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.
A new book, a new Cheysuli prince—but this one isn’t Cheysuli enough for the Cheysuli (or Homanan enough for the Homanans). Also introducing: fake Ireland, sinister Atvia, and a bunch more babies to add to the complex work of art that is the royal family tree.
Meet Niall, son of Donal and Aislinn: 18 years old, and heir of Homana. He is the next link in the chain of kings fulfilling the Cheysuli prophecy about the return of the Firstborn, but while Niall has Cheysuli, Solindish and Homanan blood in his veins, he looks all Homanan—indeed, he is the image of his grandsire Carillon which pleases his mother and the Homanans, but makes him a figure of great suspicion among the Cheysuli.
Worst of all, he has no lir, which means he only counts as “half a man” by Cheysuli standards. A secret movement, the A’saii, is dedicated to replacing Niall with a “real” Cheysuli warrior as Donal’s heir: Ian, Donal’s other son (who wants none of royal politics). Their sister Isolde is betrothed to Ceinn, hot-headed leader of the A’saii.
After marrying his Atvian cousin Gisella via proxy, Niall sets off to fetch his bride home, accompanied by Ian and the proxy herself: King Alaric’s Ihlini mistress, Lillith, who calls down a magical storm. Shipwrecked, and believing his brother to be dead, Niall washes up on the shores of Erinn (AKA fake Ireland), an island kingdom that has been at war with Atvia for generations.
Here at the Aerie of Erinn, Niall meets Shea, Erinn’s cantankerous king, and his wild not-Irish children, Liam and Deirdre. Technically a prisoner, Niall is treated as a royal guest on the island; everyone wants him to fall in love with Deirdre and marry her instead. Duty-bound to follow through on his marriage to Gisella, Niall offers his imaginary future daughter to Liam’s toddler son Sean, because all of these cradle betrothals have worked out brilliantly for his family so far.
Niall’s father is finally told about his hostage situation, and sends General Rowan as emissary. Rowan reports civil unrest in Homana—the anti-Cheysuli zealots have located a very convincing bastard son of Carillon’s, and a faction demands that he replace Donal on the throne. Meanwhile, the Atvians are furious about the unresolved state of Niall and Gisella’s wedding. Niall sends Rowan home with news of Ian’s death, and swears to return with Gisella as his wife, even if he has to swim to Atvia.
Knowing all this, Deirdre happily beds Niall, claiming she will be content as his meijha. (We’ve heard that before!) When Niall tries to escape Erinn, he is beaten and imprisoned by Liam and Shea, who are doubly furious because the’s been sleeping with Deirdre. Reluctantly, Shea agrees to let him return to Atvia.
In Atvia, Niall discovers that his brother Ian is still alive, haunted by the death of his lir Tasha, and has been prevented from seeking the death ritual by Lillith, who keeps Ian as her “pet.”
Gisella is severely mentally unbalanced, due to brain damage she suffered in the womb when her mother Bronwyn tried to escape in lir-form and was shot out of the sky. Gisella has the Old Blood of the Cheysuli and has also been taught Ihlini magic. Niall is ensorcelled by Lillith (having no access to Cheysuli magic without a lir, he does not have their usual immunity to Ihlini magic) and takes part in an attack on the Aerie, lighting the beacon fires himself to ensure Deirdre’s family are killed.
Niall returns to his senses (or so he thinks) on the boat back to Homana, with Gisella already several months pregnant. Ian is reunited with Tasha, who has been bound by enchantments all this time, now Lillith has no further use of him.
In Homana-Mujhar Niall defends his new bride even as his horrified parents call attention to a) her unstable mental condition b) her obvious Ihlini tendencies c) her immediate attempt to assassinate Donal. [Aislinn is especially judgy, only to be embarrassed when Donal points out that Gisella isn’t the only woman in the room who tried to murder him while under a sinister influence]
Ceinn and Isolde are married; Niall’s new brother-in-law admits he plans to use his and Isolde’s future children as pawns for his revolution. Isolde is devastated and ditches her husband.
Niall flees his own wedding reception to wander in the woods, where he is caught by Ceinn and the other A’saii. They use the Cheysuli magic of compulsion to make him think he has lost his lir, thus condemning him to ritual suicide.
Their plot is overthrown when Niall’s actual lir, a silver wolf named Serri, turns up to rescue him. Niall’s own lir-form is that of a white wolf, which is significant because a white wolf has been blamed for a recent plague, and there is a bounty out on their pelts. Delighted at finally being a true man by Cheysuli standards, Niall returns to the Keep to sgo through the necessary rituals. When asked to choose a warrior as his shum’aii (protective companion) for the ritual, Niall chooses Ceinn, hoping to turn his enemy into if not a friend then at least a useful ally—and giving Ceinn and Isolde a chance to repair their marriage.
