Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Melanie Rawn’s Skybowl!
This week the plot gets thick enough to cut with a sword (living or otherwise). Sioned’s PTSD is in full spate, emotions across the board are likewise, and the body count rises.
Skybowl: Chapters 6-10
Here’s What Happens: Chapter 6 picks right up where Chapter 5 left off. Meath gets Maarken out of the picture, and Evarin tells him what happened to Chayla. He and Meath, with Andry, then go looking for Sioned.
Meath sends Riyan to fetch Pol, and goes searching in the cellars. She has flashed back to her imprisonment there by Ianthe. Meath does his best to bring her to the present. Her scream knocks him flat.
Pol and Riyan arrive. Meath fills them in on events both present and past. Sioned is completely lost in the past, and mistakes Riyan for his father Ostvel. Riyan manages to work with this. Then Sioned mistakes Pol for Rohan.
Pol carries her out of the cellar. The family works together to keep strangers from finding out what’s happened. Pol finally understands things he was never told, or never knew.
When Sioned is settled, he comes across Sionell. She comforts him. She also sets him straight about a number of things, including the fact that Rohan was losing the war, and Pol is better designed to win it—despite his lack of education in waging war. She also reassures him that Sioned will come through this with her mind intact.
Sioned wakes to the presence of key women: Alasen, then Sionell. She remembers Rohan is dead. In the morning she finds Pol, Meath, and Riyan together, and apologizes. The hardest apology is to Meath. Then she asks to see Chayla.
Chayla is glad to see her. She is being very brave and bright. Sioned tries to advise her without being explicit, but doesn’t seem to be getting through. This worries her intensely. She shrinks from spelling out what she knows, and tells herself she’s doing the right thing.
Riyan and Ruala have their daily administrative meeting, with much patented (and distinctively well thought out) domestic detail. There is teasing. She tells him she’s pregnant. Pol shows up and gets the news, and promises to let Ruala’s father know. This reminds Riyan about Pol’s sorcerous heritage—and about the mirror. Which reminds Pol that he wants to find out what the mirror does.
Riyan warns him to keep this from Andry, or Andry will find out that Pol is a sorcerer. Pol (failing to use such brain as he has, as usual) doesn’t see the problem. Ruala does his best to spell it out: Andry is a bigot, and he will make serious trouble for Pol.
They decide to hang the mirror in the Attic—to hide it in plain sight. Pol then remembers what he came for, which was to say the mountains are clear of enemies. Riyan closes the chapter by reflecting on how Pol has changed. He has “become a living sword.” Riyan hopes he won’t hurt himself.
As Chapter 7 opens, Tilal and company are miserable in the rain of Syr. Tilal is impressed with Andrev, at some length. Suddenly Amiel rushes in with news: the ships they stole have arrived. Tilal conceives a plan to make the enemy come to him. Andrev offers to do it—by magic, it’s clear.
Family dinner in the Attic. Riyan frets about the newly installed mirror, but nobody is mentioning it.
Sioned takes point on that, misdirecting toward the agreed-on story, about how it belonged to Riyan’s mother. (True.) And was brought from Skybowl as a decoration. (Half true.)
When it gets dark, the next stage of the plan unfolds: Chay encourages Pol to light the room with Fire. After everyone has left, including Chay, who has figured out that the mirror is extremely valuable in the magical sense, Pol and Sioned, Meath and Riyan and Ruala discuss the mirror. Ruala tells what she knows about it.
She looks into the mirror, and nearly faints. The man in it looks like her father, she says. They speculate as to how Camigwen inherited the mirror. Meath and Sioned leave, since they’re of no use here. Ruala also leaves—she is extremely upset about the man in the mirror.
Pol offhandedly ascribes her distress to pregnancy. Neither he nor Riyan has a clue as to what to do next.
Whatever they do, it doesn’t work. Riyan falls into bed alone, and wakes to a note: Ruala has gone to Elktrap to get her grandfather’s scrolls. Riyan is Not At All Happy About This.
