One thing that struck me, rereading Shapechangers for the first time in more than a decade, is how fast it is. It’s rare to find fantasy fiction in volumes less than 120K these days, let along in a book as slender as this first Chronicle of the Cheysuli. But oh, the pace! It rattles along at an extraordinary rate, even if it does require a few conveniently placed conversations about the current political situation to get the reader up to speed. By Chapter 4, we’ve been introduced to the main players, caught up on most of the relevant backstory, and are full steam ahead into our adventure.
I would love to see more modern fantasy follow this structure.
I have to assume that these books are at least partly inspired by the historical interactions between Native Americans and European colonists in North America. This isn’t something that occurred to me at all on previous readings, and as an Australian and a white person, I am unqualified to pick out most of the cultural biases at play here. I think that the use of an otherworld setting, an original vocabulary and other standard fantasy trappings goes a long way to keeping this on the side of ‘thematically resonant’ rather than ‘culturally appropriative’ but then I don’t have any particular right to make that claim. From what I remember, this is one of the better examples of an 80s-90s era fantasy story that explores cultural differences and issues to do with colonisation, and racial oppression. I am not going to be able to recognise most of the American-specific elements in the worldbuilding, but I would love it if readers brought their own perspectives to the comments.
Twenty-five years ago, the Mujhar Shaine of Homana declared a purge on the magical shapechanger race the Cheysuli after his liege man Hale eloped with/stole his daughter Lindir. Since then, the Cheysuli have been hounded and persecuted in their own land, called demons and monsters by the people they once lived with in harmony. Meanwhile, the Mujhar’s obsession with the Cheysuli has distracted him from international politics: he’s neglecting his war with Solinde, which Lindir’s marriage was supposed to prevent, before she ran away. Solinde has its own sinister magical race, the Ihlini, led by the sorcerer Tynstar.
Prince Carillon, nephew to the Mujhar, is trying to build a flirtation with Alix, a crofter’s daughter, but they are both kidnapped by Finn, a shapechanger who wants to use the Prince to end the war… and wants Alix to be his girlfriend.
As it turns out, Alix is more important than any of them guessed—she is the daughter of Hale and Lindir, which gives her royal and shapechanger blood. Ditching both Finn and Carillon, who are both too wrapped up in their pining for her to be bothered about the fact that they are, respectively, her half-brother and her cousin (ew), she falls in love with clan-leader Duncan, Finn’s other half-sibling, and learns to
use the force find her own inner wolf. And her inner falcon. Alix has all the animals!
Oh and there’s a prophecy. Remember the 80s, when every fantasy novel had a prophecy? This one is pretty vague so far, which makes it more narratively useful and credible than the more specific ‘this is exactly how your plot will proceed’ prophecies.
Alix struggles to accept her Cheysuli heritage until Carillon takes her to meet her grandfather Shaine, and she realises how far off the deep end the Mujhar has gone in his irrational hatred for the shapechangers. She throws herself into the arms of Duncan, and after quite a few bumps along the way, settles into her role as his cheysula (wife).
When the Ihlini, supporting the claims of Solinde and Atvia, invade Homana’s capital city, the Cheysuli return to their stolen land to defend the city. Alix risks her unborn child by taking wolf and falcon shape in order to rescue Carillon, so she can forge an alliance between her Cheysuli kin and the heir to the throne.
Finn wants to kill Shaine for his unjust murder of Hale (Finn’s father as well as Alix’s) and for the damage he has wrought upon the Cheysuli people. He manages to goad the Mujhar into a fatal seizure—but not before Shaine destroys the ancient wards which have been keeping the Ihlini out of the Palace.
Now that Carillon is technically Mujhar, Finn promptly swears a blood oath to be his liege man, despite the two of them having spent the entire book bickering like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (had been a more open-minded teenage reader I would have been shipping these two like whoa). Carillon accepts Finn’s service and his first act as Mujar is to formally end the purge of the Cheysuli.
The second thing he does is run away from the palace, and the occupied city, with his Cheysuli allies. They regroup at the Cheysuli Keep outside the Homanan border: Alix and Duncan will nest here and allow their son to be born, while Finn joins Carillon on a nomadic pilgrimage until the time comes to take back the city again and do that prophecy justice.
