Tansy Rayner Roberts is rereading The Cheysuli Chronicles, an epic fantasy series and family saga by Jennifer Roberson which combines war, magic and prophecy with domestic politics, romance and issues to do with cultural appropriation and colonialism.
Another concise, fast-paced read which manages to pack several volumes worth of Epic Fantasy Plot into a single volume—but this one, quite startlingly, is told in 1st person instead of 3rd, as well as having a different protagonist to Book 1. (Oh, fantasy series made up of single narratively satisfying volumes, where did you go?) This time it’s Carillon, Alix’s cousin and the dispossessed Mujhar of Homana, who takes centre stage.
This book wasn’t one of my favourites of the series, so I had reread it far less than Shapechangers and thus only had a vague memory of what went down. I can see why I didn’t love this one, as it is full of tragedy and woe. WOE. It is, however, packed with interesting character and story, so I am retrospectively chiding myself for not paying it more attention.
Five years have passed since the end of Shapechangers, and Carillon has spent that time on the run, hiding out in countries which are mostly neutral to the politics of Homana, Solinde and the Cheysuli. Carillon has not been alone in his exile—at his side, always, is Finn, his snarky Cheysuli liege man who sometimes turns into a wolf. Now, it’s time for them to go home.
Note: in the five years Carillon has been gone, he has made very little progress in raising an army or doing anything else productive, so I’m not sure why the Time Is Right for his return other than an unhealthy combination of guilt and homesickness.
Since Bellam of Solinde invaded Homana, the persecution of the shapechanger race has continued—with bounty hunters even crossing the border into Ellas, in order to destroy the Cheysuli Keep, and run down any errant Cheysuli they find along the way.
Having acquired a new road trip buddy in Lachlan, a harp-wielding bard who knows far more than he is saying about… well, everything, and is therefore a convenient wiki for updates about what they’ve missed, Finn and Carillon return home to Homana.
Somehow, despite the odds, they then manage to pull together an army made up of Homanan loyalists, and Cheysuli warriors who had remained in hiding before now. Carillon and Finn are reunited with Alix, the woman that they both still fancy themselves in love with, her clan-leader husband Duncan, and their son Donal.
Carillon is also reunited with Rowan, a Homanan boy he and Alix rescued back in Book 1, now an adult soldier. Rowan is revealed to be a Cheysuli raised among Homanans, who was so terrified and ignorant of his heritage that he rejected the lir-bond when it came, and is now considered an abomination by both cultures. He represents the damage caused to their country by the hatred of Shaine the Mujhar, and how hard it will be for Carillon to unite the two cultures back under a single leader.
The war rages on—Finn captures Elektra, daughter of Bellam (and “light-woman” to his sorcerer Tynstar), and brings her to Carillon. Both men are completely enamoured of Elektra despite her being obviously evil, and Carillon plans to marry her for “political reasons” despite never having thought such a thing before he realised she was a hot blonde. Meanwhile, he trades her for his sister Tourmaline.
Turns out the Big Bad isn’t Bellam at all (who is unceremoniously killed off by his own sorcerer halfway through the story) but the sinister sorcerer Tynstar, and of course Elektra, who is COMPLETELY EVIL.
After finally taking on the job of being Mujhar of Homana (and the ruler of Solinde too, by popular acclaim), Carillon marries Elektra and promises her their second son can rule her country. It all goes to hell during the birth of their first child (a daughter), when Finn physically attacks Elektra, claiming that Tynstar is present. After this happens a second time, Carillon is forced to banish Finn on the grounds that you can’t make a habit of assaulting the Queen in front of people.
Tourmaline insists on banishing herself along with Finn, because they have been having a covert love affair and she is pregnant—Carillon is devastated, all the more so when he discovers that Lachlan, the bard who has been pining from afar for Tourmaline, is totally a prince and would have made a GREAT brother-in-law. There is literally an entire scene devoted to Lachlan and Carillon moping together about what a great diplomatic coup they missed out on
After Elektra shows her true colours and lures Carillon into a magical trap where he is nearly destroyed by Tynstar (aging 20 years in the process), Carillon has her arrested and sends her into exile, not caring that she correctly predicts this will make her miscarry her baby by Tynstar.
Also, Carillon is officially a silver fox from this point onwards. But not a literal fox. I can see how that might be confusing.
