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.
It’s the last installment of this series of angsty heroes, feisty heroines, stoic warriors and chatty animal companions. Fly, my pretties, fly! Will the prophecy be fulfilled? Will the end result be worth the generations of tragic romances and arranged marriages?
Meet Kellin: latest of a long line of Cheysuli Princes of Homana, destined to become Mujhar and sire Cynric, the chosen one of the Prophecy that his family has been obsessively building towards for generations.
Kellin is the loneliest kid of all lonely kids. Raised in the Palace by Brennan and Aileen, his loving but protective grandparents, he feels abandoned by his father Aidan, who is living in seclusion on the Crystal Isle as a shar tahl (priest/prophet) and refuses to send for or visit his son “until it is time”.
At eight, Kellin witnesses the death of his beloved great-great-uncle Ian, and becomes obsessively afraid of the Lion as more than a symbol of his family: he sees it as a monster that stalks and eats his relatives. Which, is not exactly wrong.
Kellin’s role in the prophecy makes him a target: at ten, he is betrayed by his tutor and kidnapped by the Ihlini Corwyth, servant of Lochiel. After witnessing the death of his only friends in the world, and being chased by what definitely looks like a lion, Kellin is rescued by his father’s cousin Blais, a true Cheysuli warrior. Their friendship is cemented during a visit to the Palace of the Solindish side of the family: Blais swears to be Kellin’s liege-man when he is Mujhar, and Kellin finally feels like he is not alone. Alas, only hours later, Blais’ lir is killed (by a large beast, also possibly a lion?), and he embraces death as a lirless warrior, hollowed out from the inside.
This tragedy is Kellin’s last straw, and he angrily renounces the Cheysuli way of life, declaring that he will take no lir. He cannot lose what he never had to begin with…
Ten years later, Kellin is an adult, a warrior without a lir, and a massive emo asshole. Rejecting his royal duty also means being appalling to his family, and treating women like crap, especially if they care about him.
After nearly getting himself killed in a tavern brawl of his own making, a drunken and damaged Kellin faces an intervention from his grandparents (really, Brennan, you have something to say about princes acting badly in taverns?). Kellin becomes severely unwell and falls into a feverish, maddening state. Brennan, smug as anything, informs him that this is what happens when it’s time to accept your lir. Kellin may have foresworn his destiny, but no one informed his lir of this fact.
Vulnerable and conflicted as he staggers into the forest, fighting the idea every step of the way, Kellin is faced with the lion of his nightmares—which, as it turns out, is Corwyth again, never one to miss the opportunity to manipulate a phobia. Kellin is defeated, forced to choose between accepting his sassy mountain cat lir (who has been stalking him for a while now) or letting himself fall into the clutches of Lochiel, his family’s current Ihlini nemesis.
Sima is very young, and just as much of a rebellious asshole as Kellin himself; the lir often reflects their warrior. She pushes Kellin to take animal shape before they are fully bonded, and he not only tears Corwyth apart, but eats him too. Desperate to rid himself of the lir before it is too late (oh Kellin, it is so too late already), he throws himself on the mercy of Clankeep, even consulting with Burr, the local shar tahl, whom Kellin has always refused to acknowledge out of resentment for his father’s career path.
Burr forces Kellin to acknowledge his hypocrisy in raging against the absense of his father when he himself has sired three bastards who are being raised in Clankeep without him: Kellin refuses to even look at the children.
After another encounter with an old enemy, Kellin becomes mountain cat again, and almost loses himself. He is rescued by Brennan, and lectured beautifully by Aileen, but does not fully accept Sima as his lir until after he has thrown himself into the Womb of the Earth beneath the Palace.
Four weeks later, Kellin is in love with his lir; the loneliest man in the kingdom is finally paired up and feels complete. Brennan, spotting a window in Kellin’s emo self-torture, is determined to marry him off to Dulcie, Hart’s youngest daughter. As a child of the Solindish royal family, there is Ihlini blood in Dulcie, though it is severely watered down; it is the only possible way to secure the prophecy and bring about the Firstborn that any member of Kellin’s family can stomach (because no one would actually find an Ihlini attractive, right, Brennan?).
No one in Kellin’s family acknowledges the existence of Lochiel’s daughter, out there in the world, with the perfect cocktail of mixed race blood… we’ll come back to her. This family is so incestuous now, still insisting on first cousin marriages to the nth generation—though of course, Lochiel’s mysterious daughter is Brennan’s grandchild too.
