Rereading Melanie Rawn

Reading Melanie Rawn: Skybowl, Chapters 16-20

Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Skybowl! This week we close out Part Two with all the permutations of the Pol/Meiglan/Sionell love triangle. The sorcerers make a new move, with a lot of ancient history. We learn more about mirrors, and about Vellant’im. And Meiglan continues to show evidence of possessing a spine.

Skybowl: Chapters 16-20

Here’s What Happens: As Chapter 16 begins, Pol broods at length over Meiglan, whom he’s found on sunlight. There is much guilt. Sioned appears, gets the report, and apologizes for what she said to him and Sionell. She has news of the latest battle: Tilal is wounded but not dead.

They discuss the endgame. Pol is positive he’ll win. Sioned agrees. They have a mother-son moment, with obligatory grief for Rohan and discussion of war versus peace.

Arlis on the march runs into snowstorms. The going is rough, until Idalian spots a light, and a stranger welcomes them to a village full of friendly Fironese.

Idalian recognizes Yarin’s kinsman Aldiar. Aldiar defends himself. He’s on their side. He helped Idalian and Tirel escape. They all settle down to dinner, at length, with sparks continuing to fly between the two young people.

Laric announces that he plans to knight Idalian. Arlis proposes that Aldiar should take his place as Laric’s squire. (Laric is being treated like the true prince of this area.) Laric takes him on without an oath—a gesture of singular trust.

Arlis is suspicious. Idalian is fretting about being a knight. Tirel has a solution: swear to him, since he’s too young for an oath to be legal.

The sparks keep flying between Aldiar and Idalian. A knife is involved.

(I’m starting to wonder if Aldiar is actually a he.)

Aldiar takes charge of putting Tirel to bed. Laric and Arlis stay put. Rohannon appears with a report on sleeping arrangements for men and horses. They start to pump him about Aldiar, when the person him(her?)self pops in and catches him going for dranath.

That precipitates an intervention. There is backstory about Hollis. They have to trust Aldiar to get him over it. Arlis wallows in guilt.

Council scene, the Attic. People are hungry. There is teasing and family talk. They decide to send Meath to Skybowl to fetch Rislyn. Alasen suggests that he teach her to compensate for her disability the way Tobin has, by using her powers.

Ruala appears. Pol has guests who want to see the Azhrei. They’re escorted by Betheyn and Isriam. They have news, but they’re being coy about something. So is Ruala.

At long last they get to it. They’ve been approached by sorcerers offering to join in the war. They go on at some length about this.

The Attic council aren’t at all sure about trusting sorcerers. Especially, of course, Andry.

Pol shuts him down, politely (Maarken’s presence helps a good deal with this), and invites the sorcerers in. Some of them are appalled at sight of Andry.

There are introductions. Pol diverts them from Andry, a little too well. They fixate on the mirror.

There is a good deal of indirection and diversion to keep Andry from figuring it out. Andry picks up on the undertones and excuses himself.

Once he’s gone, they can talk openly about the mirror. This is against sorcerer rules, but some sorcerers are Sunrunners, so those rules are getting a bit slippery.

The sorcerers won’t say anything about the mirror until they’ve conferred. Sioned eases everybody out. Pol is not happy, and goes on about it for some time. The arrival of dinner ends the scene, with Riyan enforcing daily routine on magic and high politics. (And if that’s not an iconic Rawn moment, I don’t know what is.)

In Chapter 17, Rohannon wakes from a wet dream, at some length. Aldiar is tough and practical, lengthily. Rohannon is in withdrawal, which gets worse. Aldiar fills him in on some ancient history. Rohannon recognizes him from what he calls “the Circle of Ninety-and-Nine,” when Rohannon was spying on starlight.

Another meeting in the Attic. The youngest of the sorcerers (they are all extremely old) is expounding on ancient history. Pol reflects at some length on how they don’t know about his sorcerer half.

