book by several years.

That’s our tone going in. Then in Chapter 1 we’re right in the middle of things, directly after the end of The Dragon Token, with Andry having a fever dream of the Goddess, and a vision of further sacrifice. One more castle is fated to fall. Then we’re off on a whole lot of backstory, backfilling, and Andry internal-monologuing about what the vision means—harking back to the first volumes of the series, which went in heavily for long passages of exposition.

From Andry, whose status as a good guy is distinctly ambiguous, we shift all the way to the dark side with the High Warlord. A young priest has decided to pull down what’s left of Stronghold. The Warlord believes this is a waste of effort and time. There’s a clear struggle between warriors and priests (reflecting the one between Pol and Andry/royals and Sunrunners, actually). The Warlord is working hard to keep control. He’s also clarifying Andry’s vision. His goal is, we discover, Skybowl.

Andry on the road, foraging for dinner, finds a sorcerers’ circle. When he activates it, he gets far more than he bargained for. He sees all the dead but Rohan, and the Storm God speaks harshly to him.

Pol is telling the children a bedtime story. Sionell, eavesdropping, hears Jihan call her young son Meig a Sunrunner. She charges in when Jihan almost burns the room down.

Pol is fatalistic about his daughter’s powers. Not so much when Sionell tells him Kazander is missing. They then have a moment of futile longing and, on her part, snapping temper. Sionell escapes to domesticity. Pol, alone in his room, feels terribly trapped and helpless.

Saumer, as Chapter 2 begins, sneaks into Faolain Lowland in the rain. In the tunnel under the moat, he senses something powerful, and marks where it is. (This would be the Dragon’s Tear flung into the moat many pages ago.) As he’s welcomed to the castle by Mirsath and Kalanaya, the tunnel collapses. Saumer fishes the Tear out of the muck.

In the aftermath, Mirsath and the resident Sunrunner discuss the discovery, and Saumer’s young and untrained powers which nevertheless managed to sense the Tear when Johlarian was oblivious to it. Saumer appears, and Karanaya arrives, wearing all six Dragon’s Tears as a necklace. Both Sunrunners then discover that the gems have a distinct aura.

Crippled Prince Elsen collapses in pain within sight of Goddess Keep, which he has come to help. He wakes in Jayachin’s tent. She’s effectively holding him hostage while his troops are inside the Keep. She pressures him to attack the enemy, since Torien will not. He’s—almost—taken in by her manipulation, but he understands that Sunrunners swear an oath not to kill.

When he next comes to, he’s with Torien and his lover Jolan, and they are discussing Elsen’s childhood injury and the means of repairing it. They also discuss what Jayachin might have tried to talk him into while she had him in her tent.

Sioned, with Meath, presides over a Sunrunner ritual/class in Feruche, with all the children. She’s planning to call in other Sunrunners—and observes, reluctantly, that they’re going to need Andry’s help. The children are opinionated and outspoken. Meath strips off his rings, which is Symbolic.

Alasen appears, asking to join the class. Tobren (who is Andry’s daughter) grudgingly agrees to participate as well. Meath gives a history lesson while Sioned travels down memory lane, with reflections on the students in the class and the situation in general, including Pol and Sionell.

When class is over, she and Meath discuss it, and take another excursion into memories of the dead and the absent living, including one who is now one of Andry’s inner circle. Sioned has a spy in Goddess Keep (as we know and Meath is just discovering). They go on to discuss various people and situations, Meath’s repudiation of his Sunrunner rings, the ongoing problems with Andry’s ego, the strained relations in general between Goddess Keep and the Sunrunner royals, and a whole lot of additional backstory having to do with this long-standing conflict.

Sionell and Hollis, restless, find work to do in the kitchens, until the cook drives Sionell out with a full recitation of his greatest hits of times past. She escapes to the storeroom, and finds an intruder. Andry has made his way to Feruche.

They exchange barbed courtesies. Sionell despises him, and says so. (Sionell has never in her life kept her opinions to herself.) Andry needs help getting Evarin into the castle—he’s wounded.