All this, in less than 300 pages.
Romancing the Family Tree
So let’s get the embarrassing parts out on the table: when I first read these books, I hardcore shipped Finn and Alix. This is a disturbing insight into my teenage mind, given that Finn spends the first three chapters threatening Alix with rape and abduction, only to continue presenting himself as a viable candidate for her affections and/or body once he learns he is her brother. And also after she marries his brother.
Carillon and Duncan are no prizes either—but then, the story is not (as it sometimes appears to be) about Alix choosing whether she wants a Cheysuli or a Homanan mate. Instead, it is about the two children of Hale working to repair the damage that was caused by the previous generation, while managing to avoid actual incest.
Huh. So a lot like the second half of Wuthering Heights, then.
While she does indeed choose to marry Duncan and is blindly in love with him for most of the book, the most interesting scenes Alix shares are often those with Finn, who flits between being her antagonist, her mentor and a second protagonist—he is not a point of view character, but he has a strong narrative thread of his own, and the climax of the novel is as much about him accepting his fate as it is about Alix’s path.
This is primarily Alix’s book, however, separated as it is into four sections representing her status with the Cheysuli over the course of the story: The Captive, The Mei Jha, The Cheysula, and The Warrior. Her romance with Duncan is sorted out halfway through, so the rest of the story can be devoted to the issues they face once they are settled with each other.
The romances, sex scenes, rapes, and marriages of each volume in this series are narrative tools used to construct an elaborate family tree; a complex braiding of children conceived (sometimes accidentally, sometimes with great prophetic deliberation) to bind the Cheysuli into the Homanan royal family, as well as the royal family of Solinde and their own magical race, the “evil” Ihlini.
Whenever someone says the words talmorrah or prophecy to a woman in these books, it’s almost always an encouragement to climb onto a branch of the family tree, and start conceiving protagonists of future novels.
Words as (Defensive) Weapons
The social use of language is one of the more interesting elements of the Chronicles of the Cheysuli, drawing attention t0 issues of culture and colonialism. From their first meeting, Finn educates Alix about the damage that has been done to his (their) people, often through vocabulary—whether he is insisting that the Cheysuli pet name he chooses for her (mei jha = mistress) has greater status in their culture than that of a “light woman” in Homana (Carillion also tries to convince her that being a light woman isn’t as lacking in status as she might imagine), or teaching her the other key words that will turn out to be vital to her future: lir, qu’mahlin, tahlmorrah. When Alix uses the words wrong or defaults to her own Homanan vocabulary, Finn corrects her, repeatedly—he may be a serial sexual harasser who shouldn’t be allowed out in public, but he’s also well aware of how fragile the survival of his race is, and the importance of preserving their language.
It’s established early on that the Cheysuli settled the land of Homana first, and that there was an accord between the two races before the Hale and Lindir scandal. Language is a tool that the author uses to show how integrated the two cultures had become, before the qu’mahlin (the purge against the Cheysuli): for example, Shaine is a Mujhar, not a ‘king,’ and the Cheysuli word extends also to the name of his royal city, Mujhara, and his palace-fortress, Homana-Mujhar.
The use of imaginary languages is one of those fantasy tropes that can be done excellently or terribly—not every fantasy writer is a hardcore linguistics scholar like Tolkien! But Roberson has a deft hand with it, teaching the reader a solid vocabulary a few words at a time, and imbuing them with extra context and layers of meaning as we go (including misuse and misunderstandings) so that we can carry them with us through the entire series.
I also love—and this is the linguistics nerd in me—that we get a sense for how the language works through its use of variations and gender. Finn’s brother Duncan is his rujho or rujholli—Alix, we learn, is his rujholla. Parents are called jehan and jehana. Even the lir have a female form of the term, though it doesn’t get rolled out very often…
Hawks and Wolves
We learn the word lir for the first time in respect to Storr, the beautiful wolf that follows Finn around and objects to him groping Alix—not because of consent issues, but because ‘she is not for you.’ Alix’s first assumption is that lir means wolf, or possibly pet, but it turns out to be a word that even Finn can’t quite define for her—until the wolf starts talking inside her head, and Duncan’s hawk, Cai, joins in.
