Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Skybowl!
This week the advance toward Skybowl continues. We learn more (much more) about magic mirrors. Sioned is badass (and hardassed), both Pol and Meiglan feel helpless (until Meiglan finds a way to tip the balance, she hopes, in the good guys’ favor), and terrible things happen to some of the immediate Desert family.
Skybowl: Chapters 11–15
Here’s What Happens: At the beginning of Chapter 11, Arlis and Laric are en route by sea to Snowcoves, and it’s been a long haul. Now Rohannon is out of dranath and worried about two things: getting seasick and being addicted to the drug.
He goes Sunrunning to Snowcoves and finds that Yarin has laid a trap for the fleet. He has a hidden army of sorcerers. But Arlis has a plan.
Meanwhile, back in Skybowl, Sethric can hardly believe Jeni has chosen him. Also in the meantime, Sioned, in a dangerous mood (though aren’t they all these days?), throws the Sunrunner school out of the Attic, along with Meath. But Riyan and Andry have to stay.
She has the news from Goddess Keep, and she has an opinion about how the sentence was carried out. Andry, of course, does not agree. Riyan intervenes just as they’re really getting going, and pulls rank as lord of the castle. He throws them both out.
Sioned is sorry she flew off the handle, and grieving for Rohan, and worried about Antoun now he’s outed himself to a select few, and troubled about all the uses and misuses of power. And grieving for Rohan.
Andry, Sunrunning to Goddess Keep, bounces off a cloud toward Andrev, who tells him about the latest battle, and about Tilal’s new (and insubordinate) plan. Andrev really likes being a Sunrunner.
We get a glimpse (offstage as usual in Rawn battles) of Princess Iliena fighting with a sword. Andrev is impressed. (Another example of the disconnect between fighting female commoners and noblewomen, who mostly don’t fight.) He also, in reply to his father’s question, says the enemy are now willing to fight women.
They exchange news. Andry tries to impress on Andrev that the big final battle has to be at Skybowl. Andrev isn’t sure he can talk Tilal into it—Tilal has been strange since his son died—but Andrev promises to try.
Andry feels all warm and fuzzy after this father-son bonding moment, but he still has to deal with the situation at Goddess Keep. He gets that done, offstage, but Jolan, after the fact, is not happy. She believes he should be there and not in the Desert—and she has strong feelings about where his (and her own) loyalties lie.
Antoun meanwhile is waiting for orders from Sioned. Norian is fretting, and hates feeling helpless (which is a nice parallel with another very self-conscious royal, Pol, who often feels the same way, and a bit later, that most self-conscious of all the royals or would-be royals, Chiana). Meanwhile they have to cover up the fact they’re meeting and conspiring, which turns into a teaching moment for a young future Court Sunrunner who arrives with a message. There is an interlude of gossip and intrigue related to the young Sunrunner’s origins and allegiances, as well as the invitation he brought: Jolan is making a move to sound Norian, and Edrel, out.
The Desert family strategizes in the Attic, after Andry sums up the battle of Swalekeep for them all. Sioned drops a bomb in the middle—“What are the Vellant’im waiting for?”—and sweeps out. Everyone is suitably impressed—it’s an old Rohan trick (as all the good tricks always are)—and then gets back to strategizing. They’re all trying to figure out what the enemy wants.
Pol thinks he’s got it. “Skybowl is where the dragon gold is.”
In Chapter 12, Arlis’ plan unfolds. He sends a letter from Laric to the people of Snowcoves, presenting Laric as their rightful prince and promising that the usurper “will receive an education.”
And so we get another offstage battle, a revolution this time, for our regulars to sail in and get the results of. And talk about, at some length. With teasing.
Saumer meanwhile, under Sioned’s orders, has been kept safe repairing the moat at Faolain Lowland. Mirsath has a radical solution: clean up the toxic waste with Fire. When that’s done (and after Tilal has sent news but not Karanaya’s pearls), Saumer escapes on the pretext of getting the Tears of the Dragon back. He’s bemused to be the commander of an army, and a little embarrassed. Saumer is not in the “I’m ROYAL and you better not forget it” faction.
Riyan meanwhile welcomes his wife back to Feruche, and gets rid of Andry by sending him out with Evarin and Chayla to check on some wounded in the garrison outside the castle. Then the family gather in the Attic to discuss the mirror.
Ruala details her research. They discuss it. Pol takes notes. This goes on. And on.
Pol learns something: that Andry found a mirror that could spot sorcerers, so very likely knows what Pol is. Sioned informs him that Andry destroyed that mirror. He does not know about Antoun.
At long last Ruala gets to the point: the mirror in the Attic is a Shadowcatcher, a trap for a sorcerer. Mirros are sorcerers’ weakness, as iron is for Sunrunners.
Then they debate the logistics and ethics of making the mirrors. Pol is all for it. Sioned is strongly against. They bicker. Lady Merisel’s name gets taken in vain. Is she threat or menace?
The upshot, after the squabbling, is that the man in the mirror must have been a great traitor to the sorcerers, and allied with Merisel. Meath knows (in considerable detail) when the mirror was made. Pol wants to try to set the captive free.