Before he can go galloping in pursuit, she contacts him on sunlight and tells him to stay put. They need those scrolls if they’re going to proceed. He hates that she’s right.
Tilal watches the decoy ship sail down the Faolain and reflects on the unique set of skills—and notable lack of warrior bravado—of his army of physicians. He also reflects on the death of his son Rihani, who unlike Rohan was not strong enough to live as a warrior. Then he shifts back to discussion of how the physicians are driving the Vellant’im batty.
This goes on for quite a while. Then Andrev spells out what he’s going to do to the bait. He won’t deliberately kill anybody (oh, that loophole-riddled Sunrunner’s oath). Just set the contents of the ship on fire. (The ship won’t burn, as we’re reminded later, but things–and people–inside it will.)
While they wait, they talk politics and the future. This segues to what Andrev is meant for, which is Lord of Goddess Keep. He never quite manages to tell Tilal what he really wants. They focus on the battle, and the Fironese who are impersonating Vellant’im, with considerable detail about the logistics of the impersonation.
The ship appears, and the impersonators are missing. Prince Amiel’s man is captive. They speculate as to why he’s still alive.
He’s there to demand surrender; he informs Tilal of the gathering at Skybowl, and tells them who has the Tears of the Dragon. (Wait, what, they’ve been captured? I think I had a brain blip about that.) He’s tortured, but manages to call for Andrev’s Fire before basically committing suicide by enemy sword.
That begins the battle. Which happens, as usual, offstage. Next scene, Tobren gets the news on sunlight, and Andry joins in. Andrev is worried that his father is mad at him, but Andry is just fine; he’s proud of his son. (Another fizzle of the ANDRY WILL BE ALLLLL BUTTHURT buildup.)
They’ve won the pearls back, Andrev goes on to relate. The jewels are full of power. Andry instructs him to keep them and bring them to the Desert.
The news continues, interspersed with Tobren being all adorable and wrinkly-browed about Andrev, and Andry being all fatherly and proud and understanding. Andrev tells his father about the coming battle at Skybowl. Andry starts to put elements together involving Meiglan and Chayla, Skybowl, pearls, and ritual. Andrev continues to fret. Andry can’t figure out the equation. The chapter ends in a fizzle of proud father Andry and adorable children being, respectively, proud and adorable.
In Chapter 8, nobody can find Meiglan except Thanys, who is apparently blindly loyal. She brews dranath to work a spell that focuses on Meiglan’s wedding necklace, with initial intrusion from a vision of Pol—reflecting, she thinks, Meiglan’s own intense focus on him. Finally she sees Meiglan on the road, and Rislyn carried, tenderly, by an enemy warrior.
The spell spins out of control. Thanys agonizes over whom to tell, who can rescue Meiglan before she reaches Stronghold. There is no one.
Our omniscient narrator begs to differ. Kazander, with Sethric of Grib, is camped nearby the enemy. We get a quick flashback to the two lords’ meeting. They were met by Valeda, who told them where Meiglan was. Valeda is tough, self-reliant, and unfazed by any mishaps on the road.
She doesn’t take orders from anyone but Andry, either. Kazander finds this out when he asks her to tell Pol what’s happening. Valeda pretends to honor his request—but there’s a cloud, she says. She can’t reach Feruche.
They’ve all played the game of who’s in charge, and can set about rescuing Meiglan. They discuss logistics. She reveals knowledge of Black Warriors. Sethric wants all kinds of news about his family, but settles for learning that Valeda made it this far because she had a “good, strong Radzyn horse.”
Suddenly Kazander says he can “feel” the enemy. Valeda can’t see anything. Kazander’s men disappear into the dark, and Kazander does so as well, after instructing the Sunrunner to keep watch. Valeda wonders how they did it.
The remaining riders go on for some time in the dark, until they reach the Vellanti camp. Their horses are missing—Kazander stole them. There is chaos, but no fight. Kazander is missing, and Sethric waits. The enemy calm down. Then the good guys attack.
Sethric is wounded trying to get to Meiglan. Kazander and the enemy leader converge on her, just as Valeda surrounds her with Fire. This is a mistake. She can’t be either rescued or recaptured.