The council discusses Sunrunners and sorcerers, and how the sorcerers found the Vellanti Islands, enslaved the unmagical natives, and suffered a slave revolt. These sorcerers want revenge for that, though they don’t love Sunrunners. It’s a tale of leapfrogging atrocities and interlocking patterns of alliance and vengeance.

Back to Rohannon and Aldiar, with more ancient history. Merida are a sorcerer/Vellanti cross. Sorcerers aren’t nearly as fertile as Vellant’im or crosses. The conversation reads like a discussion between dog or horse breedes.

Aldiar does not understand the allure of the Desert. Rohannon does, of course. He tells Rohannon about Merisel’s arrangements after she won the war. Aldiar is royal and was sent here to watch Yarin, “but Tirel is more important.” Now he’s planning to help Laric.

He’s afraid of horses. Rohannon vows to use that against him.

Back in the Attic, the Desert family are discussing what they’ve learned. The enemy’s battle cry is a curse—they hate sorcerers.

The meeting focuses on why or how Sunrunners got mixed in. They discuss, at length, how much the Vellant’im hate magic. And dragons. They hate dragons, too.

The sorcerer finally gets around to the mirror. He asks if the man in it has spoken to them. He looks in the mirror, then tells the meeting a tale of interlocking betrayals. The man in the mirror, he says, is Rosseyn.

Aldiar explains the sorcerers’ circle to Rohannon. The rope Yarin claimed as a sign of authority can be used to strangle him if he abuses that authority.

The discuss why Aldiar can be trusted. The detox continues.

Sioned and Meath discuss the mirror, Lady Merisel, and how Sioned needs to be careful how she handles Pol. The discussion shifts back to the mirror, and to an oddity Sioned has noticed about mirror-frame design. She shows Meath her glow-in-the-dark emerald.

There’s a connection between mirror, frame, and various magically endowed gems, Sioned believes. And maybe a way to set Rosseyn free.

They discuss Rosseyn’s fate, and the fate of the shadow-lost. And Andry’s probable reaction to Rosseyn’s sorcerous origins. They also discuss what Sioned isn’t telling Pol—she thinks Meiglan is being set up for sacrifice. Sioned is protecting Pol from the knowledge.

Always with the protecting-Pol thing. And always taking it to toxic extremes.

They also discuss Meiglan, and how she has a core of steel after all. Sioned means to apologize to her for underestimating her.

Meath calls her on this: she’s sure Meiglan will come back. And she’ll tell Pol when it’s most useful. Sioned is shocked. Meath is afraid of her.

Chapter 18 explains in detail how Tilal escaped death in battle. Now he’s recovering in Radzyn, with ample company. There is family gossip, teasing, and badinage. Also, a nugget about the Vellanti priests, castration, and how they can still grow beards. Tilal receives a report on the state of Radzyn (dire) and the number of casualties on both sides. His nurses offer him wine from Radzyn’s extensive cellars.

Meiglan works on the cloak and ponders her options. Somehow she has to figure out how to trick the High Warlord with false information while also conveying necessary information to Pol. This goes on for many pages.

The Warlord appears. They exchange barbed words. Meiglan deduces that he plans a ritual sacrifice of Pol and herself. She also deduces that something has happened, and it’s very good news for her side.

Radzyn has been taken. She speaks defiance to warriors and priests, and the Warlord is not happy.

He demands that she write to Tilal with threats and demands. She says he can’t harm her. It comes out that he considers her a virgin, because she’s had no sons.

Pol is going through some changes. He’s finally got through his head that the enemy are human.

He and Sionell have a moment. She notices he’s changed for the better. She’s also concerned about Andry. She’s worried about how he’ll react to Pol’s increasing power. Pol says he plans to steal Andry’s power before Andry can steal his (this is the actual word he uses).

They discuss the enemy’s goal: to destroy sorcerers. If Andry finds out, he’ll have even more motivation for genocide.

They discuss all the good guys’ motives and motivations. Pol goes on about how he can’t talk to anybody else like this. This segues into the sexual-tension problem, and how he needs her, and she wishes he could just be friends.

