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 we finally get our first female protagonist since Shapechangers: an angry, magical warrior who has a Lot Of Complaints about (a) the expected role of princesses, (b) the patriarchy, (c) pompous older brothers, (d) the lack of swords in her life, and (e) WHAT HAVE YOU GOT?
This one used to be my favourite! Let’s see how it holds up.
Trigger warnings for discussion of rape, abortion and miscarriages.
Meet Keely of Homana, sword-swinging, snarky daughter of Niall and younger sister of Brennan, Hart, and Corin, all previous protagonists in this series. For the first time since Book #1 we have a female hero, and for the first time since Book #2, we have a volume told in first person.
And boy, is she angry.
Keely is furious at the world, at the patriarchy, and especially at being a heroine in an epic fantasy novel. It’s hard to blame her. We have read book after book in which male heirs to the Lion Throne have been frustrated with the restrictions placed upon their life by their family’s obsession with prophecy… and yet Keely is surrounded by people who think she’s weird for not wanting to (a) marry some bloke she’s never met and (b) produce piles of children. There’s also a lot of extreme judginess about her wanting to learn how to fight with a sword.
The Royal House of Homana is in trouble: Brennan the heir and his Erinnish wife Aileen have produced a baby son, Aiden, but he is sickly and there are fears he may not survive to adulthood. When Keely discovers that her sister-in-law is pregnant again so soon after Aiden’s birth, she is furious at everyone involved for taking Aileen’s health so lightly. Indeed, Aileen miscarries twins and is pronounced barren, which means that if they’re going to add any Erinnish blood to the tangled cocktail that is the Homanan-Cheysuli royal family, it’s extra important that Keely marry her promised prince, Aileen’s brother Sean.
Her resentment at the prophecy means that Keely is partly susceptible to the words of her banished cousin Tiernan, who half-convinces her that following the path of staying unmarried and childless (conveniently, her preferred future) would be a good thing, as it would sabotage the prophecy and mean that the Cheysuli could keep her lir. Keely is angry at Tiernan for getting her sister Maeve (his on again, off again girlfriend) pregnant, and is well aware that he’s angling to replace Brennan and Aiden as the Mujhar’s heir, but she is still worried he might be right about the prophecy being bad for their people.
When Keely is pursued by some random thieves in the forest, she is rescued by a charming rogue who turns out to be Rory Redbeard, Prince Sean’s bastard brother. Rory fled to Homana after a fight which may or may not have left Sean dead. Keely, shocked and guilty about this apparent fate of her intended, keeps returning to the Erinnish camp to reclaim her brother’s stolen colt, and becomes friends with Rory under the pretense that she is the arms-master’s daughter and not the princess royal.
Everything comes to a head when both of Keely’s older brothers (Hart is visiting from Solinde) finally figure out what has been going on, and chase down Rory to demand Brennan’s colt back. To prevent a fight, Keely gives Rory her knife, which is the Cheysuli equivalent of updating your Facebook relationship status.
At the worst possible time, Keely discovers that Sean is alive after all, and rudely demanding her presence at an inn on the coast — she sets out to give him a piece of her mind, accompanied by Taliesin, the family’s exception to the rule that the only good Ihlini is a dead Ihlini.
It’s all a ruse for Strahan to kidnap her, and spirit her away to the Crystal Isle. Kept in captivity and corrupted by Asar-Suti’s black blood for three months while Strahan repeatedly rapes her, Keely only regains control of her thoughts once she is pregnant with the child he wants for his own anti-prophecy.
Because she is amazing and brutal and relentless and ruthless and all these other things that she has been told all her life are bad for a royal lady, Keely rescues the hell out of herself. After fleeing her prison, she ends up in a final confrontation with Strahan in an abandoned chapel, she is lucky enough to get her hands on a knife, and stabs him dead. The knife and other Cheysuli gold hidden here in the chapel turns out to have belonged to her grandfather’s beloved Uncle Finn, who was himself murdered by Strahan long ago. Keely believes that his spirit helped her find the weapon in her time of need and is proud to have avenged him.
