QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: The Way of Thorn and Thunder by Daniel Heath Justice (Part 1)

Daniel Heath Justice’s Indigenous epic fantasy trilogy The Way of Thorn and Thunder (The Kynship Chronicles) was originally published between 2005 and 2007 by Kegedonce Press, in three separate volumes: Kynship, Wyrwood, and Dreyd. The revised and expanded 2011 reissue from the University of New Mexico Press appeared in one huge omnibus volume: one novel now divided into seven cycles. I only have the re-release, but I decided to review it in three installments roughly corresponding to the original three volumes—there is simply too much material otherwise to fit into one of my standard-size columns.

The Way of Thorn and Thunder is rich with detail in a fashion that seems to deliberately evoke The Lord of the Rings. This is a loaded comparison, but the book lives up to it in every way, and more: It offers thorough worldbuilding on a mythic scale, a fully realized setting featuring many cultures and their detailed interactions, and a plot that affects this world in profound ways. Moreover, the novel engages with themes of colonialism, imperial invasion, and destruction of the natural environment in ways that I always crave and want to see more of in epic fantasy, but seldom get to read.

The magical Folk live on their planet in relative peace, barring occasional conflicts and skirmishes that nonetheless do not disturb the planetary balance. When a rupture in the fabric of the universe connects their world with that of the Humans, everything abruptly changes. The Way of Thorn and Thunder starts a while after that first contact, at a time when the Folk already trade with the Humans, and mixed cultures have also arisen. The Humans are steadily expanding into the lands of the Folk using their industrial capabilities, their unrestrained attitudes, and the fact that iron is not a poison to them (as it is to the Folk, who make many of their tools out of a magical species of wood).

As the novel starts, the heart of the planet—the Everland, where ancient trees grow and where magic is the strongest—is already being threatened by the Humans. Ancient spirits are stirred up and begin attacking the Folk, who themselves are split into factions. The Celestials venerate the heavenly bodies, defining themselves in opposition to the Wielders who work with the ancient magic of the land, the wyr.

The young woman Namshéké belongs to the Kyn Nation, one of the larger and more prestigious nations of the planet. The three-gendered Kyn sense their magical environment using the four sensory stalks on their heads and have roughly human-shaped bodies, unlike some other nations, like the eight-limbed Wyrnach, the Spider-Folk. Namshéké is training to become a warrior, and she successfully slays a monster that strayed from its ancestral grounds and attacked her town. By doing so, she gains the warrior name Tarsa’deshae (often abbreviated to Tarsa)—all in the very first chapter. But after the battle, her magical powers start to emerge in an uncontrolled fashion. In former times, she would have been mentored by an older Wielder in order to join the ranks of the Wielders, but the Celestials have murdered or banished most of them.

The townsfolk cast Tarsa into a pit, where she lays dying, eaten alive by the out-of-control magic burning inside her, but one of the town elders goes behind the back of her fellows and summons an elderly Wielder from afar. Unahi arrives and rescues Tarsa, but the young woman’s training cannot proceed in an orderly fashion, as an emergency summons arrives calling Wielders to the capital. Humans have issued an ultimatum to the Folk, and a council gathers to deliberate on possible courses of action.

This is how the story begins, and through the first book we follow Tarsa, Unahi, and Tobhi, a young man of the Tetawi whose magic lies in communicating with animals. Tobhi originally accompanied a Celestial envoy to bring the summons to the Wielders, but nothing went as planned. As we follow the characters on their quest to reach the capital and participate in the council, we also find out in brief scenes what is going on throughout the planet. Rival Human empires consort with forces of death in a quest for more power, hunters stalk the few remaining Wielders, and even diplomats of the Folk are not safe.

I relished the scope and the attention to detail in this narrative. The book lives and breathes with every tree branch and tendril. It also reflects the best parts of classic Anglo-Western epic fantasy and sword and sorcery, drawing inspiration from Tolkien and D&D alike. But—and this is just as important, and possibly more so—it directly engages with the colonialist, imperialist assumptions of most doorstopper-size epic fantasy, and turns these concepts on their head. The setting builds on the history of the Cherokee Nation, the Trail of Tears and other forced removals. There is an inexorable motion toward disaster, which makes me terrified as I read on. There is not, however, a 1:1 correspondence, either with history or with spirituality, and the book’s front matter carefully states that the “rituals and ceremonial practices are fictitious and do not reflect those of contemporary or historical communities.” The Way of Thorn and Thunder is fantasy—and a powerful one at that.

