QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: The Way of Thorn and Thunder by Daniel Heath Justice (Part 2)

In my previous column I reviewed the first third of The Way of Thorn and Thunder, Daniel Heath Justice’s massive epic fantasy novel originally published in three volumes. Now I will be discussing the section roughly corresponding to the second volume, Wyrwood, that comprises Cycles Three and Four in the new edition.

The council has deliberated: Protagonists Tarsa and Tobhi are sent to one of the Human strongholds, Eromar City, to retrieve diplomats of the Folk. The diplomats traveled there to negotiate, but there has been no contact with them for a while. Are they even still alive? To Tarsa’s horror, the magical wyr she senses is much fainter in the land of Eromar, and the team immediately faces animosity.

There is more action and combat in this volume, and everything becomes increasingly grim as the conflict builds and the Humans attack the Folk. Now that the core of the world has been established, we move outward and get to see a Human capital, among other new places.

Some characters who only appeared briefly in the first book now return and have much larger roles: first and foremost, Quill the Dolltender, who finds herself on a desperate mission. She is one of the Tetawi, like her boyfriend Tobhi, but her magic is different from Tobhi’s: She can make magical dolls and communicate with them. As she makes a last-ditch attempt to convince the Humans not to invade the home of the Folk, she is also being hunted by a Human intent on killing magical beings for their power.

Quill and Tobhi’s quests intertwine, but Quill finds herself on another path for the time being. While this might seem like a relatively large departure from what was set up to be the main plotline, it always remains connected to it, and Quill’s adventures are intriguing in their own right. They also offer a classic found-family story that echoes many queer literary themes. Quill comes across a traveling theater troupe and joins them on their travels on the periphery of all cultures, Folk and Human alike. The focus is not so much on the sexual or gender diversity—though all that remains explicitly stated, as in the first volume; Tarsa does not suddenly become straight, the Governor’s partner still uses zhe/hir pronouns, and so on. But besides the matter-of-fact representation, here the queerness also occurs in the structural aspects of the narrative, and extends even to characters with ‘nominally straight’ partnerships. (In this world, there is ample and unremarked-on sexual fluidity, so I would not read anyone as straight by default, strictly speaking.) People like Quill find belonging with a new social group amidst adversity, even despite their differences.

Quill is not the only newcomer to the troupe, either: Merrimyn, an intriguing Human character who also only had a bit role in the first volume, now returns. He is a young mage bound into a rather Lovecraftian tradition, and he struggles with his deathly magic even as he finds fellowship. The Way of Thorn and Thunder consistently emphasizes that there are multiple oppressed groups among Humans; we also see this from Tarsa and Tobhi’s viewpoints, and the novel does not present the antagonists as one homogeneous mass. But is solidarity possible among people with such different standpoints? Merrimyn presents that tension even within his body, as he is chained to a soul-eating magical book that he has to carry with himself everywhere.

In the meantime, The Folk find themselves bitterly divided over the question of whether to leave their land as the Humans demand, or to stay and fight. Both the internal divisions and the external pressure from Human attacks are on full display: We get to witness negotiations and betrayals, successful and unsuccessful political assassination attempts, and more. Some of this seems to parallel Cherokee history, and there are a lot of little details that are also nods to Cherokee culture. I probably missed many of these along the way, but I noticed the reference in Tobhi’s magic of lore-leaves to the Cherokee syllabary (though of course the specifics are very different).

The worldbuilding of The Kynship Chronicles is sweepingly coherent; I really found myself drawn into it as I read. But what can I say about the plot—does this segment have the classic problems of middle books in a trilogy? Often in second books, characters have to get from point A in the first book to point C in the third book, and point B might only be a cursory waypoint; consequently, there might be a comparative lack of action or a lack of closure in the middle novel. I felt while reading that Daniel Heath Justice managed to avoid these common problems. Here, the characters who take on larger roles broaden the narrative, and without getting into any spoilers, I can say that there are also large climactic scenes, at the end of the book along both main plotlines, that provide an endpoint. They are also heartbreaking, and while one of the major events that comes to pass is very much foreshadowed and has been the cause of great fear among the characters—it can also be guessed at on the basis of history—the other one takes the protagonists by surprise. The personal and the political come together in devastation.

I felt that one of the major themes of this second book or middle segment was that the characters cannot remove themselves from the large-scale ongoing conflict between societies, and vice versa: It is all one whole, not separable into “the political plot” or “the personal plot.” The web of influences grows in all directions, and the characters are connected to each other even when their adventures force them into physical separation. This simultaneously increases the epic scale of the story and avoids the kind of Western-centrism where one hero’s individual journey drives all the social change. It gave me plenty to think about, both as a reader and as a writer trying to fit my own non-Anglo narratives into an Anglo publishing context.

This is a gut-wrenching book, even though, similar to the first part, there is plenty of companionship and camaraderie in it—more so than romance per se. Destruction mounts; there is also personal evil, and some people make bad decisions under a lot of pressure—yet I immediately want to read on. However, the final part of the novel, covering the original third volume of the trilogy, will be saved for my next review…

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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