Keely almost drowns on her return to the mainland, but is rescued by her long-missed twin brother Corin as well as his travelling companion, Prince Sean of Erinn himself. After going wild (literally, mountain cat style) at her rescuers, Keely proclaims to all that she has been raped and corrupted by Strahan.
Determined to procure an abortion, so that Strahan’s legacy is at least partly destroyed (though Rhiannon is still out there with Brennan’s child, and Sidra with Strahan’s), Keely has little time or patience for dealing with diplomacy. Sean turns out to be pretty great, and refuses to treat her any differently because of what Strahan did to her. (She does not tell him or Corin about the pregnancy) Sean’s main concern is whether Keely is absolutely certain that she isn’t in love with his brother Rory, because he is not interested in going through another Corin-and-Aileen situation here.
Sean is a pretty sensible dude.
Home at the castle, Keely turns around and insists on going to the Cheysuli Keep for a week, despite the protests of Deirdre and Maeve. She puts her foot down, needing to perform rites of cleansing (i-toshaa-nii) just as the menfolk of their family have in the past. Her ritual solitude is interrupted by her cousin Tiernan, who has brought backup to convince her to sabotage the prophecy – their other cousin, the Ihlini sorceress Rhiannon.
By the time Keely returns, her father and brothers are back at the castle too, and are overwhelmingly protective. Sean argues Keely needs to have closure with Rory before anything is decided about their wedding, and the whole thing turns into a messy duel situation between he and Brennan, which Keely only prevents by demanding Brennan fulfil an old promise to fight her.
Brennan agrees, and the minute his back is turned, Keely puts four foot of sword through him.
It’s a trap-link, of course, thanks to Rhiannon: Keely has been under a magical compulsion to rid the Lion Throne of its heir. Corin slams Keely to the ground, which leads to a miscarriage. She almost dies in the process, but is relieved to have lost the foetus.
As Keely recovers, dealing with the different layers of family guilt: her own for what she did to Brennan (he’s fine, Earth Magic), and Maeve and Corin’s at how they treated her when she played assassin (all good, but it won’t hurt them to wring their hands a little), she finally gets a chance to see Rory. Her father finally addresses her longstanding fears about marriage and childbirth, by assuring her that her exiled mother’s madness is not hereditary. (DUDE, this is not something a girl needs to hear when she’s 23, you should have been on top of this)
Rory and Sean are both keen to marry Keely, and despite Rory being illegitimate, they both have the necessary blood for the prophecy. While the right to choose is something she’s been wishing for all along, Keely is pretty pissed off to have found herself in a love triangle, and punishes them both by setting up a wedding without telling them which one has “won” her.
The whole thing is resolved at the eleventh hour when Aileen returns from her convalescence to proclaim that Sean is Rory and vice versa. THOSE RASCALLY ERINNISHMEN!
So the man she is mostly interested in is conveniently also the one she was betrothed to from birth. Turns out that Sean researched his future bride and realised that getting to know her first was his only chance in not turning his marriage into a war-zone. Points for trying, Sean!Rory.
Keely sets sail on a new life with her chosen rascally husband, having faced and conquered her worst fears about female biology AND proven herself in battle. Oh, and she rid the land of their worst and most dangerous Ihlini enemy while she was at it.
Angry women get it done.
Rape, Revenge, and Betrothals From Birth
I remembered (a) that I loved Keely’s book the most and (b) she gets raped by Strahan, which made me very trepidatious for this reread. What I hadn’t expected was that this entire book is one which engages with sexual consent issues, and the problematic role of royal women in epic fantasy.
The most interesting aspect of the novel is that Keely’s anger and fear associated with sex and marriage draws an explicit connection between the forcible betrothals that her family have been throwing around for years, and the physical act of rape. Aileen outright says that Keely’s discomfort around her intended husband (whom no one has bothered to arrange for her to even meet in more than two decades, this family is the WORST), is because she equates having sex with a man she can’t love as rape.
