Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of Skybowl!
This week we learn about mirrors and jewels and sorcery. The good guys suffer grievous losses, and win key victories. And a seriously underestimated character comes through in a big way.
Skybowl Part 3: Chapters 21-25
Here’s What’s Happening: As Part 3 and Chapter 21 begin, Ostvel is sailing up the Faolain River with ninety-nine sorcerers, and reflecting on what’s been happening since Part 2 ended. His mission is to keep Chiana out of Castle Crag.
Naydra is on the boat with him. She tells him sorcerers can summon the elements—specifically and relevantly here, the wind. She expounds a bit on sorcerers and their powers, while Ostvel reflects on the past. Then Ostvel reminds her that she has powers, too. She uses them to locate Chiana.
Maarken’s dragon is thrilled to welcome him back to Skybowl. Maarken is surprised to find that he’s not terribly traumatized by the memory of the battle in which he lost his hand, though he talks about it and his current disability at some length. He and Chadric speculate as to how Rislyn will handle her blindness, then marvel at the speed of Kazander’s recovery.
They continue for a bit with more family gossip, until Audrite gets around to telling him her ingenious and crazy idea. They’re going to pull a grand scam on the enemy.
Pol and Sioned are all for it. They draw Andry in. Riyan and Ruala are going to pretend to boot Pol out of Feruche. The enemy will be invited to a “peace conference” at Skybowl. Everyone thinks this is hilarious.
They discuss the plan and its logistics. The plan includes handing over the Tears of the Dragon.
At this point Sioned points out that Pol and Andry are working together beautifully. They’re fulfilled the prophecy about this very thing.
Riyan hopes his castle will be left standing. There is some teasing, but ultimately they assure him it won’t be too badly damaged.
Andry tells Pol about his vision, that Skybowl will fall. They go back to arguing about the accuracy of these visions, the ethics of trickery, and their long-standing power struggle.
This blows wide open. Pol tells Andry who his mother really is. Andry taunts him. He lays Andry flat—and then runs.
Pol agonizes over the addictions of power and the allures of barbarism. Chay finds him, is wise and loyal and kind, and sad but clear-sighted about Andry’s own addiction to power. Pol turns to him as a much-needed father figure.
Sioned and Sionell discuss the plan. Sionell, like Pol, isn’t really going anywhere—just sending her people to convince the enemy she’s decamped. Sioned invites her to go with her to Skybowl and help rescue Meiglan. This is a wonderfully evil plot and Sionell (whose eyebrows have suddenly developed the ability to skitter around on their own) is all for it.
This segues into a discussion of precognition, with backstory, including a tidbit about Meig: he’s destined to “do something important.” The chapter ends with Sionell realizing she’s been included in this expedition to atone for her affair with Pol.
Meanwhile, as Chapter 22 begins, Rislyn wants to go to Feruche. She’s handling her disability well; and it’s a very attractive version. Her eyes still work, it’s her brain that doesn’t.
Meath has to figure out how to teach her to conjure Fire safely without being able to see it. She is quite adorable and quite cheerful, and everyone adores her. Meath, and then Laroshin, serves as her eyes.
And then a miracle happens. A dragon claims her.
Scene shift. Pol breaks down in tears. He tells Sionell that Rislyn has named the dragon Lir’reia: The Princess’ Eyes.
Everyone is thrilled. Sionell has to break the mood: Sioned has summoned Pol to the Attic. Pol refuses to stop being thrilled.
They have a light moment, sharing news and views, including a long, light-hearted disquisition on Kazander’s people’s naming traditions. Meig interrupts, at E above high C, and comes flying down the banister. For which he gets resoundingly spanked. (That’s the end of the Eighties right there. In 2015, Child Services would be calling.) Meig handles that perfectly well.
Sioned is waiting for Pol with several sorcerers. They’re investigating the mirror. Sioned explains, in detail, what and why. She’s examining the frame, and speculates that it’s meant to be surrounded by jewels of power. She uses her emerald to demonstrate what these are.