Chapter 13 shifts to Ostvel in the middle of both office work and contemplation of a spectacular sunset (and a reflection on how Sunrunners see light as a tool rather than an aesthetic pleasure—lovely bit of throwaway worldbuilding/character development). He spends several pages reflecting on how old he is, how much he has done and has to do, and how he misses Alasen. Then Naydra appears, practicing her newly discovered powers by lighting up the room. They exchange news and gossip, well seasoned with politics. Naydra tells him that she’s received guests who want to speak with her as the princess of the sorcerers. They discuss and settle on a venue for the meeting. Ostvel reflects on Chiana’s horrible taste in décor (nobody ever misses a chance to diss Chiana).
On the way to the meeting, Ostvel comes across Polev. Polev is sulky. Ostvel distracts him by asking for his help to dress for the meeting. Polev is adorably petulant. Ostvel is patient and kindly. There is more reflection on his age.
Amid all this, Polev reveals (adorably) that the apparently mute Palila talks to him. Ostvel bribes him to go to bed.
Finally the domestic interlude (and adorableness) ends, and the meeting begins. Nine sorcerers appear. One of them greets Naydra as the ruler of the sorcerers, and Ostvel as “the Chosen of my kinswoman, Camigwen.” She begins the chant her genealogy, which includes the name Ruala—and Rosseyn, Riyan’s ancestor. Then she starts to chant Lallante’s ancestry, but Naydra stops her. She obeys, but insists that Naydra is the Diarmadh’reia: their hereditary ruler.
It dawns on Ostvel that Pol is, by blood, their ruler as well. The meeting goes on. The spokeswoman is one of Branig’s faction. She’s reluctant to say too much, out of a long tradition of caution and persecution.
They’re here because of Alasen’s contact. They want to help. Ostvel offers help in return (thinking again about who Pol is to them, if they only knew).
They want help to save Castle Crag, which was their ancient fortress, from Chiana and Mireva’s faction (Chiana is an unwitting instrument—poor thing doesn’t even get to be evil for her own sake). Ostvel agrees to take an army there.
The sorcerers announce that they are coming with him. So does Naydra. As the meeting winds down, Branig’s sister prophesies that “You will rule many long years as a prince before you die.” Ostvel is not amused. He is seriously not into this prince thing.
Meiglan in captivity is well treated and perfectly, limply helpless. The High Warlord fetches her, and she finds Thanys bleeding to death. Thanys tells her Rislyn is safe, then loses herself in starlight.
Meiglan finally realizes what Thanys is, and as she dies, erupts into rage and leaps on the Warlord. He very respectfully and politely slaps her down.
Left alone by the admiring Warlord, Meiglan indulges in further fits of temper, tears, and mental wheel-spinning. She decides she has to be, and think like, the High Princess. She has to figure out what the enemy is up to.
She finds gold coins sewn into the cloak, which belonged to Valeda. She hides these in her clothes, and tries to think about what she might hide in the pockets, to help her escape. She can’t think of anything. She’s nothing but a pawn, and never has been. She believes she’ll be sacrificed. (Hm. Could be convenient for Pol/Sionell.)
Pol is also feeling helpless, but he’s much more pissy about it. He’s heading for a rage-gallop on the Desert when he hears Jihan loudly pulling rank. He reflects at length on what a terrible brat she is, but she comes by it honestly. She’s just like him.
Then he hears Andry dealing with her. She sounds just like Chiana, Pol reflects, not happily. Andry, he realizes in amazement, knows exactly what to say to her, and how to handle her.
Pol intervenes just before she spills the beans on something he said about Andry. He sends her away—she’s rude and wiseass about it, and she stretches it out for quite some time, adorably bratty all the way. She wants to know why Andry was wearing someone else’s face on “that day.”
This startles Andry. Pol explains that Jihan has unusual gifts. She finally leaves, pertly, and proud papa and startled cousin continue their conversation.
They discuss Andry’s view of his rank and powers, Sioned’s misunderstanding thereof, and the Jayachin situation. Andry agrees with Jolan’s solution. This segues into an argument about Andry’s appropriation of the Goddess, which leads to discussion of visions and prophetic dreams and the specialness of Sunrunners, and blows up into the old fight: Goddess Keep versus High Prince, and who is righter about the use of power.
Pol points out that Mireva had visions, which means it’s not just Sunrunners—and pulls serious rank on Andry. Andry will work with him or else. Andry is not on board with this. At all.
They’re just about to come to magical blows when Maarken calls them away. Something has happened to Jihan.
Chapter 14 follows immediately, with both men racing toward Jihan. She’s in sunlight, but she’s gone blind to colors. Pol tries to comfort her and gets caught in the same blackness.
Sioned sorts them out, and realizes what’s happened. Rislyn’s fever has made her blind, and Jihan is caught up in it.
Everyone is horrified, guilt-stricken, and struggling to cope. Sioned sorts them out, too.
Pol takes grim count of all the sacrifices everyone has made. “Everyone but me.” Sionell sorts him out, complete with toughlove and bickering.
