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.
This is the book I remembered least of the original series, and the only one I didn’t own—I think it’s possible I refused to purchase this one because I loathed the front cover (which is impressive because some of the covers I did buy are quite terrible), and possibly because of the tragic ending? In any case, I liked this one a LOT more than I expected this time around…
Meet Aidan: the black raven of the family.
Since he was very young, this red-haired Cheysuli son of Brennan and Aileen has suffered from overwhelming nightmares about his role in the succession of the Lion Throne: he dreams of being the broken link in the chain, and of being eaten alive by the Lion itself. When he realised his parents didn’t take his dreams seriously, Aidan stopped trusting them with his inner thoughts, which is why it took until he was 23 for his mother to figure out that as well as being a Cheysuli warrior, he has kirvana, a specifically Erinnish kind of magic that allows him to sense the feelings of others.
It’s time for Aidan to marry, and for the first time in many generations, this Homanan prince gets free choice. He was never betrothed because (a) he was such a sickly child no one thought he would survive to adulthood and (b) his parents suffered greatly from their arranged marriage, and decided it was (finally!) time that the royal family learned from the mistakes of previous generations.
Aidan sets out on a journey to meet his marriageable female cousins. This turns into a dream quest of sorts, as he is visited in turn by several of the Cheysuli gods, who bring him obscure messages and allow him to forge a chain symbolic of those old dreams. He is also visited by “ghosts” of Mujhars past: Shaine, Carillon and Donal.
At Solinde, Aidan meets his father’s twin brother Hart, his wife Ilsa, and their four daughters. Ilsa is on the verge of producing their first son. Aidan takes a fancy to Blythe, the eldest daughter, but she is in the middle of a discreet courtship with Tevis, nephew of the late Dar (the one who chopped Hart’s hand off). Their potential marriage would heal some old wounds in Solinde.
Out of politeness, Aidan backs off from Blythe, staying at court only until Hart and Ilsa’s new baby son is born. The baby dies, however, and Aidan’s kirvana alerts him to a horrible truth: Tevis was responsible. “Tevis” is actually Lochiel, son of our old Ihlini pal Strahan, and has carried forth the family tradition of being super skeevy. He had hoped to discreetly retake Solinde for his family via marriage to Blythe, but now that he is exposed, he retreats in a haze of villainous laughter.
Blythe is gutted at having let such a man into her heart and her bed. Aidan judges this a bad time to court her, and so he sets out for Erinn to meet his other marriageable female cousin, Keely’s daughter Shona. Shona is awesome: tough as nails, sassy as hell, and devoted to the breeding of hounds to make up for her lack of lir magic. She has a kirvana that matches Aidan’s, and they are instantly struck by an intense connection with each other. This leads to all kind of resentment and internal crisis about destiny vs. free will, for them both.
Before he and Shona can figure themselves out, Aidan is summoned to Atvia, the third foreign court ruled by one of his uncles. Corin, recently married to the lovely but mute and barren Glyn, has no daughters for Aidan to marry. Lillith the Ihlini sorceress makes the most of this opportunity, seducing Aidan, but he kills her in (mostly) self-defence.
Gisella, the “mad” exiled Queen of Homana, is finally on her death bed. She prophesies to Aidan that he will never be Mujhar before finally expiring.
Returning to Erinn, Aidan informs Shona that he won’t pursue her—he is convinced that he is fated to die, and couples that share “kirvana” mate for life. He doesn’t wish that fate on her. Shona agrees that going their separate ways would be sensible and promptly jumps him.
Two months later, Aidan sets sail for home with his bride-to-be Shona, all her dogs, and their cousin Blais (Maeve and Tiernan’s son—hey, she married Rory Redbeard and settled in Erinn!) who has his own family issues to reconcile. On the way to Homana, they call in at the Crystal Isle, walking the abandoned birthplace of the Cheysuli and visiting the replica of the Lion Throne, as well as the site of Keely’s abduction. Aidan and Shona both feel drawn to this place.
They return to the Palace to discover that Niall the Mujhar, their grandfather, is on his own deathbed, having been felled by a stroke. Aidan gives Niall the important news that he is a widower, which means he is finally able to marry Deirdre, the love of his life, and make her Queen of Homana, if only for a literal moment.
