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.
I wasn’t expecting this one to be my favourite so far! An epic struggle of one man with himself, some interesting gender politics along the way, and a new generation of angry magical kids start making themselves known.
Meet Donal: son of Alix, heir of Carillon. Donal is destined to be the first Cheysuli Mujhar of Homana, fulfilling an ancient prophecy. He resents it thoroughly.
Donal is a man divided: his heart and instincts belong to his Cheysuli half, and yet he is duty bound to serve his Mujhar and Homana. He has no interest in marrying Carillon’s daughter Aislinn, whom he sees as more of a sister—and already has a family at the Keep, including his meijha Sorcha, his son Ian, and a new baby on the way.
There’s the added complication that Aislinn has been living with her evil mother Electra (currently in exile on the Crystal Isle for treason) for the last two years, because Carillon is so confused about the needs of teenage girls that he thought it was worth exposing Aislinn to Electra’s sinister influence.
Needless to say, the Aislinn who returns is thoroughly confused—her mother has implanted Ihlini traps in her mind, and terrified her with rumours about the bestial habits of Cheysuli men.
Torn between loyalties, Donal keeps trying to postpone his destiny, repeatedly turning down ownership of the legendary sword of Hale, with a ruby hilt that has been blackened during Carillon’s reign, and only returns to its proper red in Donal’s presence.
Donal rescues the boy Sef, who might be part Cheysuli, and joins Donal as servant and sounding board. Donal later befriends Evan, youngest brother of Prince Lachlan of Ellas (our pining bard from Book 2), the only other person in Donal’s life who doesn’t have strong opinions about whether he is Cheysuli or Homanan “enough”.
Electra escapes and returns to her lover Tynstar, the evil Ihlini sorcerer, and their country Solinde promptly rebels against Carillon’s rule. War!
A traitor in the palace endangers Donal’s life, and their main suspects are two young women of the family: Aislinn, and Donal’s sister Bronwyn, who may or may not know that she was fathered by Tynstar.
Donal, Alix and Finn discover an abomination in the woods: Duncan, long thought dead to the traditional suicide ritual that a Cheysuli warrior goes through after the death of his lir. Tynstar has turned Donal’s father into a weapon, with an Ihlini trap-link inside his head. Alix saves her son and Finn at the expense of her own life, and Duncan dies shortly afterwards.
On his wedding night, Donal realises that Electra has left another trap inside Aislinn’s mind, which throws her into such an extreme state of panic at his proximity that they cannot consummate their marriage. Carillon orders Donal to use the magic of compulsion on Aislinn to ensure an heir, and Donal is revolted by the idea but still does it.
Tynstar reveals that the Ihlini and Cheysuli were once allies. The Ihlini know more details about the prophecy they all serve: that four warring countries and both magical races will be united peacefully via the Lion Throne of Homana.
Carillon’s magically-induced illness and infirmity is more advanced than anyone knows. He has been wearing a metal harness purely to be able to lift that sword Donal keeps rejecting. Finn has been reluctantly supplying a deadly potion to his Mujhar which hides the worst of his symptoms but will kill him within the year.
On the battlefield, Donal receives word that Aislinn miscarried their first child. Carillon faces off against his old enemies Tynstar and Electra; he slays them both but is wounded and sent home, leaving Donal in charge.
Eventually, General Rowan brings word to Donal that Carillon is dead—slain on horseback by King Osric of Atvia who also stole the sword.
Donal calls in briefly to Homana-Mujhar to pay his respects; Aislinn informs him that she is now clear of her mother’s sorcerous influence, and ready to be a proper wife to him. Donal brushes her off, so she drugs his wine to force him to conceive a new baby with her.
On his way to avenge Carillon (and fetch back the sword), Donal is taken down by an enemy who binds his lir and traps him… it is Sef, who turns out to be Strahan, the son of Electra and Tynstar that they all thought Electra had miscarried.
Ihlini = illusions.