Pol feels terrible about how easy he’s always had it. He’s just drifted along, including into marriage. This goes on for a while, until Sioned shows up to fill them in on how Jihan is and to let Pol know she’s asking for him. She embarrasses both of them terribly by being nonchalant about their possible, or probable, sleeping arrangements.
Outside the room, Sionell calls Sioned on the cruelty of what she just did. Sioned sees it as tough love: get it done now before Meiglan comes back and the hurt escalates. Sionell does not see it that way. At all. She tells Sioned to butt out. Sioned doesn’t care enough to be upset.
Meiglan and the Warlord share an interlude, with wine. He reveals his culture’s attitude toward women—barefoot, pregnant, producing multiple sons. Daughters don’t count.
They discuss this. Then he tells her that it’s all about crushing Sunrunners in revenge for ancient wrongs. Meiglan is a hostage, and she’s not going to be killed. She’s bait for the Azhrei. He’s still impressed by what he sees as her cleverness and wit, as compared to the women of his own people.
The scene shifts to Chiana and Rinhoel, cooling their heels and, by their standards, roughing it at Rezeld. Chipped cups, forsooth!
They’ve caught on to Andry’s lie: the Vellant’im aren’t coming. She wants to go to Castle Crag. He points out that it’s winter. She starts screaming. He starts sneering.
Chiana clings to her determination to see her son as High Prince. Rinhoel has lost hope.
Now they have visitors: a troop of mounted civilians who claim to be loyal followers of “the true Lord of Princemarch.” Chiana is thrilled. Rinhoel is suspicious. She welcomes them into the castle. Rinhoel lurks and scowls suspiciously.
In Chapter 15, Laric’s newly augmented troops leave Snowcoves for Balarat. Laric and Arlis discuss the pragmatism of the common folk, then discuss their plans for securing Balarat, the politics and gossip of the region, and the number of different words for snow.
On day two, they meet Laric’s son Tirel and his squire, who have successfully escaped from Balarat. Tirel is adorable. Laric is fatherly. Idalian is dutiful.
Meiglan demands to see the High Warlord. (She’s working hard on her High Princess behaviors.) After a somewhat lengthy guessing game on the Warlord’s part, she spins a lie: when a prince dies, his wife and daughters embroider his deeds on a cloak. The Warlord deduces that this is burned with his body. He’s making her job remarkably easy. She tells him Sioned made Rohan’s cloak of her own hair—and that she herself wants to prepare a cloak not for Pol but for the Warlord.
That sets him off, explosively. He gives her a week to prepare a cloak for Pol. He storms out, leaving her all in a flutter of confusion, trying to figure out how long they all have before the big final battle. Then she starts to laugh, because he’s bought her story (woven out of whole cloth as it is) wholesale.
Saumer is welcomed gladly into Tilal’s camp, and gets roped into Tilal’s plan for retaking Radzyn with minimal casualties. It involves Andrev and Saumer, among other things.
Saumer and Andrev discuss what they’re supposed to do, and Andrev tries to show the newly minted Sunrunner Saumer how to do it. This turns into an argument about Andry. Saumer does not succeed in learning how to make Fire that doesn’t burn.
Tilal has to make do with what he has. After a brief set-to with Nyr, who is forced to stay behind, he begins the attack.
There is a pause. He reflects at length on what he’s doing and why, with a visit down memory lane, stopping by various friends and family members along the way.
Finally the attack actually starts. Tilal deploys Andrev and Saumer. Then spends several paragraphs reflecting on what he’s planning. With frequent reference to how crazy it all is.
Then (finally) he sees fires starting. More reflections on his plans. Radzyn wakes up. The battle starts (with more reflections on it all). Then he takes a sword in the side—having spent so much time in his own head, he hasn’t paid attention to the fighting around him.
And I’m Thinking: Battle scenes are really not a Rawn strength. Either they’re offstage (waaaayyyy offstage), or if they’re onstage, they’re still not happening so much in real time as in the viewpoint characters’ heads. And mostly those end up getting knocked down in mid-fight, so either they’re dead or the rest of the battle happens while they’re unconscious. Then we hear about the rest of the battle after the fact.
The real strength here is domestic detail and careful logistical plotting. People talk, a lot. Lots and lots of council scenes and office scenes and kitchen-cupboard scenes and adorable-kid scenes. And some magical scenes, including the harrowing one with Jihan and Rislyn. That’s another mostly offstage crisis, with the viewpoint at a remove from the real pain, but it is emotionally affecting.
Meiglan has grown a spine again, and has come up with a rather devious plan. It’s probably inspired by Sioned’s game with Feylin’s strategically damaged book, but it has its own share of cleverness—and cruelty.
Considering how Sioned’s clever ruse is backfiring (and how Meiglan has been caught by it), there’s an ominous undertone to this one, too. Meanwhile Andry’s version, the attempt to bottle up all the bad guys at Rezeld, has fizzled away; he never really had a plan for that, and now Chiana and Rinhoel are on to the lie.
Though their cheerily loyal new troops have an odd smell to them, as Rinhoel notes. So maybe not a fizzle after all. Clearly there’s more to come on that front.
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.