Because Kellin can’t have nice things, his friend and favourite guardsman Teague accidentally shoots Sima during the hunt. Swept up in his lir’s fear and pain, Kellin loses control and slaughters the man, despite Teague crying out that it was an accident. Kellin later manages to tap into the Cheysuli healing magic to heal Sima, but it’s too late for Teague.
Kellin has become the living nightmare of all Homanans: the Cheysuli warrior who can’t stop himself turning into an animal and killing them. As a devastated Brennan tries to make Kellin understand, this fear of Cheysuli magic led to the qu’malin in the first place. It’s all very well to blame the purge of their people on Shaine’s “madness” after Hale and Lindir ran away together, as history does, but the truth is that the Homanans accepted that treatment of the Cheysuli because of the undercurrents of fear and ingrained racism.
Brennan gives up on trying to be a father to Kellin by enacting a temporary banishment upon him: he is to go to the Crystal Isle, to Aidan the shar tahl, in the hopes that some kind of closure between father and son can help Kellin regain control before he destroys everything they have worked for: not just the prophecy, off in the distance, but the civil peace within Homana.
Meeting Aidan is utterly unsatisfying to Kellin: his father acknowledges Kellin’s resentment and hatred of him, but is at peace with his own choice to serve the gods. Aidan prophesies that the Lion will lay down with the witch, and their son will eat the royal family whole. The witch in this instance is Lochiel’s daughter, of course; the Lion is Kellin himself.
Travelling to Valgaard, Lochiel’s fortress, Kellin spends the night with a wine-girl and is robbed of his clothing, horse and lir-gold. On his way to reclaim his sacred treasures, he shares a meal on the road with Devin of High Crags, a Solindish nobleman on his way to an arranged marriage (presumably part of that politically connected family who previously challenged Hart for the throne). When Kellin and Devin discover that one is Cheysuli and the other Ihlini, they fight, and end up tumbling into a river, both badly wounded…
Ginevra, daughter of Lochiel and Melusine, takes over as protagonist when a damaged, unconcious man is brought to Valgaard: they believe him to be Devin, her expected intended, though he has no memory of his identity.
For the first time, Ginevra’s father entrusts her with an important project: teaching the blank slate Devin to use Ihlini rune magic and to serve Asar-Suti all over again. At her father’s command, she takes Devin to bed with her and they conceive a child.
A strange encounter outside the fortress brings Devin into contact with a mountain cat who makes him feel lonely, after which he suffers from nightmares about a lion. It all comes to a head on the day that Devin swears fealty to Asar-Suti, drinking of his blood—and he transforms into a mountain cat, revealing him to be Kellin of Homana.
Lochiel is furious at this revelation but is soon triumphant because Kellin’s transgression earned the emnity of his god, who has trapped Kellin in lir-shape for eternity. He now plans to ‘replace’ Kellin’s seed with his own, summoning Ginevra to his bed.
Caught between loyalties, Ginevra chooses to save Kellin-the-cat and begs Asar-Suti to release him back into human shape. Lochiel attempts to murder Ginevra in a final attempt to stop Cynric coming into existence, and Ginevra taps into the power of her unborn child (who has also consumed the blood of the god) to fight him. In the final battle, Lochiel is consumed by godfire and the Gate of Asar-Suti is closed, rendering Valgaard inert. Ginevra’s mother is also killed, leaving her desperately alone having betrayed everything she was raised to value.
On the way back to Homana, Kellin and Ginevra rekindle their romance, and he convinces her that his family will accept her as Queen and mother of the prophecy. They are too late, however, for Kellin to introduce her to Brennan and show his grandsire how his near-death adventures have changed him into a more mature adult: the first thing Kellin sees upon his return is the Mujhar recently dead upon the Lion Throne.
The family reunite over Brennan’s death and Kellin’s investiture as Mujar: Hart, Corin, Sean and Keely were all already on their way to Homana, having accepted that all of them are lacking (male) heirs and need Homana to take back leadership of their countries in the next generation. Kellin refuses to accept on his own behalf, but insists it will be his newborn son Cynric, the Firstborn, who will stand as heir to all of them.
He also lets them all know that he’s finally grown up and is going to stop being such a brat, which is a big relief for everyone.
Even Aidan has returned, in time to repeat his prophecies as Cynric is presented to his family and to all the lir of the Cheysuli, past and present, who spill out from the Womb of the Earth, filling the throne room. With the Ihlini leaderless and cut off from their gods, the Cheysuli still fear that the fulfilment of this prophecy will take their lir away from them, but it is not to be: the lir remain, and Cynric’s makes itself known when the Lion Throne cracks to reveal an… actual lion.
So, not a metaphor, then.
That’s it. That’s all she wrote.