Tynstar kidnaps Alix in revenge for the loss of his light woman and child. Carillon and Duncan successfully rescue her but Cai, Duncan’s lir, is killed along the way. This means Duncan has to do that stoic Cheysuli thing where they walk into the forest and kill themselves. Carillon decides the appropriate response to this tragedy is to let Alix know he’s totally up for marrying her any time she likes (in the future, once he sorts out his Elektra problem). Alix refuses on the grounds that she is now pregnant with Tynstar’s baby.
Finn takes on the mantle of clan-leader in the wake of his brother’s death. He’s a much more responsible and respectable candidate than he used to be, thanks to his life-changing marriage to Tourmaline. Who is now also dead, thanks to childbirth. Carillon makes him take the knife back to symbolise that Finn is his liege man again, but nothing will ever be the same, really.
EVERYONE IS SO SAD, THIS BOOK IS MADE OF TRAGEDY AND TEARS.
Of Bards and Harps
Where did all the bards go? Eighties fantasy fiction was wall-to-wall bards, all those slender, doe-eyed boys with curly hair who knew how to work a harp and sing for their supper.
Lachlan hits a lot of the standard tropes, including being a mouthpiece for the news headlines of the day (like that pesky bounty on Carillon’s head), but particularly with the Song of Homana, a ballad that hits our heroes where it hurts because it recounts the history of the previous book in startling detail. And of course, it turns up at various significant moments.
Significant Bardic Ballads are up there with prophecies as key narrative signposts in traditional fantasy fiction. I’d really love to read more stories about how bards get things wrong and accidentally stuff up the course of history because, you know, rhyming and scansion are more important than triple-checking your source material.
I do like that Lachlan doesn’t always employ the best tact when the Song of Homana is pulled out, and that by the end of the story, the song is woven into the fabric of their world—Lachlan is no longer the only one playing the song.
Amazingly, at one point suggests to Finn’s face that he write a ballad about how he lost Alix to his brother, and is not instantly torn to pieces. Tactless bards are the best.
Being a bard, Lachlan naturally falls for a princess and pines for most of the novel. Aww. It’s good for his art.
Also, hooray, surprise prince.
Which leads to the bizarrely hilarious scene in which Carillon and Lachlan realise that thanks to the incredibly slow messaging/postal system, Lachlan’s “long game” of loving Tourmaline from afar while waiting for his brother King Rhodri to sort out the formal marriage stuff via diplomatic means was… well. Not the most effective plan for marital bliss.
Dudes, if you want to marry someone and you totally think your family will approve because you’re both of royal bloodlines, don’t wait YEARS to point this out to the relevant relative. This has been a public service announcement.
Romancing the Family Tree
While a couple of key marriages are made in this book, the central relationship is that of Carillon with Finn—the two of them have been close in their exile, but their bickering bromance loses its shine once they are back in Homana. Their priorities should be the same—Finn is deeply committed to getting Carillon on the throne and releasing the Cheysuli of the purge, and Carillon is likewise committed to these things. But they still butt heads a lot over the best methods, particularly when Finn catches Carillon out keeping secrets from him. It’s not surprising that Elektra separates these two in order to weaken them, and absolutely no coincidence that their lives completely fall apart once they no longer have each other’s backs.
How I wish I had known about slash fandom in the early 90’s.
Speaking of romance, there is a deeply uncomfortable scene where Carillon sees Alix for the first time in five years and decides that kissing her is a reasonable response—even more disturbing, while she forgives him along the lines of ‘this is your ONE free pass, buddy, don’t do that again,’ she also notes that Finn’s greeting to her was pretty much the same.
Oh, Finn. Five years should have been long enough to get over not being allowed to have sex with your sister.
Finn is at least making an effort to accept his brother’s marriage, and becomes very close to Duncan and Alix’s son Donal (cough, protagonist number 3, your time is next month). When Carillon challenges Finn to name what he wants in life beyond their military success and the freedom of his people, Finn admits that all he wants now is a son of his own.
(He ends up with a daughter, who is pretty great, but it’s worth noting that it’s Carillon, not Finn, who is framed as Donal’s replacement father figure at the end of the book)
The whole Elektra thing is… I am just shaking my head at both Carillon and Finn, because they are ridiculous. But my favourite romantic twist comes in when Carillon, having told his headstrong sister she is totally going to marry a foreign prince for politics and not love, decides it’s a good idea to separate her from the bard with bedroom eyes. So he sends her off with Finn “for protection.”
I mean, seriously. How else was that gonna end, Carillon?
Tourmaline and Finn have the only genuine romance in the book, but it happens mostly off page thanks to Carillon’s point of view. We only hear in retrospect how their romance happened—from Tourmaline, mostly, as Finn is quite restrained about the whole thing.