Sionell leaves Andry in the cellar and tells Hollis he’s here. Hollis sees the use in him: he can help find Chayla. She tells Sionell what to do, and “Leave Pol to me.”

In Chapter 3, Maarken and Tobin welcome Andry to Feruche with open arms. Andry is shocked by Maarken’s lost hand, Tobin’s disability from her stroke, and Chay’s visibly aged face. Pol also welcomes him, and they don’t try to rip each other to pieces, which is notable. Andry even feels sorry for Pol, whose wife and daughter have been captured by the enemy. Then Pol has to tell him Chayla is missing.

It’s an honest family welcome, though there are extensive undertones. Maarken, alone with Andry, fills him in on his own injury plus various happenings. He also says that he still feels his rings. Andry tells him what Sunrunner rings actually are. Maarken goes on with the filling-in.

Hollis finds Andry in the bath and Maarken still talking. There is teasing. Sioned wants to see Andry. There is more teasing. Tobren appears, and is adorable. She gets teased. She wants to talk to her father about something. Later, he says.

Hollis tells him what Tobren wants to tell him: the Sunrunner lessons. Andry thinks that’s just fine. This segues into a discussion of the Pol/Andry conflict. Andry is determined to get past it, because this war needs them to work together. Hollis leans on him to do it for Maarken’s sake. Andry wishes someone would love him the way Hollis loves Maarken.

Sioned welcomes Andry with teasing and affection, and tosses everybody else out. She needs him to help her find Chayla with a spell from the Star Scroll. Nobody else can help—they’re all too near to breaking. Also, politically, it needs to be the Lord of Goddess Keep who does this. Both the Vellant’im and Pol needs to see exactly where he stands.

They are open with each other about what they have to do and why, and also about why Andry will have to yield to the High Prince, and the High Prince will have to respect Andry. Andry will help for love of his brothers—the late Sorin and the living Maarken.

Sioned is being a master manipulator. She reflects on this as they begin the spell. She also reflects on how Andry will react when he discovers who Pol really is.

Andry can’t find anything. Sioned puts out the Fire she’s using to heat and light the room. She notices the emerald on her hand, which is glowing, but she doesn’t tell Andry about that.

The trigger object, Chayla’s surgeon’s knife, affects Andry strongly. She’s a magically gifted healer, like Evarin. They discuss the Star Scroll and how it advises against using any edged object for a spell, and also that the Star Scroll is now in enemy hands.

The discussion goes on at length. Andry finally divulges that he’s located Chayla. They discuss what Andry’s found, and how to use it, which segues into discussion of the Sunrunner lessons. Andry actually approves. (This point gets hammered in early and often.)

The discussion moves on to Andry’s need to talk to Pol, and Sioned’s knowledge, through Alasen, that Andry killed Miyon, with a further segue into the art of shape-shifting.

When Andry leaves, Sioned reveals to us readers how she’s misled him about her (and Pol’s) ability to work the spell. She plans to find Meiglan and Kazander herself, and maybe with Pol’s help.

Kazander and company are riding as Black Warriors. Sioned contacts Kazander on starlight. She tells him where Chayla is.

Chayla in captivity has to contend with rotten food, but isn’t being mistreated—until a lord appears with Meiglan, and her captors realize she’s not a Sunrunner princess, or a sorcerer, either. (She is a Sunrunner but she hasn’t done anything about learning to use her powers.) Then things start to get horribly real.

Sioned and Pol discuss the Meiglan situation. Pol is anguished. He wants to sacrifice himself for his wife and child. Sioned manipulates him out of it.

Jihan has screaming nightmares. Pol is anguished, wishing he could use his dragon to find Meiglan and Rislyn. Azhdeen erupts in rage and flies away.

Chayla has been raped and tortured, in clinical detail. She proceeds to dissociate: separating brain and body.

Chapter 4 sees Tilal wibbling about what to do when he gets to the mouth of the Faolain. Then Andrev spies a battle happening, and Prince Amiel has seized two enemy ships.

