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.
In which three strapping princes go through hell and back, and happy endings are for families that don’t have an over-complicated prophecy to fulfil, no matter the personal cost…
Niall of Homana ruled as Mujhar for 20 years in relative peace, with his mistress Deirdre at his side and five healthy adult children—but the lack of recent attacks and wars means that his three sons have grown up into entitled brats, more interested in their respective hobbies (Brennan = training horses, Hart = gambling, Corin = reliable with the laydeeez) than their princely responsibilities.
After one awful night in which the wayward princes cause a diplomatic incident and cause a tavern riot/street fire that kills 28 people, Niall puts his foot down, declaring that it’s time they start their real jobs.
Hart and Corin are to be sent to Solinde and Atvia, the conquered kingdoms they are to inherit on behalf of their father and family. Brennan, eldest son and home team prince, is to prepare for his Erinnish bride to finally be delivered to his doorstep.
(Meanwhile, the two sister princesses Keely and Maeve are silently at odds with each other over the expectations of royal femininity and their mutual sense of inferiority in comparison to each other, but no one is paying them any attention because this is not their story)
Each prince has his own section of the novel devoted to a terrible downfall, because apparently accidentally killing 28 people is not enough for any of them to take a life lesson from:
BRENNAN, the oldest and usually most sensible of the three, is kidnapped by Jerik, an innkeeper who claims to be the son of Elek (the pro-Homanan politician who Niall was framed for murdering in Book 4). After the wine-girl Rhiannon rescues Brennan (who slays Jerik on his way out), she informs the royal family that Jerik was actually the child of the Ihlini sorceress Lilith—which means he was almost certainly Ian’s child, from the time when Lilith mind-controlled and raped him.
The truth, which would have been spoiled for you if you had the same paperbacks I did with a very detailed family tree in the previous volume, is that Rhiannon, not Jerik, is the child of Lilith and Ian. Now promoted and trusted as one of Deirdre’s ladies-in-waiting, Rhiannon seduces Brennan and promptly gives him and his lir over to her people—along with the key piece of intel that Brennan is horribly claustrophobic.
HART rides off to Solinde, their nearest neighbour, a conquered country several times over, since Carillon’s reign. It’s a country full of people with decades of resentment against Homana and its royal family—and, of course, a country where Ihlini are treated as honoured citizens instead of Automatic Villains.
Top of the list of people who resent Hart are Ilsa, last heir of the Solindish royal family, and Dar, who is hoping to marry Ilsa, kick Hart out, and rule the country himself.
Ilsa tosses her hair a lot, is feisty, and bickers with Hart from their first meeting, so you can see where this is going.
Because Hart is a chronic gambler, his response to finding out his expected workload as ruler-in-training is to run out to the nearest taven (say no to this!), and literally bet his life on a game he’s never even heard of before (say NO TO THIS!). Hart loses the vitally important Third Seal of the country, then tries to win it back and ends up losing his entire year’s allowance, plus a horse given to him by Ilsa.
Finally he and Dar end up in a drunken game of one-upmanship and bet their lives on which of them Ilsa will choose to marry. (Well, Dar bets his life, Hart bets his throne)
The one intelligent thing Hart does after sobering up is to confess the entire story to Ilsa, rather than let the whole ‘marriage bet’ shenanigans play out as some kind of slapstick comedy. Ilsa is equally unimpressed with them both.
In a final “game” against Dar, Hart loses his hand, and his freedom.
CORIN sets off for Atvia—like Hart, he is to rule a country that has always been an enemy to Homana. Afraid of confronting Gisella, the mother who tried to murder he and his siblings as a child, Corin resents the exile—but being the youngest son, he is used to resenting stuff.
On his way, Corin stops off to deliver a message in Erinn, where he stays just long enough to fall in love with Brennan’s future bride. Aileen falls for Corin too and is furious when he chooses honour over love, making them both miserable.
A heartsick Corin moves on to Atvia, where he finds that King Alaric (his maternal grandfather) hovers on the brink of death, controlled by Lillith’s magic. Gisella appears to be mysteriously sane and intends to return to Homana to insist on being restored to her rightful position as Queen.
This is a result of Lillith’s magic (and Alaric’s dying wish to have his daughter’s wits restored)—though this is at the expense of Alaric’s life force. Alaric fades into death before Gisella is able to enact her plan of revenge, and she loses her sanity all over again.