Meanwhile, Gisella and Niall’s babies are born—twin boys, Brennan and Hart, future Prince of Homana and Prince of Solinde. Niall, finally able to mourn Deirdre and his role in her family’s slaughter, plans to stay out of his wife’s bed, but Gisella has other ideas, convincing him that if they have sex in wolf-shape, it’s not weird at all.
Donal and Niall meet with Elek, a supporter of Carillon’s bastard son, in a public forum that turns into a riot, and a bloodbath—Niall himself is framed for Elek’s death. The Homana-for-Homanans faction cite Gisella’s madness as another reason to cut Niall out of the succession.
Then Solinde attacks, because it’s just been that kind of week.
Having fought a long, destructive war in Solinde, Niall and Ian return home when they learn how badly the white wolf plague (sent by Strahan of the Ihlini) has devastated Homana—and the Cheysuli in particular, who have been targeted by the illness.
After the deaths of General Rowan and their sister Isolde, Niall and Ian head to Strahan’s fortress to kill “the white wolf” that began the plague. Ian shows signs of the plague and Niall goes on without him.
In the fortress, Strahan reveals that he took four teeth from Storr, Finn’s dead lir, and has used them to create the Ihlini white wolf plague. He also suggests that Gisella’s madness was faked all along, and that she intends to hand over their babies to Strahan. Niall is given a terrible choice—to stop the final plague wolf, or save his sons. Pursuing the wolf, he is attacked by Strahan’s hawk and loses an eye.
(It should be noted, earlier in the book, the lirless Niall was asked if he would give up an eye to get a lir and he replied that he would happily lose both of them to make that happen. Oh, foreshadowing and irony, where does one end and the other begin?)
Recovering from his wound, Niall is tended by a kindly Ihlini healer and former bard called Taliesin (oh that’s not at all ominous) who does not serve Tynstar’s line but empathises with the Ihlini’s motivations (they destroy the Cheysuli because they perceive that the successful prophecy will destroy the Ihliini as they currently exist). Taliesin is accompanied by his gentle assistant, Caro, who is deaf and dumb.
When Niall’s bandages come off, he realises the truth—Caro (who looks exactly like Niall) is Carillon’s bastard son Carollan. The Homanans sent him here to keep him hidden, and intended to use him as a puppet Mujhar.
Niall returns to his pursuit, and fights the last plague wolf as it targets his brother. He shares with Ian what he has learned about the Ihlini and how they seek to twist the prophecy—Niall believes that Lillith wanted Ian to impregnate her, and that she probably succeeded (which is why she let them go). Ian swears to kill that child if it exists.
Niall and Ian reach Mujhar-Homana in time to stop Gisella, who has borne a second set of twins and certainly intends to hand the babies all over to Strahan—she was trained to do so from childhood, murdering puppies and kittens at his command.
With the babies safe, Niall greets his parents, only to discover Donal in the process of saying goodbye—his lir was killed in the plague, and Donal is about to enact the death ritual.
Niall is Mujhar now.
After exiling Gisella, Niall finally gets word from Erinn (via the very very slow post) that while Shea was killed in the Atvian attack, Liam and Deirdre and the rest of the family are fine. Deirdre bore Niall a daughter, and she is coming to Homana-Mujhar to be with him.
Happiness is on the horizon, and—with the next generation’s marriages due to bring together four bloodlines of warring nature—so is the prophecy.
Racial Purity and Prophecy
Niall’s family have been obsessed for decades with enacting a prophecy via mixing bloodlines, and while we’ve seen cultural pushback against the idea in previous books, it reaches something of a peak in this generation. Ironically, since the Cheysuli were so gung ho about the prophecy back in Alix and Carillon’s day, many now feel threatened by the results of the experiment.
Niall represents their greatest fear—that intermarriage with Homanans means becoming less Cheysuli. The combination of Niall’s physical appearance (looking just like his dead grandsire Carillon, all blond and Homanan) and his lack of a lir is a massive red flag to the dwindling, desperate Cheysuli, hence the rise of a faction devoted to racial purity.
It is worth noting that the Ihlini have been fighting the prophecy all along for exactly this reason, because they were savvy enough to realise that the prophecy was a threat as well as a promise to their culture.
The Homanan backlash against the Cheysuli taking power also reaches a crescendo in this generation with their manipulation of Carollan as a potential figurehead who offers a “pureblood” Homanan alternative to Niall, without the pollution of Cheysuli power and magic.