Brennan, who is the least sympathetic brother to Keely, refuses to treat her concerns as valid, despite the fact that he was also screwed over by the betrothal system — his wife has made the best of a bad situation, but isn’t in love with him.
The issue of male victims of rape has not been brushed aside; Keely’s uncle Ian is still affected by what Lillith did to him so many years ago, and feels guilt over the terrible deeds of their daughter Rhiannon. Rhiannon’s previous manipulation of Brennan is less explicitly discussed as rape, though it is certainly framed as a past trauma, and Brennan is likewise haunted by the possibilities of how the child Rhiannon tricked from him will be used against their family in the future.
What is never acknowledged in this generation — probably because the children are unaware of the details — is that their father Niall was also sexually manipulated, siring all of his children under enchantment. It is really surprising that he has so thoroughly embraced his role as ‘the man’ since becoming Mujhar, and is not prepared to acknowledge the depth of Keely’s distress about her future marriage until very late in the day. He has gone Full Patriarchy on Keely, banning her from swordplay and other traditionally masculine activities, out of a sense of misplaced protectiveness and (it is pointed out within the narrative) a concern that Sean would find Keely unfeminine.
Thank goodness for Sean, the only one smart enough in this situation to figure out that Keely needed a sense of personal control and choice.
The fact that Keely is raped by Strahan in the final third of the book is so important to the narrative, that it’s impossible to imagine the story being told without it. (If only that were true of all rapes in fantasy novels) The focus is very much on her recovery and her revenge (a popular theme of female-authored fantasy in the 1980’s), rather than the act itself, but I appreciated hugely how the psychological ramifications of Strahan’s abduction of Keely were treated in the narrative as equivalent to the experiences of Ian and Niall as well as her brothers, in previous volumes.
There are many elements of trauma she has to deal with, and the physical act of Strahan raping her is only one: there is also her corruption with Asar-Suti’s blood, the pregnancy and all that it represents, and the feeling that she is no longer “clean” enough to be able to fulfil her role in her family’s prophecy. Added to this is the blood guilt of having killed her rapist.
All of these issues have affected, at least partly, her male relatives who went through similar experiences, especially Ian, who acknowledges the similarity in their situations as part of the process of comforting Keely in the aftermath.
I found the discussion of abortion in this novel really important — having mentioned it cavalierly as an option when discussing her sisters’ pregnancies, Keely learns just how hard an option it is, particularly in the apothecary scene where she ends up in a fight with a moralistic healer who believes all pregnancies should be brought to term. I have never read a scene like this in any fantasy novel ever, which lists all the reasons why a woman might need or want an abortion, escalating up to “what if it is literally demonspawn?”
I also hugely appreciated that her close family’s objections to her procuring an abortion were based on the physical danger to Keely because she was so far along — there was no voice among the people who loved her suggesting that her unborn foetus should be prioritised over her own health and choice.
Girls Just Want to Have Lir:
Finally we get a book that embraces the duality of gender implicit in the Old Blood as it comes through the female line from Alix back in Book 1. Keely identifies as a warrior, which is hardly surprising — the Cheysuli associate lir and shapechanging magic with manhood and warrior skills interchangeably.
While Maeve embraces many Cheysuli traditions as well as Homanan, we are not told whether she has the ability to shape-change like other women in their family (Gisella, Bronwyn). She is descended from Cheysuli via Niall rather than the female line, but she still has some Old Blood in her…
In any case, Keely has skills and interests that align with traditional masculinity in her culture, and is surrounded by people constantly slapping her down for asking for the same respect offered to her brothers.