Tilal adds his forces on the land side. There’s a quick, mostly offstage battle, then a meeting, with teasing and small talk. Nyr shows up (we’re told early and often that she’s pregnant),  and Amiel is adorably adoring. He goes on to tell Tilal what his spy has learned about the enemy, including some cultural details and the next move in the war: they’ve all been summoned to Stronghold. This is bad news for Pol, but they’re very cheery and gung-ho about it. They’ll go to help, of course. Pip-pip!

Another meeting, in Feruche. Andry is filling Pol in on what happened to Miyon. Pol fills Andry in on dragon tokens. Andry is using his own fallibility to win friends and influence people. They’re getting along remarkably well. Even teasing. Pol is angsty about his failures, Andry is supportive.

They’re aware of how out of character this is, and they know this is a fragile détente, but they keep right on, because they have a common enemy. Also, because of Maarken. Then they talk about missing Rohan. Also Andrade—she’s been showing up a lot in these early chapters.

The conversation shifts to Jihan and the classes. Pol asks Andry to teach her. They discuss this, with reference to family history and the phenomenon of unknown or untaught Sunrunners. Pol is happy to hand the problem over to Andry.

Pol is basically lazy. He likes to take the easy road.

Andry, not at all incidentally, knows Jihan is a sorcerer. He has Plans for her.

The discussion continues, shifting to the war, the enemy, and the fact that Andry is not to be given orders. Suddenly Meath appears with news of the victory at Faolain Bay. This cheers Pol up tremendously. He starts laughing and teasing. And strategizing. He has a plan, and it involves the Tears of the Dragon.

He explains these to Andry. Also, he explains why all the enemy in one place is a good thing. Failure, Pol makes clear, is not an option.

At Faolain Lowland, the first part of the plan meets with resistance. Karanaya does not want to give up her “pearls.” There is a roaring fight. Eventually, direct orders from both the High Prince and the Lord of Goddess Keep prevail.

Pol and Andry discuss Karanaya, and also Andrev. Andry is being unexpectedly considerate of his son’s pride. Pol reveals his innate laziness once again: he lets other people do the planning for him. He just wants to find his wife and daughter.

They go back and forth, with barbed teasing and frequent reference to how alike they are. This segues into discussion of Lady Merisel in the Star Scroll, and her reference to a set of black pearls. The Tears, then, were hers. The chapter ends with Pol talking, again, about how helpless he is to do anything, but how as High Prince he gets to give orders for other people to do things.

Chapter 5 opens with yet another meeting, dramatically interrupted by Jihan, who has had a communication from Rislyn. Rislyn is a Sunrunner. This is significant: both Maarken and Andry had twins without gifts. Both of these twins are gifted, like Chayla and Rohannon.

Pol uses this, with Andry’s support. Jihan explains how she sees everybody’s colors. Andry guides her, and Pol helps. She touches Rislyn, and falls dramatically and painfully apart. Pol soothes her. Rislyn has a fever, and Jihan felt it.

This hasn’t helped them find Rislyn. Pol carries Jihan out.

Chayla is conscious and back in her body again. She takes inventory of the cave she’s in. Her captors are arguing over what to do with her. She considers what she can do to them, especially her rapist. She also knows that she can’t let anyone, least of all her father Maarken, know what was done to her, “for their lives’ sake.”

She pulls herself together and marches out to demand food. Her anger catches fire, outing her as a Sunrunner.

Suddenly Kazander’s warriors appear. One of them kills the rapist, but Chayla keeps him alive with her powers, long enough to know exactly what is happening to him.

The killer is Kazander. Chayla lies to him about being unharmed. Chayla is in bad physical and mental shape, and working hard to hide it.

She tells her rescuers she’s seen Meiglan—when and where. Kazander sends Chayla to Feruche with one of his men (she talks him down, fiercely, from six), and takes the rest on Meiglan’s trail. She’s being taken to Stronghold.

Chay and Andry have a father-son conversation. They talk about Rohan, and about Pol, and how alike Pol and Andry are.