Donal and his lir are eventually rescued by Finn and Evan—but in a confrontation with Strahan, Finn is killed. The magic of the sword recognises that he is Hale’s son, and will not let Strahan take control of it again. Oh and they have also put paid to Osric, the latest nasty Atvian king.
Devastated at the loss of his beloved uncle, Donal has to learn to be a Mujhar without any of his mentors—but first, he has to get his house in order. Discovering that his meijha Sorcha left the Keep after a visit from Aislinn, he goes after her and arrives too late to prevent her suicide. Returning with his children to Homana-Mujhar, he takes out his fury on a very pregnant Aislinn, using his magic to ravage her mind, only to discover that this time, she was innocent of wrongdoing.
Niall, Prince of Homana, is born, and despite broken trust between them, Donal and Aislinn make a truce.
Having learned that Bronwyn is in fact not the child of Tynstar after all, but his full sister, Donal promptly betrays her by selling her off in a marriage she does not want, with Alaric, the new King of Atvia. Thus, Donal becomes every bit as ruthless a Mujhar (and as devastating a hypocrite) as Carillon ever was.
But What Have the Homanans Ever Done for Us?
While the Cheysuli are (mostly) pro-prophecy, as this means them returning to a position of power, many of them are suspicious and resentful of the Homanans who supplanted them in their own country. This is especially true of those who identify as mixed-race—and while men have the lir to tell them if they count as “real” Cheysuli or not (witness: General Rowan, who has no lir and can never be acknowledged despite being fullblood), the lines for women are more blurred. Sorcha, half-Homanan by blood, lives as a Cheysuli, as does Alix, instilling only Cheysuli values in their children; indeed, Sorcha’s loathing of the Homanans is both political and personal, as she feels herself losing Donal to Carillon and Aislinn, and emerges as pure self-destructiveness. Alix, meanwhile, has worked so hard to honour her dead husband’s wishes that she has raised Donal purely as Cheysuli, rather than preparing him for the conflict he now faces.
While Carillon made sweeping social changes during his reign, ending the qu’malin purge against the Cheysuli and taking a Cheysuli man as his son-in-law and heir, the Homanan populace are not going quietly—there are still many factions who despise and fear the magical race (which was true before the purge gave them an excuse to go around murdering shapechangers). Donal himself, used to his liminal state, keeps forgetting how he looks to strangers—so a night’s carousing with his fellow prince in a tavern leads to bloodshed when the locals set upon him (and funnily enough finding out he’s the Mujhar’s heir doesn’t make them any less angry about his existence), and he ends up proving their worst fears by using his magic on the thugs.
Later, when he travels to a distant Keep where he is not known, he realises that wearing Homanan clothes even with his Cheysuli gold means that their first assumption is that he is a cultural sell-out, not a real warrior, until he gives his name. With people like Rowan and Donal struggling so hard to integrate their Cheysuli and Homanan influences, it is hardly surprising that society as a whole is not responding quickly to Carillon’s edict that their cultures should be considered equally important.
Carillon had a crisis of faith and identity when he realised he was merely a seat warmer for Donal, the true Mujhar who would fulfil the prophecy by being a Cheysuli warrior on the Lion Throne; now Donal has a similar crisis when he realises the prophecy more complex requirements, and will not be complete for several more generations. Neither of them are the chosen one; all they can do is help push Homana and the Cheysuli in what they hope is the right direction.
Meanwhile, a fascinating idea comes to light in this book: that the prophecy they serve means the return of the “Firstborn” who will render the Cheysuli and the Ihlini equally obsolete.
Ah Finn, my problematic fave! Electra uses him as a bogeyman for Aislinn, as an example of how brutish Cheysuli men are, and her examples of his creepiness are the same ones I complained about for the last two books. Aww, Electra, you’re supposed to be evil but you make some good points.