The sorcerers are horrified. Sioned wants them to tell her about blooded jewels. They tell her this is forbidden to Sunrunners, and worse than death for sorcerers. They refuse to use the mirror, and they say neither Sioned nor Pol can.
Pol says, “You’re wrong.”
And the narrative skips to Sioned and Pol discussing what happened with the sorcerers. (AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
The sorcerers spilled everything they knew, but we’re not getting it. We’re getting bits and pieces after the fact. (AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!) All we find out is that Sioned and Pol are planning to accumulate blooded gems to do something something. Then they burble about Rislyn and the dragon, before shifting back to discussing jewels.
They need Andry, Pol says. He has three essential jewels that can’t be easily acquired otherwise. Pol has to confess that they had a fight. Sioned has another idea: Andrade’s rings, which Andry did not use. He started all over with new jewels.
Chapter 23 opens with Ostvel briefly mistaking Camigina for his long-lost first wife. The ambush is prepared, but Chiana hasn’t stumbled into it yet. Ostvel mulls over the battle plan, and the family news, and how he’s too old for this.
Suddenly the enemy appear—and the sorcerers activate their spell. The non-sorcerers take care of the physical part of the battle. Ostvel and his personal guard capture Chiana and Rinhoel.
It’s a rout. No losses among Ostvel’s people. Total on Chiana’s. Serious loses among the “good” sorcerers. Ostvel has now accepted that such can exist, and that they’re worthy allies.
He and Camigina discuss the battle, and he invites her to Feruche. Pol will welcome her, he says. She says she’ll think about it.
She also explains that what they did was not the ros’salath but a nameless sorcerer-against-sorcerer spell. Ostvel observes that when this is over, Pol will want to do something about eliminating the anti-sorcerer prejudice.
Rinhoel interrupts, at top volume, with utmost resort to Who. He. Is. Chiana adds to the chorus. Ostvel wearily and bluntly shuts them down.
Then Chiana finds the chink in his armor: she threatens to tell Andry about the sorcerers—and that will incite Andry to take Alasen. Ostvel actually slaps her. Remembering the last time he struck a woman: Chiana’s sister Ianthe, whom he killed.
Camigina is wise and sympathetic. There’s no good in Chiana, she says. She addresses him as a prince, because he was Camigwen’s Chosen. He doesn’t like that at all.
Meanwhile Maarken is waiting for Chadric and Audrite, with some backfilling about immediate past events. The choice of who would serve as courier to Stronghold was not easy or simple, and we get all the reasoning behind the pros and cons. Finally Isriam volunteered. He’s expendable, and therefore “perfect.”
Ruala is headed for Skybowl to perform her pretense of treason; she’ll welcome the High Warlord in, and give Meiglan a more civilized place to sleep. Meanwhile Audrite finally appears, and Maarken asks Chadric if Pol can borrow his sapphire earring. Chadric catches on fast: the stone came from one of Lady Andrade’s rings.
Maarken thinks he’s caught on, too, to something even more, and he’s horrified. Is Pol trying to make new rings for himself? And thereby claim Andrade’s power?
The viewpoint shifts to Chayla in Skybowl (I think—all the switches have made me lose track of who-all is where). She fills us in on the part of the news and views, including Kazander (who is staying) and Rislyn, who is leaving. Chayla does not like the game of false treachery they’re playing. She thinks it’s dishonorable.
She’s also unhappy about Kazander. Their love, she reflects, can never be.
Back in whichever keep they’re in at this point, Jeni and Sethric cuddle and discuss what’s coming—including their eventual wedding, and her family’s reaction to it.
Suddenly there’s a commotion. Kazander’s arming everybody who’s left. The enemy are coming.
Out in the Desert, Visian sees the cloud of sand and raises the alarm. Laroshin takes Rislyn and heads for Feruche. Isriam keeps riding to Stronghold. The rest make battle arrangements. And back in the keep, Sethric mounts, wound and all, against Jeni’s objections. (Ominous chords.)