They discuss their dilemma. Sparks fly. She refuses to be his mistress. He leans on her with the love thing, and the loving two women thing, and the different kinds of love thing. This goes on and on—Teen Me would eat it up. Sionell isn’t playing along well at all.

Finally they agree to be friends. He falls asleep and dreams about his dilemma, and (rather inevitably) dreams that Meiglan will die. (That would be the easy solution, as I’ve noted before.)

Meiglan has a visitor: a priest with roll of parchment. Women are legally barred from writing, he tells her. She is defiant. She likes that feeling, though it’s scary.

She writes, with great effort and ingenuity, her very clever and multilayered letter. We discover, totally offstage and in the subjunctive, that Tilal gets it, completely misses the point, and “protects” poor mad tortured Meiglan by keeping Pol from ever seeing it.

And that’s a hell of a fizzle. All that effort, all that time and thought, and nothing happens. Fzzzzzttttt.

Riyan and Ruala discuss how and why the sorcerers have failed to discover who Pol really is. They also discuss the mirror, and the shocking revelation about it; then the discussion shifts to dragons, the past and the future, and the fact that Pol told Isriam he’s really Camanto’s son. They discuss the politics of this, in some detail. They tease each other about lordly responsibilities.

Why, yes, there is a great deal of discussion in this section.

Hollis and Maarken argue about the expedition to fetch Rislyn. Maarken has something to prove: that he’s not disabled and can still lead. They discuss Chayla and how she’s changed—they’ve been kept from the truth—and the situation with Kazander, ending with the creepiness of a mirror that contains a person they can’t see. The scene ends with a shocker: Pol is taking sorcery lessons.

Meiglan reads a fragment of Sioned’s fictitious ritual for Skybowl, and ponders what it means and what Sioned and Pol—and she herself—will be doing about it. The Warlord appears, reads the message embroidered on the cloak, and demands that Meiglan add new threats and dire promises to it. She has two days, he says, before she’s given to the priests.

He tells her some of what’s in store for her. It involves purification, and dragons. She’s supposed to strip the sorcerers of power and dragons of their “taint,” and dragons will no longer obey the Azhrei.

She asks what substance will kill her. She has to decide, he answers. She hastily goes over the options, and chooses gold.

The Warlord ponders dragons, his losses, and the High Princess. He’s in lust with her. At length and in detail. Her death will be a “hideous, senseless waste.”

He impulsively orders a bath for her. The priests, being eunuchs can’t be tempted to defile her when she’s naked. (Actually, if they still grow beards, they can. Though maybe “defile” means “beget sons on”? In which case, no.)

Laric and Arlis are snowbound in the village. Rohannon is no better, according to Aldiar. It’s a miserable, trapped existence, which we hear about in detail.

By day five, Rohannon has hit bottom. Aldiar has done everything he can. He and Arlis discuss the situation.

Rohannon’s heart stops. Aldiar shows Arlis how to do CPR. They save Rohannon.

Pol, after the end of a sorcery lesson, harangues the man in the mirror, peppering him with questions and demands. (OK, plothole. How would the sorcerers not know something’s wonky about his official genetics if he’s learning sorcery and can see Rosseyn?)

After this has gone on for a while, Azhdeen calls him. Pol runs to obey.

When the dragon roars, Tobin and Chay are making plans for renovating Radzyn. Sionell is mending Meig’s shirt, angsting about Pol, and wondering if Meig wants a dragon. He says his dragon hasn’t been born yet. She reflects on what this says about him and his gifts, and Feylin’s response to her grandson’s eventual dragon. And this strikes her with an idea.

Chapter 20 opens with Meiglan finishing the cloak. Her hands are in agony and she’s reached her emotional limit. All her effort doesn’t add up to anything, as far as she can determine.

Priests have told her about the purification ritual, in detail. She reflects on it in further detail. She’s well down in despair.