Alasen comes to Sionell for “a private talk.” Alasen is trying to manipulate Sionell into keeping Pol “locked up for his own good” instead of sacrificing himself for them all. She probably doesn’t know about their affair, Sionell thinks. Sionell gets impatient and suggests using Jihan to work on Pol, rather than herself.

This turns out to be unnecessary. Maarken and Riyan are having a public shouting match with Pol. Tobin joins in, on sunlight, and shuts them all up. Sioned, Andry, and Alasen discuss what’s going on, and what it means.

This goes on for some time. Andry breaks the tension by being frank about his adversarial relationship with Pol. This, paradoxically, brings them into grinning agreement. Suddenly Chayla arrives and faints into Andry’s arms.

Visian, her warrior escort, fills everyone in on what happened. Sioned reveals to Andry that she can also use the spell to find people–she was playing him before. Visian tells Pol about Meiglan.

Pol rewards Visian with the title and authority of Lord in Kazander’s absence, and sends him to bed. Then the fight starts all over again, this time with Ruala. Pol is bound and determined to do what he’s going to do.

Suddenly Sioned realizes what’s happening. The enemy have read Feylin’s oh so carefully, oh so cleverly damaged book. They’re following instructions (so they think) from the book, involving sacrifice of a virgin princess. Sioned winds herself up in anguished knots about who the sacrifice will most likely be. She tells herself it won’t be the child Rislyn, even the big bad baddies can’t do it to a child, can they? Can they? The obvious candidate, therefore, is Jeni.

She pulls ruthless rank on Pol and commands him to stay put, then reaches Jeni on sunlight with the same orders. Once this is taken care of, she grills Evarin on what he really found when he examined Chayla. He has never seen the results of rape before, but he knows what they are.

Andry knows. He saw the signs, too. He’s been keeping her parents from seeing them.

Sioned is absolutely appalled. She is, in fact, driven mad by her memories of Roelstra, and of her torment in Feruche, and the fact all this is her fault. Evarin, alarmed, calls for Andry. And the chapter ends.

 

And I’m Thinking: Talk about stuff getting real. This is ugly—not quite so much in 1993, when rape plots were one well-acknowledged way to slam a plot into gear, but horrible enough, and the story wrings every scrap of awfulness from it. The fact that women in these books have real agency adds to the effect.

As culture clashes go, this is going nuclear. The enemy doesn’t know all the political ramifications here, and is obviously about to find out.

Meanwhile there’s a lot else going on, most of it told through the Talking Heads technique. Councils and conversations. Lots of internal monologue, backstory, and exposition. There is some action, and it moves things forward, but mostly people talk about it.

The Poor Helpless Pol thing is wearing pretty thin, and he seems to agree. He’s been plot-bunnied into paralysis just a few times too often. Now his babysitters won’t even let him make the big fat sacrifice Rohan kept setting out to make. Nobody sat on Rohan the way they sit on Pol. He’s the ultimate bubble-wrap kid.

Pol and Andry getting together and singing kumbaya is described as a very tricky situation that could collapse at any minute, but it’s all terribly easy and uncomplicated when it actually happens. Andry is far too accommodating about the Sunrunner lessons, too. We’ve spent hundreds of pages being told what a rage he’ll be in when he finds out—and he finally does and it’s no big deal. It’s kind of a letdown.

I do not see, despite all the endless repetitions, that Andry and Pol are all that much alike. Their egos are huge and their tempers are short, yes, but they show it in different ways. Andry is highly proactive, very manipulative, and not inclined to stop at anything to get what he wants. Pol is limp and lazy unless he’s pushed to it, and he’d much rather leave the tough decisions to somebody, anybody else. Even when he does make an actual decision, all his babysitters get together to sit on him. Andry would never tolerate that. Which is why he’s in Feruche and not in Goddess Keep, and actually doing something rather than lying around feeling sorry for himself.

We have an explosive situation setting up, between Pol’s problematical personality, Chayla’s ordeal, and Sioned’s latest crashing meltdown. Will it really explode, or will it fizzle? Time will tell.

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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