Jennifer Roberson is one of the writers who shaped the way I look at and think about epic fantasy. Her Chronicles of the Cheysuli books had a powerful effect on me because it was the first time I read fantasy that felt like social and family history as much as a history of politics and war.
Roberson is one of the authors I think of as the Sword and Sorceress collective, because she had many stories published in the DAW Books series edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley that were published across the 80s and 90s. I found that these books were great for finding new authors to read, as it was a good bet that if they wrote at least one story for S&S, they cared enough about female characters to put plenty of them in their novels, too. Regular contributors to these anthologies included Diana L Paxon, Charles De Lint, Deborah Wheeler, Mercedes Lackey, and Laurell K Hamilton—Roberson had stories in each of the first 6 volumes of Sword and Sorceress, some of which introduced characters and situations she would use in her novels.
The Cheysuli Chronicles consist of eight books (published between 1984 and 1992) covering seven generations and more than a century of history of a kingdom called Homana, at a time of great transition. In the first book, Shapechangers, the once-great Cheysuli are a magical race who are persecuted and hunted, barely surviving as a community; over the course of the books that follow, they rise to great power thanks to a series of political choices and marriages.
In romance fiction, the historical family saga is a popular subgenre, and a very useful structure for telling stories that cover a wide sweep of time, while keeping the reader emotionally connected to that story. I wasn’t as well-read in romance fiction as I am now when I first picked up Shapechangers, but I still had some points of reference from more general literary reading—thinking about it now, the Anne of Green Gables books may have been my closest comparison despite the lack of magic, royal politics and werewolves in Avonlea. Colleen McCullough’s sweeping series of Ancient Roman history was familiar too, though at the time that I first picked up Shapechangers, that particular series was only just beginning to roll out.
More importantly, as I was still only starting out in my fantasy and science fiction reading, I hadn’t yet come across the other genre writers who employed the family saga structure to convey the passing of time across multiple generations, such as Anne McCaffrey. It wasn’t until very recently, when I discovered historical romance by authors such as Stephanie Laurens, that I put together what Roberson had been doing with the Cheysuli: she wasn’t just telling the story of Homana’s history with shapechangers through a single family’s bloodline, she was doing it through a series of individual romances.
Often when we think of epic fantasy (or, worst of all, attempt to define it), the word is applied to the scale or size of the plot—of massive, world-threatening stakes, of extraordinary feats and climactic battles. Epic = big, dramatic, cataclysmic. But the changes and turning points of world history often travel a lot slower than that, and that’s the kind of history that Roberson is interested in telling—how a culture changes and adapts over decades, the subtlety of politics, and the intensely fraught relationship that a country has with its royal family.
When you’re a prince or a princess, (or the child of a significant figure in your clan’s history), decisions concerning love and sex and marriage are all political. Countries might well rise or fall on you agreeing to share a bed with whomever the government thinks is most appropriate.
Don’t get me wrong—the Chronicles of the Cheysuli have plenty of battles and wars and violent magical consequences. But the focus on relationships always made the stories feel more, not less, epic to me as a reader, and I’m pretty sure that these books shaped many of my expectations of what epic fantasy should provide.
The same is true structurally—my very favourite structure for otherworld fantasy is a series of individual novels which build a larger history of the world and its people, but also have their own satisfying narratives. Each of the Chronicles of the Cheysuli has its own point of view character/s and a romantic storyline to be resolved—unlike the romance genre itself, it’s not always easy to pick which pair are going to end up together, as politics are often prioritised over a more traditional Happy Ever After. I dimly remember Roberson sinking a few of my favourite ships (romantic pairings), so it will be interesting for me to see how I respond to particular relationships this time around. If you have a copy of Book 8 you can spoil yourself thoroughly with a thorough family tree, which keeps track of who married who and had children, if not which of those marriages were happy and loving.
Some of the books are told in third person, and some in first, which I remember as a jarring transition at first, but I liked the technique in later rereads—having said that, my memory is very fuzzy. I also remember some troubling rape storylines, which is one of the reasons I’ve hesitated to revisit the books before now. Rape or attempted rape and revenge/recovery was a common trope for a lot of SFF stories centred around women or written by women in the 1980s (just as it was in soap operas and romance novels), but understanding that doesn’t make it fun to read about.
As with my Empire Trilogy reread from last year, the Chronicles of the Cheysuli are books that I cherished and reread multiple times in my teens (some volumes more than others). I haven’t looked at the series as a whole for something like two decades. I’m looking forward to romance, family and friendships, cut-throat politics, imaginary languages and oh yes, did I mention, they change into animals? Lots of wolves. So many wolves.
I’ll be reviewing one book a month rather than going chapter-by-chapter, and look forward to sharing them with readers who have fond memories of this series, as well as those who have never heard of it! The whole series has been recently released on Kindle, and I hope is also available across other ebook platforms. But I’m going to be reading my Corgi paperbacks, slightly yellowed with age. Let’s jump straight in with book one, Shapechangers.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian SF & fantasy author, and a Hugo Award winning blogger and podcaster. She writes crime fiction under the pen-name of Livia Day. Come and find TansyRR on Twitter & Tumblr, sign up for her Author Newsletter, and listen to her on Galactic Suburbia, Sheep Might Fly or the Verity! podcast.