Each Cheysuli (man) has a lir, a bonded animal who symbolises his shapechanging form—though not as an exact copy. Finn, for example, looks completely different to Storr when in wolf form. The Cheysuli ideals of manhood and masculinity (as well as their rites of adulthood) revolve around the warrior and his pairbonding with his lir—a youth who never receives a lir, or a warrior who loses his, is not whole as a man. Wolves and birds of prey are the most common Cheysuli lir that we learn about in the early days, though later books introduce us to all kinds of exotic alternatives.
Alix learns that lir describes a relationship that goes both ways—it is the name that the warrior and his bonded animal use for each other. The death of the lir (animal) means the death of their lir (man); the animals can survive the reverse situation, though they do get very sad and disappear into the forest, which leads me to wonder how the Cheysuli can be so certain that the animal survives. As it turns out, the death of the human upon the loss of his lir is a suicide ritual rather than a biological kill-switch—but it is accepted as an inevitable process.
Alix is referred to as liren by several of the magical animals, which foreshadows that she is not only one of those super rare women who can shapechange, but that she has the Old Ways in her, which means she can change into any animal she likes, though she never receives a lir of her own.
I seem to recall that many of her descendants, male and female alike, share this power in different ways.
Girls Just Want to Have Lir
There’s a whole mess of gender issues in Shapechangers, within and without the text—the first and most obvious is the constant threat of rape to our protagonist, which might be realistic given the circumstances, but to an adult 21st century reader is quite exhausting (and may be distressing or triggering). It’s worth noting that the word ‘rape’ is rarely used, but Alix’s distress at the idea of being given to or taken by a man against her will is clearly established.
Finn’s unwanted pursuit of Alix is often romanticised by the other characters, with his brother Duncan and their mother Raissa interpreting his behaviour as that of a rejected lover rather than a man who refuses to respect boundaries and regularly discusses ‘forcing’ Alix to be ‘his’ both sexually and as a permanent partner. Duncan jokes about Finn’s interest in Alix long after they are married, and never objects to Finn using provocative language towards his wife (Alix objects, quite firmly and repeatedly, but the family pull up all manner of gaslighting techniques until she also starts to feel sorry for poor old Finn not being allowed to rape her). Funnily enough, Duncan does not extend the same sympathy to Alix’s other rejected suitor, Carillon, though Carillon is a lot more respectful of Alix’s right to say no.
We are regularly told about how the Cheysuli have different social mores, particularly about sexual fidelity (and, it seems, consent), but the benefits of these social conventions flow mostly to the men.
For all their talk about valuing women and respecting them (ha) more than the Homanans (whose institutionalised sexism is assumed to be that of any default medievalish society), the Cheysuli society revolves around the male warriors, and their lir. Men have the rights to multiple lovers, and claim that a mei jha and a cheysula are equal in status—and yet Raissa herself tells Alix that she refused to be a mere mei jha.
As is often the case, women’s rights go out the window as soon as a society (or a man) wants babies, and the Cheysuli’s dwindling population means they are desperate. Alix discovers to her horror that the Council can give her to the man they deem most appropriate for reasons of prophecy and/or breeding stock. The only choice a woman has if she does not like the man that the tribe has decreed she will pair with, is to live without companionship of any kind—but there is a cultural layer of cultural shaming attached to that. Oh, and because the Cheysuli understanding of incest and genetics is up there with that of the Ancient Egyptians, their favourite candidate is Finn.
Alix does not cross paths with any other women at all until a third of the way into the book, where she is introduced to Lorsilla, her grandfather’s remarkably welcoming second wife, then to Raissa, the maternal spokeswoman of the Cheysuli (who does not reveal until much later that she is Finn and Duncan’s mother, to Alix’s embarrassment), and finally Melina, the comb-owning plot device standing between Alix and Duncan’s union.