It’s clear that they have fallen in love, but also that Tourmaline allowed it to develop into something deeper largely because of Carillon’s high-handed attitude towards her marrying a foreign prince—she tells him outright that if he had actually had a respectful conversation with her about her future marriage, instead of off-handedly letting her know she would have no say in it at all, she might have been willing to go along with her birth-appointed role as “back up producer of heirs.”
Weirdly, Carillon completely rules Tourmaline and her future children out of the succession once he realises he’s stuck with a wife he can’t divorce and no sons—he accepts Donal as his future heir, given their connection via his cousin Alix, but doesn’t consider any possible nieces and nephews he might acquire via Tourmaline and Finn. Almost as if he knew Tourmaline was going to be sideswiped by the dangers of childbirth! He does try to suggest to Finn that Meghan get to be a princess at the end, but Finn is very unimpressed.
Both Carillon and Finn continue to be weirdly creepy about their unrequited love for Alix. Duncan still wins out as the creepiest by physically compelling her to sleep when she protests his imminent death, taking all agency from her and forcing her to miss out on saying a proper goodbye.
Even in death, Duncan is the worst. Though Carillon’s clumsy marriage proposal to Alix almost as soon as she wakes up is almost as bad. It’s come to something when Finn is the most respectful man in her life. Finn.
Words are Weapons
Some new Cheysuli language (or rather: The Old Tongue) enters this book—especially the word su’fali, meaning uncle, now that Finn is one. Ku’reshtin comes up as well—the closest we have to a swearword, used by Finn against Rowan, and then often by Carillon despite the fact that I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what it means.
For the first time, we also get a full sentence of Old Tongue, thanks to a saying repeated throughout this particular narrative: Tahlmorra lujhalla mei wiccan, cheysu—translated as: The fate of a man rests always within the hands of the gods.
The word shansu comes up quite often, meaning peace but more of a ‘there, there, don’t cry’ kind of peace than the ‘we’re currently not at war’ kind of peace.
Hawks and Wolves
The biggest addition to the lore about relationship between dudes and their lir in this book, is the sad story of Rowan, who rejected his heritage and thus caused his lir to die.
Alix’s son Donal takes his rite of manhood at the age of seven (I’M SORRY, WHAT?) and is honoured with two lir—a falcon and a wolf, which also happen to be the two shapes that Alix changed into during her pregnancy. The wolf is a teeny cub, so awwww.
Finn is almost killed in battle when his wolf Storr takes a near-fatal wound. Duncan calls upon some very deep magic to pull Finn back from the brink, upsetting Alix deeply as she’s not keen on sacrificing her husband to get her brother back—she wants both of them alive and well, thank you very much!
All this of course is foreshadowing for Duncan’s death at the end, which is genuinely sad and a blow to them all—even Carillon, our protagonist, who has never been all that fond of Duncan, but comes to rely on him more and more throughout this book, and is almost as lost without him as Finn.
Cheysuli Culture Report
While the Finn-Carillon relationship is the central driving force of most of the book, Duncan takes over from Finn as the main Cheysuli advisor to Carillon once he takes power. Carillon spends most of this book learning more about how much the Mujhars of Homana owe to the Cheysuli, not only for their essential military support, but also their cultural heritage, and several of their traditions. He and Duncan are both preparing for a future in which the Cheysuli have a more overt role in the royal family, but they don’t realise until it’s too late quite how close that future is. When Carillon finally takes power, Duncan puts him through an intense Cheysuli boot camp/religious experience in order to drive home the essential role of the Cheysuli in the tradition of Mujhars before Shaine wrecked it all.
For four days, Carillon is swallowed up by a kind of spirit journey in which he lives as a Cheysuli, man and lir—and the experience rattles him to the point that he is actually hurt to find out he doesn’t count as a real Cheysuli (enough to have been invited to Donal’s lir ceremony). #Whitemanproblems
Later, he calls upon that magic to save himself against Tynstar, and it’s clear that he feels a deeper kinship to the Cheysuli than even he realised. Most importantly of all, he and Duncan are aware that they are preparing the way for a future when a Cheysuli will be Mujhar, and that future turns out to be closer than they thought when Carillon chooses Donal as his heir. So… they’ve basically got a couple of decades to get this entire country over the whole violent cultural rift and make the Homanans accept a Cheysuli as their next leader. No pressure, then.