Prophecies, Damned Prophecies and the Lion Throne
I just want to travel across the bounds of time and space through some kind of portal in order to share some therapy options with them all.
After all the agonies, pain and drama that generations after generations have put themselves and their children through, they have managed to create world peace, rid the world of a long line of nasty sorcerers, and close a gate which was giving a destructive god access to their world. So that’s some definite profit.
On the other hand, what we are left with is a baby with Way Too Many Expectations placed upon his head. I worry for Cynric. On the other hand, the good news is he can probably marry whoever he wants and she might not be a cousin, which feels like a form of progress. (Though Blythe’s babies are probably the right age, damn it)
When it comes down to it, as was made explicit in Aidan’s story and to some extent the chain of coincidence that sends Kellin to Ginevra’s bed, the gods had no problem with poking their fingers in and rearranging events to make it all go as they wanted. So why exactly where the humans having to chase their own tails to get it done in the first place?
Was free will even an option?
It’s fascinating that, having come so far, the story stops just as the prophecy is completed, even though we still have no real idea what being Firstborn entails for the Cheysuli, their magic, their lir and their community. And yet it definitely feels like the end of the saga: Cynric’s story is unwritten and gets to remain that way. Lucky old Cynric! Let’s hope he gets to make his own path.
Girls Just Want To Have Lir
I continue to be frustrated with the lack of progress of gender issues in these books, considering that they cover hundreds of years. Alix was such a breath of fresh air with her Old Blood, and Keely offered an interesting counterpoint to what it meant to be Cheysuli and female and magic and a warrior… and yet, nothing has changed for women!
I’m particularly angry at Hart with his whole ‘women can’t inherit’ thing—he still has two living daughters who haven’t been married out of the kingdom (and why couldn’t one of Dulcie’s future kids come back to rule Solinde, Hart was a second son himself), and Blythe seemed like a pretty sensible sort of person. Who is to say she wouldn’t make a great Queen? We all know that Ilsa is doing the hard yards in ruling right now.
It seems to me that one of the benefits of writing generational fantasy would be that you could show the changing of social attitudes, particularly with something as important as ‘some women can do magic now when they haven’t for centuries’ comes along.
It really didn’t help that Kellin treated women so badly in this story.
The highlight was Ginevra—we didn’t get nearly enough from her point of view, but I loved finally getting some insight into a sworn Ihlini without the usual ‘oh they’re evil’ business. I especially liked that we got to see her dedication to magic, and her expertise—and that it was she, not Kellin, who brought about Lachlan’s demise.
I especially liked that romance was way down her list of priorities in making those decisions to turn against her father and her god—instead she was thinking about self-preservation, and about her baby. I also thought it was pretty great that Kellin was far more convinced about theirs being a love story than she was—when it came down to it, Mr Angst Pants was far more of a romantic, while Ginevra was wearing the Practical Pants in the relationship.
Seriously, the book should have had so much more Ginevra. More hardass Ihlini magic tutor, less slut-shaming the sex workers of Homana for their hygiene standards, Kellin!
(And don’t think I didn’t notice that you completely got away with that whole ditching three children business, you colossal daddy issues hypocrite.)
Ahem. There was not enough ladies changing into animals in this book. I would have really liked to see Ginevra displaying some of the Old Blood as well as her own Ihlini mastery—after all, she had bloodlines directly from Alix via Bronwyn and Gisella too!
Melusine was the worst kind of female character—a mother so jealous of her daughter that she behaves like something out of a soap opera. I am glad Ginevra now gets to hang out in the Palace with Aileen and Keely and hopefully make some female friends who aren’t terrible.
On the whole, despite my frustrations, I do appreciate that gender roles were an issue of relevance from book to book in this series, and I very much like that the women who defied their gender roles were not giving narrative priority as those who made the best of them… when it comes down to it, these books are full of women, and that is a big part of why I loved them in the first place.
Like the gender issues, it would have been nice to see some kind of progress made with the racial and cultural issues that have been thematically important from book to book. It felt important to have Brennan voice the point that the Homanans had always feared the Cheysuli, and that this didn’t change whether they were powerless and on the run, or ruling the country—they were always vulnerable to civil war because of that ingrained fear between the races.
Meanwhile, the A’saii and their obsession with keeping the Cheysuli race pure have quietly gone to ground since the death of Tiernan, without a central figure to focus upon. It’s still a shock to Kellin, from his position of privilege, to realise when his lir arrives that racial politics, as well as birthright, prevent him from spurning the gift that is Sima. Had he never become a “whole” warrior, or had Blais lived to provide a viable alternative, the Cheysuli might well have refused to support his rule, leading to civil war all over again.