(Even more irony: with Carillon’s face and no lir well into adulthood, Niall himself offers almost the same thing, except for his sympathy with the Cheysuli people)
“Romancing” the Family Tree
Erinn was previously flagged as a potential fourth country for the prophecy, which promised to unite four warring nations and two magical races: Erinn has never been at war with Homana, but its ongoing conflict with Atvia brings it into the fold.
It’s oddly refreshing to meet the Erinnish royal family, who don’t give a fig for prophecy—to them, it seems pretty obvious that Deirdre is a great match for Niall, and as it turns out, yes, marrying Gisella is a terrible mistake.
Except for the convenient production of four babies in two years, because say what you want about the weird arranged marriages, these Cheysuli are hella fertile.
It is starting to feel like Niall’s family are in an abusive relationship with the prophecy. They are so desperate to create the right combination of bloodlines in the future that they make sloppy political mistakes in the present—and the Ihlini capitalise on that desperation.
The marriage that Donal put in place last book, between Bronwyn and Alaric, was a positive move for the prophecy, but terrible in all other regards—for Bronwyn, who attempted to flee an abusive relationship once she was pregnant; for Gisella, damaged from birth and manipulated for most of her life as a weapon rather than a person; for Niall, and even for Homana’s political stability.
All because they wanted to add Atvian blood with an extra boost of Cheysuli in this generation, at the expense of all other diplomatic considerations.
Each generation repeats the mistakes of the past, with Niall betrothing his own future daughter to Liam’s son. Isn’t the definition of insanity repeating the same action over and over, and hoping to get different results?
The royal family of Homana have Stockholm Syndrome as far as this prophecy is concerned.
My edition of Track of the White Wolf includes a family tree at the front, providing helpful spoilers of the coming generation, including Niall’s four children with Gisella, his daughter (Maeve) with Deirdre, as well as Ian’s daughter with Lillith (Rhiannon) and Isolde’s with Ceinn (Tiernan). Some of these kids aren’t even named in this book!
Still, it is helpful to have the reference, I’m not going to lie.
Men Will Be Wolves
Through Niall we gain an in depth exploration of the importance of lir to the masculine identity of a Cheysuli warrior—his anguish at not being considered whole, his jealousy of his beloved brother, his embarrassment at “passing” for full blood Homanan, and the guilt-resentment circle he shares with his father.
Donal was a man of two worlds, skewing Cheysuli slighly more than Homanan, and yet provided with the highest position in the land. Niall, in contrast, spends his whole life feeling like a fraud because he is supposed to be the great hope of the Cheysuli, but has nothing recognisable about him to mark him out as a man of their culture.
There is no explanation for why his lir comes to him late, though from a destiny point of view you can see why it might help to have a leader who has suffered through such a massive crisis of ego, rather than one raised to take the tools of manhood for granted as his birthright.
Niall and Ian represent a study in contrasts: both of mixed blood, both sons of Donal, and yet from the outside one is seen as fully Cheysuli and the other as fully Homanan. This whole book is full of contrasts and comparisons: Niall compares himself to his father and his long-dead grand-sire, and is compared to them constantly by others. The most powerful moment for him in the book is not his showdown with Strahan or his long-desired meeting with his lir; it is the scene in which he confronts his mother Aislinn about the fact that she has constantly treated him as her father come back to life because of his appearance.
Niall and Carollan both look like Carillon; Ian looks exactly like his father; Strahan is the new Tynstar and Lillith the new Elektra. And of course, there are the white wolves which plague Homana, looking exactly like Niall’s own wolf shape, which he has been desperate for his entire life.
Serri comes to us late; it’s actually Ian’s mountain cat Tasha who is the most significant lir in the story, because she represents everything missing from Niall’s own life, and also represents the Cheysuli’s greatest weakness. Niall is manipulated by the Ihlini in Atvia because he does not have a lir to protect his mind; but Ian is manipulated just as badly because he is isolated from Tasha, believing her to be dead.
Along with the connection to a lir and the ability to access magic, Cheysuli manhood is also defined by being able-bodied; having flirted with the idea of cutting off Donal’s arm in the previous book, here Niall actually does lose an eye and has to come to terms with the fact that, as the Mujhar’s heir in the time of war, he can’t afford to be precious about the Cheysuli notion of masculinity. One wonders if he would have come to terms with the injury as efficiently if he hadn’t spent most of his teen years already feeling like less than a man by Cheysuli standards.