The author is Two-Spirit, and the novel also incorporates a non-Western gender system among the Kyn, who have three genders: he-Kyn, she-Kyn and zhe-Kyn. These are genders and not sexes. They might or might not have a relationship to physiology—we simply do not find out. And it’s refreshingly not relevant. They are social roles just like contemporary genders are, and just like genders categories that exist in many non-Anglo cultures (though not all). Both gender and sexuality happens matter-of-factly in the book: We routinely come across characters who would be queer in the Western sense, including Tarsa herself, who has had relationships with people of different genders.

In the first volume, the focus is not on romantic relationships at all, but on Tarsa being a mentee of Unahi and an increasingly close friend of Tobhi—and both are subplots which I was really glad to see. I often talk about how in fantasy, the magical mentor figure is usually an older white man who frequently has at least questionable if not outright evil tendencies, and I am happy to come across every example of a work that bucks this trend. Non-romantic friendships likewise are often less emphasized in fantasy (though I think this is slowly changing), but here, Tarsa and Tobhi’s bond builds slowly into a very strong, found-family relationship.

The only moment that jarred me occurs right at the beginning, when the women warriors use menstruation magic to ambush the monster; I thought this would take the book in a gender-essentialist direction, but I kept reading and that did not come to pass. For me, the expectations evoked by this event were very different from what actually happened in the book, where characters just did not seem to worry about gendered bodies much at all, let alone in an essentialist way. It made me sad when I considered this and realized that many traditional cultures practice mysticism related to menstruation, but second-generation trans-exclusionary feminism pounced on these traditions so hard—including in one of my cultures—that now those attitudes come to my mind even when they are not particularly relevant. While the book avoids discussing anatomy, it does allude to the fact that zhe-Kyn can also have periods, though in the first book there is no discussion of what happens when she-Kyn don’t. Despite menstruation literally conferring power in the setting, no character seems to focus on how biology might or might not determine gender, which I personally found a relief. Many other things also confer power, and there is ample discussion of that.

The Way of Thorn and Thunder is an intensely magical book, and in a close and personal way. We follow Tarsha’s struggles with her power from her own perspective. Some of the scenes took my breath away; at one point near the end of the original first volume, I had to put down my big chunky omnibus and go for a walk, just to fully assimilate what I’d read. I found myself wishing hard that I could have read this book earlier, as a teen, or even as a child, right after I’d read The Lord of the Rings and got extremely frustrated that the characters never ended up going to Harad. (I’d held out for three whole books!) There was a period in my life when after one sword-and-sorcery story too many, I’d given up on fantasy altogether and refused to read the genre for over a decade. But I didn’t realize at that point that fantasy could be like this…even epic fantasy… even epic fantasy that is very much aware of its own fantasy roots and its wider cultural context.

I have many thoughts now about how Anglo-centric fantasy magic seems to generally build on Western occultism even when the worldbuilding is entirely secondary-world, as a kind of undeclared default, and how I have struggled with this in my own writing. But Daniel Heath Justice’s worldbuilding transcends this stunningly, showing multiple magical systems that differ in their most fundamental assumptions about interacting with the world, the purposes of magic, and the goals of the practitioner. We get the classic Western thaumaturge who wants to bend the world around his (generally his) will, with demon summonings and even Lovecraftiana; but we also encounter Indigenous spirituality, and its intra-community tensions with conversion to Christianity. As someone from a non-Anglo background that is very different from the author’s, I feel honored to have read this novel—and to have the opportunity to read two more books in this world. I am very much looking forward to that.

In my next columns, I will proceed with reading and reviewing the new edition of the entire original trilogy in two more installments, but in the meanwhile, my most recent vote for which book to review next was won by Dawn by Octavia E. Butler, which is also a first volume of a trilogy (but will be, by contrast, a reread for me). So I might interweave the two trilogies in some way. I’ll see how it works out with scheduling—and of course, you can follow along with not one but two massive doorstopper omnibus volumes on your summer vacation, holiday, and/or school break! In the meantime, what are your reading plans?

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.

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