The significance of Cheysuli jewellery comes up in a fantastic scene that reveals to the reader that there’s something going on with Finn and Tourmaline long before our narrator figures it out (oh, Carillon, so dense). Carillon has found some silver jewellery from the Lindir stash and is going to present them to Elektra upon their marriage, but Finn is furious because his father Hale made those jewels (speaking of dense how did NO ONE spot the Hale/Lindir relationship before they eloped, surely it’s not that normal for a liege man to go around making pretty jewellery for his Mujhar’s daughter, and given the significance of jewellery to Cheysuli courtship and marriages, come on).
Finn physically snatches the jewels from Carillon and tries to give them to Tourmaline (calling her “Torry,” what a giveaway) but Carillon stands fast and insists they go to the queen instead. Big mistake. Huge.
Girls Just Want to Have Lir
Women are not the focus of this story at all, though I liked Carillon’s a mother a lot in her single scene, when he attempted to rescue her from the Solindish, only for her to refuse on the grounds that her daughter (imprisoned elsewhere) would be punished for it, and there was no tactical benefit to her being released.
Acknowledging that older royal women have a keen eye for strategy and politics is always a good thing!
Tourmaline is another interesting character who doesn’t get nearly enough to do.
It is worth noting that Elektra is not just Tynstar’s girlfriend, and Carillon’s chosen Queen (Oh, Carillon, really what were you THINKING) but a highly powerful sorceress in her own right, and her sinister abilities are grossly overlooked by the men in the story because they are so busy lusting after her and slut-shaming her, often in the same paragraph.
It’s strange seeing Alix so sidelined after her integral role in the first book, and she has definitely been swallowed up by the cheysula and mother identity with little sign of the angry, fierce warrior she was before she had her baby. She only has a couple of scenes before suddenly being damsell’d in the final act, and even raped offstage.
After Shapechangers, it was nice to have a book which didn’t promise rape every other chapter, but I did rather want to beat my head against a wall about what happened to Alix. It was particularly disturbing that she felt the need to emphasise to Carillon that she was not physically beaten or “forced” by Tynstar—he used his magic to remove her will instead. Like that’s somehow less traumatic? (Thank you, Jessica Jones, for establishing that yes, that counts as rape too)
There’s a lot to like about these books, but there are times when they are very 1980’s.
Having said that, the rape was handled fairly discreetly and without overt melodrama—in particular, it was not used to heighten the Duncan-related angst until well after his death. If it had to be there (ugh) I’m glad it wasn’t in the book where Alix was the protagonist.
Kudos to Alix for using the ‘oops impregnated by your greatest enemy card’ to avoid Carillon’s hamfisted and frankly offensive marriage proposal at the end of the book. Note, she tried the ‘that wouldn’t be respecting my RECENTLY DEAD husband’ card first and Carillon dismissed that concern, on the grounds that Duncan kinda probably expected him to swoop in and console the grieving widow.
Carillon and Duncan, go sit in the corner, right now. Finn, you can stop stroking Alix’s hair, you’ve managed to mostly be not creepy in this book, don’t let me down now.
Tourmaline’s death adds insult to injury, in that she and Alix have both been made to suffer specifically so we can see the men in their life have feelings about it—indeed, Carillon and Finn finally bond again over mourning Torry. Tourmaline’s death has a political edge to it as well as being ‘generic offscreen died in childbirth’ because her status as the pregnant lover of a Cheysuli meant that they were assaulted and refused medical treatment in Homanan villages.
Finn is at his most likable when Carillon starts making noises about baby Meghan being raised as a princess of Homana and Finn is all—HELL NO. I don’t blame him at all. Princessing is a dangerous game in this neck of the woods.
NEXT TIME: Donal and his two lir face prejudice, evil magic and royal politics. Plus, this family finally pulls off an arranged marriage… except for that part where the bride-to-be’s evil mother is still freaking evil.
MY WISH LIST: Royal women getting more scenes to be politically savvy and wonderful, a love match I can get excited about, hot men making jewellery for their ladies, adorable lir conversations, sarcasm, banter, the occasional happy ending, really, is that too much to ask?
Less woe please!
- Cheysul/a—husband, wife but also: man, woman
- Ihlini—evil sorcerers, mostly found around Solinde
- Jehan/a—father, mother
- Lir—bonded animal, and their human
- Meijha—concubine (note there used to be a space between the mei and the jha—who says linguistic shifts can’t happen quickly?)
- Qu’malin—war/purge against the Cheysuli
- Rujho/lla/lli—brother, sister, sibling
- Shar tahl—priest-historian, mystic
- Tahlmorra—destiny, fate and prophecy—often used as a conversational tic along the lines of ‘shit happens, whatcha gonna do about it’?
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.