Sidra, Alaric’s bastard daughter, is the closest thing Corin has to an ally in the palace—but as soon as he confesses his most vulnerable secret to her, about his illicit love for Aileen, she reveals herself to be Strahan’s pregnant mistress, making Corin the third prince to be captured by the Ihlini this week.
Strahan now enacts his master plan, pitting the three captured princes against each other in the hope he can convince one of them to swear fealty to his god, Asar-Suti, and sabotage the prophecy. (Meanwhile, he has embarked on his own eugenics program to make the prophecy viable, with Rhiannon and Sidra’s unborn babies intended to be the next happy couple on the family tree)
While Brennan is wrecked by his insecurities and the believe that his claustrophobia is a mental weakness that makes him unfit to hold the throne, and Corin is tortured by guilt and resentment, it is actually Hart with his missing hand who is the weak link in the chain, because all three princes are so devastated by his loss. Let’s not forget that the Cheysuli have all kinds of messed up notions about disability, and how a maimed warrior is unfit to be part of the tribes.
Strahan keeps Hart’s severed hand in a box, using it to manipulate all three of them with the taunt that it can be restored. Finally, to remove the temptation, Hart himself destroys the box—only to watch in horror as Corin falls under the sway of Strahan’s pressure, and drinks the blood of the god.
Luckily for the older twins, their younger brother has a plan, and uses Strahan’s ego against him to aid their escape. Corin takes the most damage in their flight, and his attempt to kill Strahan does not pay off. Still they manage to get home under their own steam, thanks to the help of those convenient nice Ihlini healer dudes, Taliesin and Carollan, who apparently have nothing better to do than hang out waiting for Cheysuli princes to drop in every 20 years or so in need of first aid.
The three princes return home. Brennan and Aileen come to terms with having a respectful, business-like marriage despite her being in love with his brother. Corin is generally feeling better about himself, having proved… something. Hart is still miserable about losing his hand (though Brennan is determined to change the law about Cheysuli and disability). Ilsa cheers him up by surprising him in his rooms and offering to marry him and help him rule Solinde. She totally arrested Dar because chopping off a prince’s hand is no way to win a lady’s heart.
At least someone in this generation is getting something close to a successful romance!
Tapestry of Lions
Deirdre is one of the most interesting characters in the story: a former princess of Erinn, she holds a comfortable place of honour as the Mujhar’s mistress and co-parent to his children. Her daughter, Maeve, is clearly the best-behaved of Niall’s children, but for all the characters insisting she is an equal part of the family, Maeve is also the only one who doesn’t get her own book—she exists here as a foil to Brennan and to Keely, rather than as a character in her own right. Maeve’s lack of Cheysuli blood sets her aside from her siblings, and it is strange and ironic that the man she chooses to have a relationship with is Tiernan, their angry Cheysuli Rights Activist cousin.
Deirdre herself has to occasionally remind her family that she is invested in their ridiculously complicated multi-cultural politics, despite not sharing their blood. While all the drama goes on, she dedicates her time to a piece of art that will serve as their family’s legacy: a tapestry of lions, telling the story of the male heroes of the Mujhar’s line.
At one point, Brennan scoffs at Maeve for wanting to help her mother with the tapestry and she turns on him, accusing him of not respecting it because it’s women’s work and therefore of little interest to him. (This, it’s lines like this that make me wish she got her own book!)
Racial Purity & Prophecy
The prophecy is getting closer to completion, and we finally get more of a sense of what the Homanan royal family are trying to achieve. In Brennan’s discussions with his angry cousin Tiernan (son of Isolde and Ceinn of the A’saii), and during the misadventures his brothers also experience, we learn that it’s not just about obeying the letter of the prophecy—the family are well aware of the political ramifications of the prophecy supposedly uniting four warring nations and two magical races. This means putting together diplomatic connections that actually hold up into the future.
Hart always assumed that he would be “ruling” Solinde in his father’s name and not actually have any power or responsibility, which makes me wonder how much Niall actually talked to his kids when they were growing up—of course Hart is expected to learn all facets of the job, and make his own decisions. Niall has genuinely been hoping that by placing one of his sons in charge of the countries who most hate and despise his own, he will bring about world peace.