I like this older version of Finn, who has let go so much of his ‘angry young man’ persona to become fully grounded as a Cheysuli elder, a father and an uncle. One of the great things about the format of these books is that we get to see characters age and change over decades and lifetimes, something that epic fantasy doesn’t always allow for in any complex way.
Carillon, on the other hand, has become far more conservative and defensive about Homana’s needs vs. those of the Cheysuli he always championed—though this is largely a form of defensiveness. Carillon knows that Donal is more emotionally attached to the Cheysuli, and so piles on the pressure and guilt to remind him of his duty to Homana and to Aislinn.
Finn and Carillon’s relationship is still rough after their bad break up in Book 2—the first time we see them together in this book, they argue fiercely about how to treat Donal’s damaged arm after he was attacked. Finn wants to use healing magic, despite the great risk to Donal’s life—Carillon would rather they cut off Donal’s arm and help him that way (noooo, bacteria in medieval fantasy worlds is always a worry, just say no to amputation). The Cheysuli (including Finn and Donal) have disturbing hang ups about disability—their notion of personhood and masculinity is so wrapped up in the idea of being a functional warrior (um, what do they do with their old people?) that they equate the loss of a limb with death, while Carillon grumpily notes that the job he needs Donal for (running the country) can be done with one arm.
After all, he’s been doing it with a dodgy back for two decades. Huh. Kids these days.
There is a deeply emotional moment after Finn kills the assassin at the wedding, and Carillon invites him to take up his old position as liege man (breaking the heart of General Rowan who has served Carillon loyally all these years but doesn’t count as a true Cheysuli). Finn declines with regret. But of course, it is only Finn that Carillon trusts with his deepest secrets, which suggests he never left his service (sobs).
Alix is a less significant figure in the book than I would have liked, considering that she is shown in a few scenes to be a more fair-minded and useful mentor to Donal than either of his Non-Dads—as someone who has struggled with balancing her Cheysuli and Homanan sides, she should have a useful perspective to offer!
The Warrior Domestic
One of the things I appreciate (and remember most fondly) about the Chronicles of the Cheysuli is how domestic issues are presented as an important aspect of politics—for men as well as women. Donal is a rare fantasy hero in that he is strongly motivated by domestic concerns; the first half of the story revolves around his longing to spend time with his meijha and their new baby instead of the “manly” arts of war and politics.
Donal’s greatest worries come from within the domestic sphere, particularly the women in his life. This is not only the case with Aislinn, who has been literally and magically brainwashed to be a threat to him (she literally tries to assassinate him), and Sorcha whose hatred of Homanans becomes more destructive as the story progresses, but also his sister Bronwyn who has always been regarded as a potential double agent within their household because of her (perceived) parentage.
The Gothic sub-genre, characterised by Joanna Russ as “someone’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my husband”uses the trope of distrust within families to devastating effect. Donal is not merely compromised by a femme fatale type love interest as Carillon was with Electra; this is a story of the insidious, lurking horror that comes from not quite trusting those closest to you, including feelings of guilt and shame, micro-awareness of suspicious behaviour, and second-guessing your own instincts because of emotional ties… seeing Donal navigate this territory as part of an otherwise traditional male hero’s journey feels startlingly original.
It’s also refreshing that neither Sorcha or Aislinn are characterised as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ women—both are victims of circumstance, of themselves and of each other, and the whole mess is no one’s and everyone’s fault.
It is worth noting that after two books in which men repeatedly (and unconvincingly) tell women that the status of meijha among the Cheysuli is equivalent in status to that of wife, and that they totally treat women with more respect than Homanans, this is the first time we (almost) see a positive example of this. Donal’s love for Sorcha is deep and committed, as is his love for their children: including one baby who died during childbirth, but whom he counts as a beloved family member. And then it all falls apart—not just because of Aislinn’s jealousy (though this is a factor) and Donal’s desire to have his cake and eat it too, but because of Sorcha’s fury and, well, let’s face it, almost certainly post-natal depression.
