The Way of Thorn and Thunder by Daniel Heath Justice (Part 3)

So far in this column, I’ve already reviewed the first and second parts of The Way of Thorn and Thunder, and now we’re getting to the finale. I chose to review this book in three parts because it was originally published as three separate books, though I read the more recent re-release, which molds the trilogy into a one-book whole that is around 600 large-format pages long. Whew!

It is tricky to avoid spoilers when discussing the final book of a trilogy; so far I’ve tried my best not to delve too deeply into specific plot details, but I do want to discuss those aspects at the end of this review. I’ll clearly mark the point after which spoilers follow.

The Way of Thorn and Thunder offered a huge apparatus of characters, locations, peoples, magical systems and more in the first two books. There was also a clear movement toward a looming catastrophe. How does the final part deal with all this complicated setup?

This last segment (Cycles Five through Seven in the new edition) starts with a combat scene between characters that has been a long time coming. We also find out their backstory, which makes for a slightly slower start, but it enriches the characters themselves. (A small side note that is more directed at editors and publishers rather than authors: I am a bit frustrated every time there are whole pages in italics—something epic fantasy tends to do. This gripe is not specific to this book. I feel italics are best suited for short highlights and not entire sections—if something needs to be set aside, just put it in a separate chapter. Italics are often harder to read, and this can be an accessibility issue.)

After this opening, we are plunged into the depths of destruction set up in the first two volumes. (Not a spoiler—the destruction is mentioned on the back cover, and the text makes it clear that it is coming.) The Humans forcibly march the Folk to the deserted, ravaged land that’s been designated for them. This is genocide, and we get to see it up close, though Daniel Heath Justice never gets extremely graphic in his depictions. Still, the impact lingers.

Many, many people are desperately working to turn the tide in favor of the Folk in even the smallest way, albeit in the face of overwhelming force. We get to see all the characters we’ve gotten to know from the first two books (or first four cycles), and some also finally find love—an F/F/M polyamorous relationship develops between several of the main characters. The narrative makes it clear that Humans view both polyamory and zhe-gender—the third gender of the Kyn—in a very Western way, but also that neither of these concepts are any issue for the Folk, and some Humans are shown changing their attitudes, too. I also thought the dynamic of the aforementioned relationship was interesting in that it centers around a strong woman (and main character) who’s attracted to people of multiple genders, and who attracts people to her who then also need to figure out how to relate to each other. (This is a quite distinct dynamic from Melissa Scott’s Roads of Heaven trilogy, which I reviewed recently in this column—there, the strong, polyamorous woman character ends up in a relationship with a previously established couple of two men.)

There are also plenty of other relationships portrayed, though the focus is never strongly on the romance—as even the characters themselves point out, they are engaged in a massive high-stakes confrontation and often just do not have the time and energy required to devote to romantic pursuits. They do try to get in moments of romantic love, even amidst the desperation, whenever they can. The book is very clearly inclusive in its depiction of romantic relationships, and not just that: It is also inclusive in terms of the many other ways of strongly and intimately relating to each other, like friendship, found family ties, mentorship, and more.

After copious political machinations, we arrive at the climactic battle, waged between the forces of good and evil in classic epic fantasy fashion… and it is pitch-perfect. Everything comes together, all the effort both from the author and the reader pays off, and yet nothing in the narrative leans toward easy, simplistic solutions. It is very intense, comparable to some of the scenes in the first book where Tarsa tries to get a handle on her magic. I was shivering. I was trying not to cry—I didn’t quite succeed. (Spouseperson: “Um, Bogi… what’s going on with you?” Me: “I’m… reading…”) I’ll say a bit more in the final, spoilery section, but it was a very emotional experience.

Reading this section, I felt that all the moving parts slotted into place. All of them: first during the final climactic confrontation, and then in the epilogue/dénouement. I don’t think there was a single plot thread that remained undiscussed—even if it was unclosed, which is different! While this made the epilogue read a bit like an inventory, it also came as such an immense relief to me as a reader that it stopped me in my tracks. I honestly wish more authors did this at the closure of their lengthy trilogies. Yes, I desperately want to know what happened to X, Y, Z side characters who were my favorites—and everyone has different favorites among side characters. I was very much invested in the whole world created in this book, and this ending helped me so much. There has been a lot of discussion about how “show, don’t tell” is an Anglo-Western and specifically colonialist concept, and this was such a good example of the ways straightforwardly (queerforwardly?) telling can benefit both the book and the readers so much. There was plenty of showing in the final climactic battle—and then the telling in the epilogue helped bring me back onto solid ground, emotionally.

And now for the spoilers…

I really did not know how the main plot would end, because of the tension between the prospect of a genocide inspired by real-world genocide on one hand and the epic fantasy convention of the virtuous triumphing over the forces of harm on the other. I set the book down during the parts of the forced march and it really got me thinking. How would, how could this end?! I could not see a clear path. Forced marches are part of my history—a history that took place on a different continent and as part of a different context, but still. And the narratives I read about that never really ended in any kind of triumph. But… the author is here to write this book, and I am here to read it, so the people who were determined to kill us didn’t succeed. Can that be triumphant, in some way? Obviously there is no exact parallel and I would not want to equate Indigenous and Jewish struggles, but this really brought up all my convoluted feelings—especially since the book is fictional and not a historical retelling, with many, many different details at play. (The dilemma of the Ubbetuk that they acquire military might as a marginalized people and might be swayed in the direction of harm because of it—the book does not show where it leads—was also very relatable to me, though I am a diaspora Jewish person.)

I read on, and the novel ended in a way that was both hopeful and still not shying away from showing the magnitude of the destruction, and all that had been uprooted. And some part of me really, really needed that. Scratch that—all of me needed that. Healing, but not facile “magical cure” tropes. Hope, but not the erasure of all the suffering that has taken place. Life, while not pretending that everyone made it out alive. (This is not a queer death book, though we do find out that one of the older non-straight characters dies a peaceful death later—which in itself gave me solace. Sometimes showing death can also show hope; that we can be allotted quiet deaths in a circle of family.)

This book also deliberately doesn’t disentangle and tear apart gender and ethnicity/culture; that is such a key experience of mine and it was shown here—again, in a very different context—with such ease. In the epilogue we’re also shown how gender roles can move in the direction of greater inclusion, with men practicing traditional women’s crafts; just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it is not responsive to change if the people wish it so. The Way of Thorn and Thunder offers all this and more, in glorious detail, both meandering slowly and speeding up in turn as the plot flowed. This is exactly what I want in my epic fantasy, and I got it here, and I am grateful. You will probably also get something out of it, something that is offered by sadly few books in current SFF, though their numbers are slowly increasing.

Next time, we will start discussing the winner of the previous poll I’d had on my Patreon: Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, starting with Dawn! This will be a reread for me, but a reread of a series that has been very influential for me, so I’ll see how it goes—I feel like every time I reread Butler’s work, I get something else out of the experience.

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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