The family grieves. Brennan becomes Mujhar, cementing the long-planned alliance between the four formerly-warring kingdoms, now ruled by three brothers and a brother-in-law: Homana, Solinde, Erinn and Atvia.
After Blais repudiates his disgraced Cheysuli father Tiernan, Aidan has a confrontation of his own with Tiernan in the Womb of the Earth below the palace. Tiernan is determined to take what he sees as his rightful place on Niall’s throne, and hurls himself into the oubliette to prove his worth… but unlike the previous Mujhars who proved their Cheysuli credentials with this act, he just falls in a pit and dies. Good riddance, jerk-face!
Aidan and Shona have a few happy months together: marrying in a quiet ceremony, gestating their first baby, pushing dogs off the bed, and building their own pavilion at the Cheysuli Keep, where Shona delights in learning about her heritage. But it’s all too good to last—Lochiel invades in a massacre of the Cheysuli, and badly wounds Aidan before killing Shona and cutting her baby out of her body.
For a long time, Brennan and Aileen believe they are going to lose their son: Aidan’s ravings as he recovers from his injury are enough to declare him mad, because they don’t recognise a prophet when they hear one. Once again, Aidan defies everyone’s belief that he is going to die. He emerges from his coma broken but determined to rescue his child.
In a final confrontation with Lochiel, he is forced to choose between two babies: a daughter of Lochiel and Melusine (herself daughter of Brennan and Rhiannon though this isn’t clarified here) and his and Shona’s son. Having managed to reclaim the right baby (now named Kellin), Aidan holds a final meeting with the god known as the Hunter, declaring that he will return his son home but that he is taking himself out of the line of succession: as prophesied left right and centre since this story began, Aidan will never be Mujhar.
Instead, he will follow the path of the shar tahl: honoured Cheysuli prophets and mystics. He will return to the Crystal Isle and prepare for the coming of the child that will apparently make all of this tragedy and misery worthwhile: Cynric the Chosen One.
Prophecy, What Prophecy?
This one takes a while to kick into gear, largely because there’s no urgency about the storyline: Aidan is beastly careless about his goal (to find a wife), and doesn’t have much of a drive to do anything else. He dreams of being the missing link in the chain, and after generations of Mujhars pushing their kids into marrying specific bloodlines, suddenly no one (except Lochiel) seems to care about that any more.
Of course, this is because the only bloodline they still need is that of the Ihlini, and Brennan flat out refuses to consider this as an option. In practical terms (Doyleist rather than Watsonian), Aidan can’t be the one who hooks up with an Ihlini for breeding purposes, because the most eligible Ihlini of his generation is Melusine, who is his half-sister.
I know, there’s a lot of cousin marrying that goes on from generation to generation in these books, but apparently marrying siblings is a hair too far.
There’s a lot of discussion about how prophecies work, and how they don’t always come true the way you think they will—Aidan has spent most of his life being told people are surprised he isn’t dead, and the prophecy is all doom and broken links in the chain, so the twist ending here is that he in fact doesn’t die…
Mental Health and Disability
It should come as a shock to no one that Brennan, the worst and judgiest and most unsupportive of brothers, is also a terrible father. In particular, he fails to be sympathetic and supportive of his son’s differences, whether we are talking about Aidan’s unfamiliar magic, his sensitivity to feelings, or his actual genuine real prophetic dreams.
Their whole family is immersed in tales of prophecy and magic, but because Aidan’s comes in unfamiliar guises, Brennan is utterly intolerant of them, to the point of causing his son psychological harm.
It doesn’t get better apart from the occasional glimpse of empathy: I was particularly upset in the later scenes where Aidan is recovering from the physical and mental horrors of seeing his wife butchered in front of his eyes (and himself being seriously stabbed), and Brennan declares him mad and kin-wrecked/lost to them forever instead of, you know, allowing him more time to heal.
There are reasons, of course, why Brennan would be overly alarmed by the idea of his son going mad—in previous books we saw how Corin and Keely struggled to deal with their mother’s reputation for madness and betrayal. Brennan acts out through fear of his son being “different” and “fey” and unfit for the role of Mujhar, which reflects his own youthful angst about his claustrophobia rendering him unworthy of the job.