Maarken makes battle arrangements, which include getting Meath out of the way. Meath isn’t having it. (More ominous chords.)
Here we have an actual battle scene, chaotic but, through Maarken’s experienced eyes, fairly clear. Then he sees Chayla being converged upon by a large chunk of the enemy’s forces—and she snaps into a PTSD flashback and rides like hell out of there, as Kazander’s forces descend on the enemy along with her father’s.
Kazander dies, onstage, most poignantly. (Damn. I am so going to miss him.)
Another viewpoint shift. A bodiless one, no less: taking stock. Seeing Skybowl and dragons and a field of slaughter, of which he is a part. Remembering Sioned—which tells us this is Meath. He’s remembering all the way back to the first book in the first trilogy, and fantasizing about his long unrequited love for Sioned. The scene, and one presumes his life, ends with multiple passionate kisses.
Pol brings terrible news to Sioned, about Kazander. She has worse: Meath is dead. She’s full of grief and might-have-beens. Pol doesn’t understand. She sends him away.
Inevitably, Sionell finds him grieving. He says he can’t lose her. She comforts him. He reflects on his dilemma, and in the process, finally understands his mother and Meath. He pulls away, and lies that he’s all right.
With the start of Chapter 24, Pol is back to work, blooding jewels and discussing the rest of the list with Sioned. He tries to get her to tell him what she’s plotting with Sionell, but she won’t play. A key theme of the scene is that Pol was too goody-goody as a child, and now as an adult, he’s making up for it. Sioned is not impressed.
Tilal sends Saumer out of Radzyn with the Tears of the Dragon and no usable map—he’ll have to use his powers to guide him. One day into the ride, Andrev turns up, having sneaked after him. He needs an extra Sunrunner, Andrev says. Andrev makes a habit of going where he feels like going, as Saumer observes.
Saumer tries to send him back, but Andrev informs him that while he wasn’t paying attention, his horse escaped. That leaves Andrev’s sturdy gelding for both of them.
Maarken and company return to Feruche quietly, late at night. He fills Sioned in on the news, much of which she already knows. He’s worried about Chayla. Sioned promises to talk to her. Sioned cares for him as if he were a son, and he gives her the sapphire he got from Chadric. She avoids telling him what she plans to do with it.
Maarken wakes wrapped in Hollis and apparently paralyzed. Evarin explains to him that he’s completely exhausted, and prescribes (at some length) complete rest. Otherwise he could have a stroke like Tobin or a heart attack like Rohan.
Maarken does not have time for this. He gets snappish with Hollis. She has a meltdown. He passes out.
Saumer and Isriam meet, and Saumer has to confirm his identity before Isriam will accept him. Saumer hands over the pearls, and they stop for a meal. Isriam relays family news and gossip, along with news of the war. Saumer reciprocates.
While Andrev goes Sunrunning for news of the situation at Skybowl, the two princes discuss Isriam’s questionable pedigree and marriage prospects. Andrev comes to, and is puzzled about what he’s seen. The people who should have left Skybowl are mostly still there, though a few key personnel seem to be missing. They discuss the limitations of Sunrunning. Then they part amicably: Saumer and Andrev returning to Radzyn, and Isriam continuing to Stronghold.
In Chapter 25, Pol attends a very uncomfortable dinner party in the Attic with Riyan and Ruala, Andry and Alasen, and Sionell. He observes the fact that they’re all couples, though in different and, in two cases, tragic or unfortunate ways.
Visian arrives with news that a courier has arrived from Stronghold. He’s a Vellanti priest.
Laroshin brings him in in chains and at swordpoint. Pol has arranged himself in “the master’s chair” with Andry sitting at his right hand. They both acknowledge the irony of this. Ruala stays—she hasn’t openly rebelled yet, Pol tells her.
The priest is a sorry specimen. Pol and Andry play bad cop/good cop. They go through the priest’s luggage and find his dragon token. Sionell remarks on it, and gets the standard Vellanti hatred-of-women response.