Cleverly, for a book that focuses so much on the dangerous potential of the women in his family, the greatest betrayal Donal suffers is at the hands of the boy who is like a son to him—Sef, who turns out to be another of Electra’s poisonous children and is definitely the threat that Donal never saw coming. It was hinted throughout that the look of Cheysuli about the boy meant he could be family, particularly that he could be one of Finn’s bastard children, which made it all the more surprising that he was Ihlini, not Cheysuli (in a book where we have just learned the two races are more similar than previously thought).
Rape and Revenge
It’s amazing how much of this I had forgotten from my teenage reading—I recalled exactly two rapes in this entire series, whereas the topic is a lot more ingrained than I ever realised. It is refreshing after the mixed messages of the previous book that Donal knows absolutely that there is no distinction between using his magic of compulsion to make Aislinn consent to sex, and physically forcing her.
While Aislinn appears to give at least some form of understanding/consent, the experience of having her will overwhelmed is evidently traumatic; she later confronts Donal about it and makes it clear that what he did wasn’t okay. She then exacts her “retribution” (using that exact phrase) by drugging him and raping him in return, to make him understand how helpless and powerless he made her feel, as well as in an attempt to fulfil the same “duty” of producing an heir that had motivated him in the first place.
The rape of women as a trope in fantasy fiction is a hot topic these days, and has highly over-used in the name of “realism”—while the rape of male characters is almost invisible from the genre. Aislinn’s act is horrifying and yet weirdly pragmatic; it creates a balance between them. At least Donal and Aislinn acknowledge that what they have done to each other is super messed up and basically unforgiveable. Sadly the same isn’t true for her father (so creepy, Carillon), who ordered Donal to use his magic on Aislinn in the first place and tried to convince him that it wasn’t as bad as actually “forcing” her.
Oh, Carillon, no.
Donal equates his power of compulsion to rape under other circumstances too—when he uses it on the racist Homanans who tried to kill him, he acknowledges to himself that overriding another person’s will is a form of rape, regardless of whether there is a sexual act involved. He also works through the idea that any kind of compulsion or magical influence he uses on Aislinn is going to have a creepy sexualised aspect to it regardless of whether he physically touches her, which is—remarkably self aware, really.
Another rape-related storyline is that of Bronwyn, whose brother informs her that she was conceived when Tynstar raped Alix, and that because of this he can never let her marry or bear children, but the good news is she won’t be married off to the King of Atvia against her will, and THEN turns around and tells her that actually Duncan was her father after all. So he can totally force her to marry the King of Atvia. Emotional whiplash much?
Donal used to listen Alix’s advice, but never considers bringing Aislinn or Bronwyn into his confidence as he figures out how to rule as Mujhar. He confides in new acquaintances Sef and Evan throughout the book, but never the women of his family. Making the deal to marry Bronwyn to Alaric against her will is disturbing enough, but the cruel part is how Donal springs it on her, without giving her a chance to talk through the political ramifications, and come to terms with it as a necessity.
Hawks and Wolves
Donal’s duality is represented in this book not only by his strained double identity as Cheysuli warrior and Homanan prince, but also by his two lir, the falcon and the wolf. While everything else in his life is a tug of war, he never suffers any antagonism or tension from his super pets, who get along remarkably well, almost to the point of finishing each other’s sentences.
The question as to whether Donal would survive the death of one of his lir, as long as the other survives, is teased but never fully answered, as he goes through the experience of believing Taj to be dead and Lorn dying, but makes it through the book with them both intact.
We learn more detail about the warrior’s bond, with the revelation that Duncan lived for a decade and a half after his manly ‘walking into the forest to die’ exit because he was denied access to the corpse of his lir—and, perhaps more importantly, that Tynstar knew this and made the most of that knowledge. Creepy stuff.