Aidan suffers a brutal wound to his hand early on in the story, which he believes will kin-wreck him in the eyes of his Cheysuli peers, so he provides a narrative about the general Cheysuli attitude to disability all the way through. We are reminded of Hart’s lost hand and his inability to fly; of Brennan’s claustrophobia. It’s interesting that Corin’s chosen Queen is also disabled—and that he has chosen never to inform his family of his marriage, keeping himself and his beloved Glyn far from the potential judginess of Cheysuli “perfection.”
Good call, Corin.
Girls Just Want to Have Lir
No women in this generation have the Old Blood! Hart’s daughters certainly don’t show any signs of it.
Shona is disappointed in her lack of lir magic, perhaps because she is so like her mother in other respects. Keely has become an Erinnishwoman and greatly enjoys her life as a warrior queen alongside Sean, but she can still turn into animals whenever she likes; Shona breeds wolfhounds and yearns to connect to her Cheysuli heritage.
(Blais, meanwhile, has become a Cheysuli and acquired his lir with no community around him except for Keely)
Shona is a fine, fit woman and a born warrior in all ways other than the lir magic: it’s rare to have any woman in fantasy fiction described as big-boned or muscled and so I appreciate Shona for that, too.
She dies with a sword in her hand; I’m sure Kellin is great and all, but I regret deeply that we don’t get to meet the sword-wielding granddaughter that Keely imagined Shona and Aidan providing for her.
Free Love and Arranged Marriages
This is a novel with no rape in it, and almost no discussion of rape except for references back to previous books; there are two instances of dubcon by trickery—Blythe and Aidan both have sex with Ihlini whom they would not have touched with bargepoles had they known their true identities—but honestly that’s pretty mild for this series.
The ramifications of rapes perpetrated on previous generations are still felt: Keely has openly discussed her past with her children, and the younger generation also know about what happened to Ian and Brennan.
This is also a novel that, for once, does not inflict a previously-arranged marriage upon its main character.
Aidan’s romance with Shona is fascinating because there are no external forces pushing them together, and yet their romance is ruled by destiny which Shona in particular recognises as an oppressive force equal to a cradle betrothal. Effectively, their magic falls in love with each other before they do, and it’s fantastic that the narrative acknowledges the problematic consent issues when fate and love are entwined.
But of course those two babies side by side make it pretty clear that young Kellin won’t be choosing his own bride! Oh, Cheysuli. When will the in-breeding stop?
Tapestry of Lions (In Memoriam)
While Aidan is the protagonist, we also get point of view scenes from several other characters, notably Aileen and Brennan—we haven’t been allowed inside Aileen’s head before, in particular, so I appreciated a chance for her perspective.
Deirdre’s Tapestry of Lions, one for each of the Mujhars, comes to life as Aidan’s nightmares and also as part of his spiritual journey, as he visualises the line of rulers as a chain he is destined to mend and/or break. The weight of history and past sins is becoming a heavier and heavier burden on the shoulders of the new generation…
Which brings us to this book’s significant deaths! I actually cried over Niall, possibly because he was my favourite male protagonist of the series, but also because of his emotional place in the story. His love story with Deirdre remains one of my favourites also, in amongst all the sacrifices and enchantments and politics. I felt her loss, and that of Niall’s children, in losing him. Ian’s loss, too—he, like Finn with Carillon and Donal before him, symbolised another masculine Cheysuli tradition, that of the liege-man. It is noted that Brennan has no friends liege man to take Ian’s place.
Gisella’s death is more of a mercy than anything here—she always existed as more of a plot point than a person. Lillith’s violent death at Aidan’s hands is more about him than it is about her, but I’m not unhappy to have her out of the way of future generations. (There are still Rhiannon, Lochiel and Melusine to worry about, not to mention new baby whatserhame)
Tiernan’s death is very fitting, laden with irony, following up a narrative that has been hinted at since Carillon first faced the Womb of the Earth in Book 2.
But Shona, oh, Shona. I had forgotten what happened to her! That one hurt too.
NEXT TIME: It’s the final countdown! Will there be an Ihlini-Cheysuli marriage? Will Kellin get to pick his own bride? Will the lir really all disappear once the Firstborn return? Will it all have been worth it? Tune in next month to find out.
MY WISH LIST: Solid, respectful romantic relationships, ladies with swords, and fully consensual sexytimes for our new hero. Also, can someone cut Lochiel’s head off already?
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.