(Sigh, because having Queen Victoria’s kids scattered across the royal family of Europe totally did so much to prevent World War I…)
The author is well aware of the irony of her characters’ intentions vs. the likelihood of it all going horribly wrong, and illustrates that with an anecdote during Corin’s time in Erinn, where we learn that the origin of the emnity between the island kingdoms of Atvia and Erinn come from brother rulers, who each bestowed their kingdom on a son of their own, and began the whole fight over who got the title of ‘Lord of the Southern Isles.’
Corin and Liam are both firm that the Erinnish royal blood needs to be mixed with Brennan’s rather than Corin’s because it’s Brennan’s firstborn son that will be Prince of Homana someday. Hmm. I think Aileen might have a point at calling bullshit on this one, considering that we still need a few more cousins to marry each other across a few more generations before the prophecy is complete.
Realistically, though, Corin is Brother Most Likely To Declare War on Homana, so he probably has a point…
The importance of Brennan is emphasised with the visual appearance of the boys: Corin and his sister are blond, like Niall and Carillon, so they have the appearance of being more Homanan than anything. Brennan and Hart have the darker complexion and hair of the Cheysuli; though Hart has their father’s blue eyes, meaning it’s only Brennan the heir who actually looks like a Cheysuli. Considering the fear in the clans that all this interbreeding is going to dilute the Cheysuli blood, it’s very lucky that he is the eldest son and the heir. Looks like his (and Aileen’s) kid is going to be a protagonist some day!
Hawks and Wolves
There’s less intensity to the Cheysuli-lir connections in this book, possibly because there are so many characters to keep track of. The most powerful use of the lir is expressed when they are separated from the princes during their imprisonment, and the joy at their reunion.
Corin loves his fox dearly, and a great deal of his resentment and insecurity as being the youngest (and least favourite) son in the family comes from having to wait until he was sixteen to receive his lir, while his brothers got theirs earlier. Brennan’s mountain cat Sleeta is pretty awesome, but doesn’t have much to say. It’s Hart’s hawk which takes most prominence, because of his realisation that losing his hand means he will be unable to take lir-form himself for the rest of his life. No more flying for Hart!
Girls Just Want To Have Lir
Let’s talk about Keely, my new problematic fave! I adored her as a teenager, as she was everything I wanted in a novel heroine—cranky, highly skilled with sword and armour, and rejecting all things traditionally feminine.
Of course, reading it now, she comes across as the caricature of the Strong Female Character who is only cool because she mimicks traditional male values while having long pretty hair. As an adult and a mother I can’t help wanting to sit her down and have That Talk with her about how it’s okay to rail against the constraints traditional femininity, but that doesn’t mean you should sneer at women who like to wear pretty dresses and sew lion tapestries. Come on, Keely, don’t be that girl who hates all other girls because only boy stuff is cool. (I have literally had That Talk with my eleven-year-old daughter)
I still like Keely a lot, but I wish we got more of a chance to get to know poor old Maeve, who igets sneered at by her half brothers and sister—not because she is bastard-born, but because she has two loving parents in her corner. (It’s pretty clear that all four love Deirdre and wish she was their real Mum, but at the same time, she is TOTALLY their real Mum and they should give her a little credit for that)
Positive representation of a stepmother in fantasy fiction! Such a rarity. Perrault and the Grimm brothers have a lot to answer for…
Keely is just as rebellious and troublesome as her brothers—the only reason she doesn’t get into trouble here is because she wasn’t invited to the tavern with them in the first place. The fact that she is so willing to share her twin’s exile makes her highly sympathetic—though she balks at travelling to Erinn after all when a salty Erinnish sailor makes a few choice innuendos that foreshadow exactly the kind of sexual harassment that a future wife of the Prince of Erinn is likely to receive.
With Keely we are finally getting the narrative I have craved since Alix, about how the Cheysuli women with Old Blood transcend the traditional Cheysuli gender values. Keely has a great deal to say about this—she scoffs at Corin’s idea that she actually wants to be a man, as she’s fine being female. She just wants, you know, all the respect and social currency of being a man (and a Cheysuli warrior) and patently is not going to receive even a fraction of it, no matter how well she fights, or how brave/independent/outspoken she is. Oh, Keely. I’m worried for you. But I’m glad you’re here.
NEXT TIME: My girl Keely gets her own book—the only female protagonist since Alix!
MY WISH LIST: I want Keely and Maeve to come to terms with each other and be awesome sisters. But I’m pretty sure most of the book is gonna revolve around Keely and Sean being hot for each other. I seem to recall that I ship them…
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.