The Warlord appears and inspects the cloak. He doesn’t like it that she hasn’t embroidered anything about her husband’s death. He keeps harping that she’s had no sons.

He asks her what the symbols on the back mean. She tells him. She’s hiding something that she sewed into the cloak.

He slits the appliqué and finds the parchment she wrote. It tells Pol how many warriors are in Skybowl.

He threatens to mark her and make her his. She rounds up all her gumption and slaps him. He orders her to repair the cloak.

She’s succeeded. He’s taken the bait. She bursts into tears.

Maarken is on the road, plotting strategies and practicing maneuvers. Meath, meanwhile, teaches Chayla “a little Sunrunning.” Maarken happens by, and they discuss Chayla’s lack of desire to go to Goddess Keep. Her calling is to medicine.

Meath withdraws to do his Sunrunner news-and-spying duties. Maarken and Chayla discuss various bits of news, and Chayla’s future: where and with whom she’ll study. This segues into whether Stronghold can or should be rebuilt, and then into Chayla’s future as an heiress. She means never to marry. Maarken picks up the tension but doesn’t understand it.

They both duck away from the subject. Maarken has further plans for the remainder of the trip. Meath has news from various quarters. They discuss disability and ways of compensating, apropos of Rislyn and Maarken.

Jeni and Sethric, post-communication with Maarken, are at odds. Sethric is pushing himself to recover in time to fight. Jeni is not on board with this. Sethric has to make up for losing Meiglan. Jeni doesn’t get this, either.

He does his best to make her understand, by citing her dragon and her powers—those are her identity. His is to be a lord and to help rule a princedom.

They fight over that, and over Jeni’s mother Alasen’s fear of her own powers, and over the prospect of Sethric’s getting killed. Sethric is afraid he’s losing her.

Her dragon appears. Sethric feels left out, and plots his escape. Then Jeni lets him know (quite cheerfully) that Lainian likes him, and she’ll have to marry him to keep the dragon happy. The scene ends with a kiss, while the dragon sings approval.

Tobin and Pol are conjuring moonlight. It’s another scene in which the one without power feels left out. Chay observes them and reflects, at length, on his relationship with Tobin.

They’ve been plotting with Sionell, it turns out, and the plot involves dragons. Chay is tired and cranky and wishes they would get off his lawn. Pol leaves. Chay tries to get Tobin to tell him about the plot, but she teasingly refuses.

The next day, many things happen. Rohannon and company leave the village, and Maarken and company arrive at Skybowl. The omniscient narrator travels around to all the other locations and provides an update on what everyone is doing. It’s all very mysterious and somewhat foreboding. The theme that repeats is that nothing is going to turn out exactly as anyone has planned.

And that’s the end of Part Two.

And I’m Thinking: This is all heavily transitional. Lots of talk-talk-talk. Lots of exposition and backstory. Pages and pages of setup and internal monologue and a little bit of actual forward movement. Mostly people are moving into position for the finish.

Some things are kind of frustrating. Meiglan’s letter turns out to have been a complete waste of time, though her plan after that seems to be on track. But then there’s that ending, hammering on how nothing’s going to come out the way it’s supposed to. I think it’s supposed to build tension, but as with Meiglan’s letter, it can also make the reader wonder about fizzles and having the rug yanked out from under again.

So we’ve got Sioned and company planning on winning the war—failure is not an option—but we’ve also got the uber-narrator saying things won’t go acoording to plan. It’s all very coy and mysterious and a little bit annoying. (I am not a fan of coy.)

We get a lovely dragon scene, very fine and heartwarming. And there’s some nice exploration of disability and coping strategies. Also quite a lot of love-triangle Angst, which as a teen I’d have read and reread and adored. Oh, such pain! Oh, such a dilemma! (But really, let’s just kill Meiglan off, all right? All dramatic and brave and noble, of course. But Pol/Sionell has got to be.)(Ponell? Siopol?)

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, and she’s currently running a Kickstarter for the sequel. 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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