The question of the Cheysuli definition of masculinity is raised again with the character of Rowan, who is a fullblood Cheysuli who was raised fully Homanan and has no connection to his blood heritage—at one point he accuses Donal of thinking him less of a man because he has no lir, and yet he takes pride in his singular dedication to Carillon and Homana. Donal condemns Rowan for preferring Homana over Cheysuli, and Rowan condemns Donal for the opposite preference, but the truth is that neither of them have really had the opportunity to “choose” their loyalties, they are eternally stuck between what they can and cannot have.
Girls Just Want to Have Lir
A highly underplayed subplot is the revelation that Bronwyn, far from being a traitor, has her mother’s Old Blood—she can take universal lir shape, which marks her out as a warrior rather than merely a woman (though women do not have individual lir, nor do their get their own symbolic jewellery to proclaim their status). Once again we see that the lir have loyalty to those of the Old Blood over other Cheysuli—Finn’s wolf Storr knows the truth about Bronwyn and keeps her secret, as he did for Alix so many years ago.
There are hints that Bronwyn is boyish in other ways—she has not yet settled into traditional Cheysuli femininity—but not enough exploration on how having women as warriors might affect the huge cultural association that the Cheysuli have between lir-bond, warrior identity, and manhood.
Romancing the Family Tree
The marriage between Donal and Aislinn is key to the ongoing storyline: their son Niall will be the first Cheysuli-Homanan Mujhar who is born to the role instead of brought into it, and thus will (hopefully) have an easier time of balancing his duties to the country with the traditions of both cultures.
But other children and pairings are important here—Ian and Isolde have their part to play in the family tree, as do Bronwyn and Alaric. Meghan, Finn’s daughter with Carillon’s sister Tourmaline, has her own narratively-satisfying family tree to plant, thanks to the introduction of Evan, prince of Ellas.
Carillon and Donal always accepted that Meghan would not be part of the Homanan marriage market depsite being closer to Carillon’s kin than anyone other than Aislinn; they presumed that Finn wanted her married to a Cheysuli warrior. In fact, Finn was still so messed up over the death of his beloved Tourmaline and how she wouldn’t have died if she had chosen Evan’s older brother Lachlan over him, that he almost certainly would have accepted the Meghan-Evan match as appropriate.
Please note: Finn’s wishes that Meghan not be treated as a Homanan princess are respected in perpetuity by both Carillon and Donal despite the urgency over the heir situation, while Bronwyn’s wishes are discarded the second they are even slightly inconvenient.
The downside of the family saga format is that we see beloved characters (including previous protagonists) age and die. Alix is the first of our protagonists to go, and it’s fitting that her death is wrapped up with Duncan, even if it gives me another reason to resent him. Donal’s relationship with his sensible mother was a pleasure to read, and I’m glad that she got a heroic end.
Carillon, our other former protagonist, dies offscreen. This should be the moment that Donal accepts his roles as Mujhar and steps into Carillon’s shoes, but he’s still so uncomfortable with that destiny that he pushes back against it, focusing on Carillon’s killer and the loss of the symbolic sword rather than getting on with the job of ruling the country.
It’s only with Finn’s death that Donal finally accepts his place as Carillon’s heir—and for all their disagreements, Finn’s last words are about how Donal needs to accept the sword (and thus the role of Mujhar), and try to understand Carillon better than he did when the man was alive.
Finn’s final final words are about Alix, and for once he manages not to be creepy about it. Bless.
With Electra and Tynstar gone too, the stage is set for the new generation of angry magic kids to take over the books and wreak havoc—looking at Strahan in particular, of course! Filthy little traitor.
NEXT TIME: Prince Niall messes up an arranged marriage by falling in love with the wrong princess, because these Cheysuli boys can’t keep their hearts in their pants. Also, the green green grass of fake Ireland!
MY WISH LIST: Sassy women, saucy men, politics, swords, and if we’re going to have so many poly romances can we maybe have one where all parties are OK with sharing? (I suspect it’s too much to hope for one of these featuring a female character who gets to have more than one partner) Less woe, always less woe.
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, and listen to her on Galactic Suburbia, Sheep Might Fly or the Verity! podcast.