The enemy flee, all but the leader. He and Kazander fight a duel, while Sethric discovers there’s no heat in the Fire. He manages to get hold of Rislyn, but Meiglan is too afraid, and she can’t move. The Fire dies, and Sethric realizes why: she’s hobbled.
Valeda rides to the rescue and gives her horse to Sethric and Rislyn. She stays with Meiglan—and assumes Meiglan’s appearance. Sethric gets the hell out of there.
Valeda works fast to put on Meiglan’s cloak and dispose of her Sunrunner rings, and to explain to Meiglan who she is and what she’s doing. Then the enemy catch up with them.
The enemy are appalled. They know about Sunrunner vulnerability to steel, and therefore how to tell who’s who, but there’s a “priestlaw” against marking the (we presume) sacrifice. They decide to take both Meiglans, unmarked, with them, and let the priests tell which is which.
Both Meiglan and Sethric worry about whether Kazander is alive or dead. Sethric is headed for Skybowl, where Feylin will know what to do. And where Jeni might just possibly be interested in him, even if he’s crippled, like his cousin Elsin.
Just as he starts to lose consciousness, he’s rescued by troops from Skybowl. His last conscious word is Jeni’s name.
And that’s the end of Part One. Part Two, and Chapter 9, shifts to Edrel of Ussh and his imperiously royal wife, Prince Velden of Grib’s daughter and Prince Elsen’s sister Norian. Norian is in a right rage, and the target of that rage is their destination: Goddess Keep.
She points out that Edrel is early going grey, then they discuss princely prerogatives and the most useful way to proceed with, and against, Torien. They find the refugee camp deserted. Edrel calls for the Keep to be opened in Norian’s name.
That’s where everyone is—packed inside. Jayachin is taking massive advantage of Edrel’s arrival. The Sunrunners are under siege. Norian demands to see Elsen. Edrel tries to sort out the politics of the situation.
There is a three-way verbal struggle. Torien and Jolan assure Edrel that Elsen is safe inside, and invite him in, though his people have to stay outside. Jayachin keeps trying to claim Edrel’s army for her side of the Goddess’ favor. Edrel sends Norian inside; she goes, imperiously.
When Edrel tries to sort out the sides, Jolan is condescending. Jayachin is defiant. They squabble. Edrel asks what’s happened.
Jayachin gives him her side, at florid length. She tried to co-opt the Goddess’ sacred circle, which is forbidden to non-Sunrunners, and she’s playing it for all she’s worth.
Edrel is in an impossible position. Both sides are claiming the Goddess’ blessing, and they’re both using his presence for their own ends. They’re both lying, and they’re both seriously off the rails.
Jolan sentences Jayachin to the ros’salath, the wall of fear. It paralyzes Jayachin, and maddens Edrel’s horse. Edrel ends the scene on the ground, unconscious.
Next scene, in Elsen’s chamber, Antoun is gloomy with guilt. Edrel is conscious, and bruised. Jayachin is dead (offstage, as usual).
They discuss the situation. Antoun explains what’s been going on. Elsen approves of his sister’s new husband, whose presence may shift the balance of power enough to keep the Sunrunners in check.
They discuss the consequences of Jayachin’s actions. Her body was thrown into the sea rather than burned. They wonder what will happen to her son, who is technically her heir.
Elsen notes that the Sunrunners are healing him, and have told him he’ll end up able to walk. They go on about various bits of gossip. Antoun reveals that he’s Sioned’s spy in the Keep. He was her childhood friend, and he’s loyal to Andrade and her hope for an alliance between the High Prince and Goddess Keep. “And Lord Andry [doesn’t] have a clue.”
This goes on for a while. Then Edrel wonders, in frustration, what the Vellant’im are up to.
Andry receives a communication from Valeda, telling him what’s going on with her and Meiglan. She asks him what he wants the enemy to know. He tells her to get them to go to Skybowl.