Finally they find the cloak Meiglan embroidered. Pol tries to figure out what it means—Sionell has a clue, but he’s not getting it. This turns into an opportunity to play out the scene in which Pol throws Ruala and Riyan out of Feruche, then launches into further embroideries and deceptions.
Not all the good guys are in on the game, but they do their best to play along. They let the priest live—ostentatiously—but hand him over to Visian and Laroshin, who will not be gentle in escorting him to the garrison. He’s been filled with disinformation and thoroughly intimidated with talk of dragons.
As soon as he’s gone, the women start decoding the cloak. It’s a message from Meiglan, telling Pol what’s going on and when, though not, as Pol notes, how.
Meanwhile Andry has been trying to good-cop the priest into spilling information, but it hasn’t worked. He knows the cloak means something. He also reflects that he and Pol worked really well together, again, and that Alasen has grown into a remarkable woman.
He goes looking for Sioned, but fails to find her. He seeks out Maarken instead, but Evarin heads him off. They chat about the family—Jihan is jealous of the dragon; she wants to be her sister’s eyes—and about the psychosomatic nature of Maarken’s paralysis. He’s terrified he’ll have to choose between his brother and his High Prince.
Andry agrees to refrain from conflict, while also avoiding submitting to Pol. Evarin tells him to persuade Pol to do the same, and they’ll both be allowed to see Maarken.
Then Andry asks where Sioned is. She’s with Chayla, Evarin replies.
Sioned has been waiting Chayla out. Finally Chayla tells her what’s wrong. She’s pregnant.
Chayla is devastated. Sioned is calm. Chayla wants—needs—to get rid of it. Sioned promises to help. Chayla mourns Kazander, and Sioned comforts her.
In the Attic, Pol admires the cloak and the work that went into it, and they all continue with the decoding. Pol and Sionell find the letter inside the seams, with specific details of troop numbers and the ritual, and the fact that the priests believe the disinformation in the damaged dragon book.
Sioned brings Chayla the necessary drugs. She says unguarded things before she enters the room—and finds Andry inside instead of Chayla.
Pol and Sionell and company are setting up a huge deception spell involving shattered crockery (passing as dragons’ teeth), doctored arrows, false dragon gold…and Meiglan.
Chayla tells Andry she’s pregnant. Andry is all pro-life. Sioned spells out to him what rape is to a woman. Andry keeps on about the sanctity of life. Sioned counters with Andry’s killing of Marron with Fire. Andry starts shouting. Sioned brings up Miyon and the sorcerers. Andry plays the Lord of Goddess Keep card.
Finally Sioned understands why Pol loathes Andry. She throws him out. Andry threatens to tell Maarken and Hollis about Chayla. Sioned warns him not to test her limits.
Chayla stops them before they go further. Andry tries to talk her out of aborting the child. She spells out to him exactly how much she hates this thing inside her.
Sioned opens the door to usher him out—and finds Pol on the other side. Pol is in a right rage about what Sioned knew (about Meiglan, most likely, though the intensity of the scene with Chayla is a strong distractor. Pol is much too self-absorbed to have paid much attention to that.)
And I’m Thinking: As always, after a lot of exposition and talk-talk-talk, the pace has picked up and events fly along in rapid succession. The writing tightens up. We get an actual battle scene—and it’s a pretty good one. We even get onstage deaths of beloved characters, though they’re both secondary, if strong and compelling (and fan favorites).
The kids are totes adorbs and the handling of disability falls into the fantasy trap: it’s pretty and sanitized and not really that bad because magic. And yet, the fact it’s there at all, in multiple examples, is striking. There’s a level of realism here that epic fantasy didn’t often demonstrate in the early 90s, and a quite remarkable focus on the human costs of war.
The final debate, between the self-righteous male and the women who actually have to live with the consequences of rape, is if anything more timely now than it was then. This is topnotch Rawn, and good, strong writing by any standard. It’s also pure female gaze. “My lord, when you can get pregnant, then you may have an opinion.” Sing it, sister!
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 is currently Kickstarting a 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.