After raising so many questions about how the Homanan royal family have transitioned back into a Cheysuli line and how the Homanan populace as a whole are hugely resentful of this, there are no clear answers except, perhaps, that racial issues never really go away. Which is kind of depressing. I would have loved to see more casual integration develop between Homanan and Cheysuli culture among the everyday people, but instead they feel as separate as they always have, which suggests that for all the world peace brought about by the prophecy, Homana is constantly going to be a knife-edge away from civil war, more and more alienated from their leaders.
Maybe the Firstborn will change that? We can only hope.
Kellin is definitely a product of Cheysuli, Homanan and Erinnish culture, aware of all three identities largely because of the influence of his parents—but we only get a hint of Solinde, and no hint at all of how Atvia fits into the mix. It’s a shame that travel is such a rare thing between the siblings who rule these countries, or perhaps we could have seen more of how the various cultures contribute to this royal dynasty.
How will Atvia, Solinde and Erinn cope with being ruled by a distant Homanan leader with no personal connection to any of them? Again, that’s a Firstborn World Problem (heh). Let’s hope Cynric has a LOT of kids to send out to take charge of those countries…
Oh, Brennan. Brennan, Brennan. I have loathed him through the last three books, all pompous and judgemental from an early age. But I kind of loved him here. He has been a better father to Kellin than he was to Aidan—he’s making more of an effort to understand the boy and to teach him the important things in life. Of course, he’s still dismissing Kellin’s nightmares about the Lion, which suggests he didn’t take the right message from his failures with Aidan. Listen to the boys when they start talking in metaphors!
Sadly, Kellin grew up worse than Aidan, though very little of that can be put at Brennan’s door. I loved the sequence where Aileen let Kellin have it for breaking Brennan’s heart by always whining about his lack of a father when Brennan has spent his whole life being right there as a father to him.
But yes, Brennan is a lot more sympathetic in this book, towards the end of his life, and unlike many of the characters, he has actually changed over the decades into a warmer and kinder person. Go, Brennan. I was sad you died before getting to see that Kellin finally got his act together.
Aidan’s generation suffer some pretty harsh losses, mostly for geneological closure—losing Blais so soon after he bonded with Kellin was a deliberate tragedy, but there’s also some offpage deaths that sting at the end, like Jennet dying in childbed and Riordan at sea.
No mention of where Maeve is—like Deirdre, she has faded out of the family history.
Keeping Epic Fantasy in the Family
Jennifer Roberson was an author I read very early on in my teenage discoveries of epic fantasy: along with David (and Leigh) Eddings, Elizabeth Scarborough, Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, Janny Wurts and Raymond E Feist, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Tamora Pierce, she shaped my idea of the genre and its possibilities.
The strengths of this series are undeniably the fast narrative pace, and the characters. Roberson is an incredibly immersive writer whether the book is told in first or third person: even when I am screaming in frustration at her characters for their life choices, it’s so easy to get sucked along the story that I keep turning pages regardless.
While some of the gender issues did make me gnaw my fists (especially when the boys I adored in my teens like Finn and Kellin turned out to be such awful sexist tools, what was with my taste, teenage me?) I did appreciate that the repeated use of rape as a motif actually included women as aggressors and men as victims, something you almost never see in stories at all. While your trigger levels may vary, the books also shied away from on-page sexual violence, and never failed to follow up on narrative and psychological ramifications. Rape is never wallpaper in these books, nor treated lightly.
I’d really love to see this combination of epic fantasy and family saga make a comeback, as it’s a structural choice that broadens the definition of what ‘epic’ means. I always think of epic fantasy as being about matters of historical importance to imaginary places—but history isn’t always about the fast and furious quests, wars or dramatic moments—often the biggest and most significant changes or events happen over generations instead of years.
At a time when generation ship narratives are becoming popular again in science fiction, why not push for more generational stories told in fantasy?
Then of course there’s the family side of the ‘family saga’ too, and what it has to offer the genre—which includes more social history to go along with the politics, wars and dragons. And that means, in the more “traditional” fantasy worlds, more opportunities to include the achievements of women who are not soldiers, sorceresses or political leaders.
For all their faults and my frustrations, many of which come from me being a different person to the teenager I was when these were new releases in book stores, I’m very glad to have revisited the Chronicles of the Cheysuli and reconsidered where they stand in my personal reading history, and the history of the genre.
So. Anyone reread the Del and Tiger books recently? How do they hold up?
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian SF & fantasy author, and a Hugo Award winning blogger and podcaster. Her most recent novel is the swashbuckling, gender-swapped space opera epic Musketeer Space. Come and find TansyRR on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.