Andry passes out. When he comes to, he’s in bad shape, with serious magic hangover. Maarken plays the big brother. Andry is relieved to be told what to do. (Eh, what? Huh? I don’t know how much I love the sound of fizzles in the morning.)
They discuss the news. Andry is convinced that it’s his call as to which castle will fall, and he’s decided on Skybowl. Maarken, as battle commander, agrees that it’s the best strategic choice.
Double interlude. Sionell agonizes over her life choices. She’s in the anger stage of grief. Pol, meanwhile, also agonizes over his life choices. He’s completely unable to choose between Meiglan and Sionell.
As Chapter 10 opens, Idalian is in a black mood. He’s about to act on his plan to escape with Tirel. This takes a great deal of time, talk, internal monologue from Idalian, and adorable cuteness from Tirel. Finally they get moving, helped by the cook.
Who, once they’re gone, reveals a completely different face: that of a young sorceress. She speaks for us all, I think: “At last!”
Feylin and Walvis in Skybowl are rousted out of bed by the arrival of Sethric, Kazander, Rislyn, and company—all seriously the worse for wear. Feylin takes stock—with count of all the losses past and present.
She sees to Sethric and the dangerously ill Rislyn, and reveals a remarkable partiality for the badly wounded Kazander. When she’s done, she collapses weeping into Walvis’ arms. The war has been wearing on even the strongest.
Love-triangle time: Sethric wakes to find Jeni seeking comfort in Daniv’s arms. He thinks she’s chosen Daniv—until Daniv all but throws them at each other. (This is remarkably satisfying.)
Meiglan and Valeda arrive at the High Warlord’s camp in front of Stronghold. We see into their different but similar trains of thought, and we learn that they’ve become, more or less, friends.
They enter the Warlord’s tent (once Chay’s). He has the partially burned book on dragons that Sioned planted for him. He’s not at all what they expected. He’s also not at all typical of a Rawn villain. There’s no sneering, snarking, or mustache-twirling. He is, in fact, a surprisingly civilized man.
The two Meiglans respond differently to both his courtesy and his fierce recounting of the genocide of his people, three hundred years ago. He threatens to kill the Azhrei in revenge for these ancient crimes. One Meiglan screams denial. He kills the other one.
Valeda dies lengthily, with many would-be poignant ellipses. The Warlord explains his choice: “She spoke as the High Princess. You spoke as the Azhrei’s wife.” And he adds, with courtesy, “We honor wives. Not princesses.”
And I’m Thinking: Nice homage (in the ironic sense) to Dune at the end there. Meiglan is as fluttery and fraidy-cat as she ever was. No High Princess in charge here. She’s all clinginess and codependence. She’s also the only woman who acts like a conventional damsel-in-distress.
These chapters are really about the women. Women with jobs to do, women dealing with the unthinkable, women being strong in their very different ways. Women with agency, women with distinct personalities and coping strategies and agendas.
It’s remarkable, when you stop to think. So much of epic fantasy is written from the male gaze, about male concerns, with women as trophies or plot tokens. Rawn writes domestic details because, in this world, they’re important. They hold things together in impossible conditions. That’s the female gaze, and she does it well.
The men aren’t just trophies or plot tokens, mind you. They have plenty to say and do. But the women are right there with them. Every step of the way.
Another thing we have here is a deep moral ambiguity. It’s now explicit that this shiny world with its pretty magic and its happy marriages is rooted in atrocity. The terrible and brutal enemy with his dire mistreatment of women was made this way by ancient Sunrunners and their allies. Their leader is urbane, elegant, well-spoken, and justifiably outraged by his people’s history.
I really wish Rohan had been allowed to live through the whole thing. I see why he was killed off—Sioned’s madness is key to the plot, along with Pol’s jock instincts—but still. There’s so much he could have done, and suffered, as foil to the High Warlord.
So now we’re moving in on the conclusion, though it’s still many hundreds of pages away. Everybody is converging on the big final blowout at Skybowl. The casualties are mounting, the grievances piling up. We’re even getting answers to some long-standing mysteries. That will continue, I’m sure.
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.