Duncan’s main selling point as a romantic partner seems to be that he only has sex with women who agree to it, which is an exceptionally low bar of civility. He does, however, talk the (virgin) Alix into pre-marital sex on the grounds that conceiving his baby will save her from being married off to Finn, only to withdraw his promise to marry her when he learns his ex is pregnant. But you know, she can totally be his mei jha instead.
When Alix gets angry and threatens to leave with the theoretical child they might have conceived, Duncan retaliates by cutting off her hair, symbolising her “choice” to live as a woman unbound to a man. It was not his right to do so—but his only punishment for the transgression is mild disapproval from his mother.
Alix’s triumph over the limited value that both of her cultures place on women’s autonomy, comes in part from her developing magic. She might not get to pick her own husband, but after she flees from Duncan’s abusive behaviour, she is comforted by the lir, who teach her that her role in the prophecy is about much more than having the right babies.
The second half of the novel is far more positive, with Alix learning to use and wield her powers, and following her husband and kin into battle despite being told to stay at home like a good little wife. In rescuing Carillon, and killing the King of Atvia, she ensures the survival of the Homanan royal family and the Cheysuli, even though they lose the city to the invaders.
Duncan never has to apologise for his terrible behaviour to her. Nor does Finn. She appears to forgive them both.
The Cheysuli warriors all wear gold earrings depicting their lir—and it’s impressive how much they’ve managed to keep up their jewellery-making skills while on the run and in hiding, though I suppose the murder of so many of their people has left a lot of spare gold to be saved and melted down. Their women wear gold jewellery as tokens of esteem and status—marking out to which male warrior they “belong”.
To the Homanan eyes of Alix and Carillon, the wearing of gold (and leathers) are symbols of barbarism. They also prove to be dangerous outside the relative safety of the Keep—the one time that Alix is threatened with rape by a man she’s not related to, it is a deserter from the battle who covets her gold.
Cheysuli crafting skills are an important aspect of their culture. Duncan presents Carillon with an exquisite bow as a gift when he is released from their abduction. Presenting gifts of great artistic value and personal/cultural significance is an ongoing theme through the book and the series as a whole. In this case, the bow is the first gesture towards making Carillon sympathetic to the Cheysuli people—thanks to their strong sense of history and destiny, the Cheysuli are often thinking several generations ahead. They try to make peace with Shaine, but they are well aware it might be the next Mujhar—Carillon—who is a better bet.
Cheysuli are skilled at making weapons, including the sword Carillon carries (which once belonged to Hale) but they rarely use swords themselves, preferring the ‘quick death’ of knives and lir-shape. Their bows were always for hunting before the war began—and the swords they made were gifts for their Homanan friends, not for their own use.
Twice during the book, Carillon loses Hale’s sword, only for Finn to give it back to him, each time resonant with greater symbolism, culminating in Finn swearing fealty to Carillon as Mujhar and liege man.
It is never explained where their clothes and weapons go when a Cheysuli shapechanges into an animal. Perhaps there is a limit on how much metal they can be carrying when they transform.
NEXT TIME: In Book 2, The Song of Homana, we follow Finn and Carillon on their quest to fix everything that broke this time around.
MY WISH LIST: More Alix, less Duncan, more cool language references, more shiny weapons and politics and talking animals, more satisfying romances with people who deserve it; less threats of sexual violence and marital aggression from characters we’re supposed to sympathise with.
- Cheysul/a—husband, wife
- Mei jha—concubine
- Talmorrah—destiny, fate and prophecy—often used as a conversational tic along the lines of ‘shit happens, whatcha gonna do about it’? Alix starts out frustrated by the phrase and is using it unironically by the end
- Lir—bonded animal, and their human
- Qu’malin—war/purge against the Cheysuli
- Shar tahl—priest-historian, mystic
- Jehan/a—father, mother
- Rujho/lla/lli—brother, sister, sibling
- Ihlini—the really bad sorcerers, from Solinde, who are (apparently) everything that Shaine believes the Cheysuli to be: demonic, etc. I suppose there’s no chance they also have an unfairly maligned reputation, and can be redeemed with the endlessly creative crafting of family trees?
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.