Unfortunately, Keely’s resentment about the restrictive gender roles in her world often results in her being mean to women who are more compliant or comfortable with traditional femininity, which is not cool. She is particularly unkind to both Aileen and Maeve at the beginning of the story, haranguing both of them to abort their inconvenient pregnancies, with no real understanding of (a) how hard it is to procure abortion safely in their kingdom (super hard as it turns out) and (b) just because a pregnancy is unexpected or badly timed does not necessarily mean unwanted, and it’s no one else’s business how you feel about it.
Keely’s fears of maternity (which we learn are wrapped up in her fears of becoming like her own brain-damaged, villainous, insane mother Gisella) translate as a fear of and distaste for sex, but also of avoiding female community. She has reached the age of 23 without learning that some women quite enjoy sex/being married/having children; or that those who make the best of domestic challenges do not want to be told that they are wasting their lives.
Keely’s relationship with lir shape and her magic are wrapped up in her dislike of traditional femininity: the first time she has a sexually charged moment with Rory is when she describes to him what it is like to fly, and challenges him implicitly to improve upon that experience.
The idea that women are naturally weaker, as expressed by some of the men (cough, mostly Brennan) in Keely’s circle, is inherently ridiculous: the entire novel is dedicated to showing their strength, both in traditional female areas as well as the arts of a trained warrior. Aileen and Keely both survive devastating miscarriages; Maeve survives the emotional devastation of being pregnant to a man who literally wants to destroy her family. But Keely also conquers all manner of physical challenges — the scene where she is brought out of the sky by accidentally flying over Taliesin, whose Ihlini powers cancel out hers is a kick to the guts — ultimately beating their most dangerous enemy with a knife in her hand.
Tapestry of Lions
This book devotes more attention to domesticity and women’s issues (even where our protagonist disparages it) than any other in the series. I want to give a shout out to Deirdre, still awesome, who is chugging along as the glue that holds this screwed-up royal family together. Considering how horrible Keely regularly is (often without meaning to be) to Aileen, Maeve and Brennan, I really loved the scene where she was fighting with Deirdre, who pre-emptively called her on using the “you’re not my real Mum” weapon. Keely promptly melted and insisted that is the one thing she wouldn’t actually say, because Deirdre is the best Mum ever, blood be damned.
I also really liked the appearance of Ilsa, who married second brother Hart in the previous novel. She turns up with a baby in her arms, and Keely is whisked into the space where she feels most uncomfortable — the dread nursery. The scene showed so many in the way of secret women’s business, including wet-nursing, and thought it was fascinating how Ilsa used her baby to challenge Keely out of her ‘lady stuff is not for me’ comfort zone. It’s also the first sign we have that Keely’s fears about domestic matters are more intense than her family tends to assume.
We lose both Caro (offpage) and Taliesin in this one, who have been minor but important characters in previous novels. Of note is that this series’ ongoing heteronormativity is briefly set aside to acknowledge that these two kind, helpful old men were life partners. If you now choose to mentally cast them as Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi, I’m not going to stop you.
Strahan is finally gone, vicious little troll that he was, and like Tynstar before him, he leaves a massive power vacuum behind. The only other Ihlini we see actively working in this book is Rhiannon, which suggests that she is the one to step into that position. Naturally, because she’s female, the Homanan Royal Family massively underestimate her. Good times.
Not sure if we’re ever going to see Lillith again? We learn here that Corin has evicted her from Atvia, at least.
I loved the shout out to Finn and his Cheysuli gold. Aww Finn, still supporting the royal family from afar.
NEXT TIME: Aiden totally makes it to adulthood! Keely has a daughter! Let’s get them together because cousin marriage is totally a thing worth doing in every generation!
MY WISH LIST: Mostly I want the next book (which is the one I remember least) to be about Keely’s kids pranking Brennan for 400 straight pages, but I fear that’s unlikely to happen. I’ll settle for Girls Doing Stuff! Mostly with swords and magic. Stuff!
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian SF & fantasy author, and a Hugo Award winning blogger and podcaster. Her most recent release is the swashbuckling, gender-swapped space opera epic Musketeer Space, now available for purchase as an ebook. Come and find TansyRR on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.