Girls Just Wanna Have Lir
Alix’s Old Blood continues to be strong through the female line of her family; indeed it’s this blood that leads Donal and Niall to be so resolute that Gisella must be the next Queen of Homana, to make up for Niall’s lack of Cheysuli manhood.
But being able to change shape did not help Bronwyn escape her husband, did not protect Isolde from the plague, and did not prevent Gisella from being warped and manipulated by Strahan and Lillith. It doesn’t seem like it’s doing the royal line many favours at all, especially given Niall’s status as a lirless man for so long.
I’m hanging out for my girl Keely, when we finally get a shape-changing female protagonist again, but she’s still two books away.
Rape and Revenge
I remembered these books as being super rapey, having read and absorbed them at a time when I wasn’t especially aware of how pervading that is as a problematic trope in fantasy fiction. What I had not remembered was that it isn’t only the women in the story who are raped.
In Legacy of the Sword, Donal and Aislinn both used the resources at their disposal (magic and drugged wine) to commit equal opportunity marital rape upon each other; both of these instances resulted in pregnancy.
In Track of the White Wolf, no female characters are raped—it’s all about sinister women using magic and psychological manipulation to sexually assault men and get pregnant by them. This happens to both Ian and Niall—though in the case of Niall the non-consensuality appears to go both ways in the first instance, considering Gisella’s mental state. Indeed, when Niall returns home with a heavily pregnant Gisella, his parents are clearly horrified he impregnated a woman who appears to be severely mentally incapacitated.
There is actually no excuse for Niall the second time he conceives children with Gisella, considering that he believes her to be severely brain damaged, and he himself is no longer under any Ihlini enchantment.
While this doesn’t happen, it’s also implied heavily that Carollan’s disability makes him a useful royal stud who may be able to produce babies of Carillon’s line. While Carollan is not mentally incapacitated, the Homanans seeking to use him thus are assuming that he is, based on his lack of speech and hearing.
We don’t see much in the way of Niall’s emotional fallout from being raped by Gisella; his grief and guilt from that time in his life more caught up in other details such as his belief he has killed Deirdre and her family. With Ian, however, whose assault and enslavement was more prolonged and traumatic, we see huge emotional fallout, with comparisons between how he was “unmanned” by losing his lir, and by the way that Lillith took control from him.
When he realises he was used for his magical prophecy-busting seed, Ian vows to kill any child he has sired on Lillith, not wanting that child to be used as a weapon against his people. Considering what we have learned about Gisella’s childhood in the hands of Lillith, that’s not unreasonable.
It’s worth noting that rape is primarily used in these books as a tool for conceiving children, and that it has a disturbingly high success rate in that regard.
General Rowan is one of the most significant losses in this book, dying of the white wolf plague. It is ironic that he is struck down by an illness targeting Cheysuli when he has never been counted as truly one of them. Niall impersonates his grandfather Carillon in order to comfort Rowan in his final moments—a fevered Rowan begs his beloved “Carillon” to forgive Finn and take him back into his service as liege man, forgetting that both Finn and Carillon are long dead.
Cheysuli, you break my heart.
It’s an unfortunate tradition in these books that women of the royal bloodline (except Alix, so far) mostly die quietly, offpage. Here we learn of Bronwyn’s death twice over—first that she discreetly died in childbirth with Gisella (a very traditional deal for royal ladies whose plotlines are completed) and then that she was actually killed while trying to escape with her unborn daughter. Arranged marriages, you guys. They’re not working out for anyone.
Isolde’s death from the plague is reported to Niall by Ian, again after she has produced a single baby for the family tree.
In the final moments of the book, we lose Donal. Once, Aislinn dismissed the idea that a Cheysuli Mujhar would seriously follow through with the death ritual upon losing his lir; here, Donal proves otherwise.
Despite all their shared misery in Book 3, Donal and Aislinn ended up with a love story after all; it is clear in their final scene how much they mean to each other. Donal gives her the love-tokens that Duncan made for Alix, wishing he had the same skills to make his own; he gives Ian his war bow and Niall, of course, gets the ruby-hilted sword that was made by Hale and has been carried by every Mujhar from Shaine onwards.
Plus, you know, the kingdom.
NEXT TIME: Niall’s three sons, Brennan, Hart and Corin, cause havok, fall in love and generally do their Cheysuli thing. It’s gonna be great!
MY WISH LIST: Friendship, romance and brothers being great to each other. Also can someone kill Strahan already? I remember Niall’s kids as being my favourite of all the Cheysuli generations, and we get two books dedicated to them (Keely being the only girl will get her own) so I’m looking forward to this!
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.