I’ve just gone on a reading odyssey not quite as lengthy or labyrinthine as Game of Thrones, but definitely of a complexity that would deter some readers! It’s a series containing four books, each of the first three coming in at around 500 pages, and culminating in a fourth book with a staggering 752! The series, by Kate Elliott, begins with Jaran. I had read Kate Elliott once before when I took a look at her young adult series that begins with The Court of Fives. I liked that one well enough to give it four stars on Goodreads, but not well enough to keep reading the rest of the series. But in my comments, one thing I mentioned that I did enjoy was the portrayal of the societal relations between the conquerors and the oppressed.
That turned out to be something that Elliott does even better in her adult novels, and I was immediately hooked by the deeply complex interrelationship of all the players on the board of this science fiction saga. My response to the first book was that it reminded me of a couple of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish books (and I can’t pay a higher compliment than that). Similar to Rocannon’s World and The Left Hand of Darkness, it’s an anthropological science fiction story, with overlapping alien races who may know about each other but don’t know each other. It’s old school, and yet it’s fresh, and I enjoyed and was engaged by the way it unfolded.
In the first book, we learn that Earth has been subsumed into a vast galactic empire ruled by the alien Chapalii. At one point a human, Charles Soerensen, led a failed rebellion against their dominance, but rather than punishing him, the Chapalii inexplicably made him a “duke” of their kingdom and gave him dominion over an interdicted planet, Rhui. (What it means that the planet is interdicted: The native peoples are prohibited from knowing about space travel, alien or human technology, or anything that is beyond the development of their existing culture.)
On Rhui, there are two types of people, the jaran and the khaja. Khaja is actually a jaran word for “not jaran,” otherwise designated by the jaran peoples as “barbarians.” The jaran are akin to the Romany people of Earth, in that they are nomadic, dwelling in tents and moving from place to place according to whim and affected only by weather and pasture. They are matrilineal, with female etsanas of twelve tribes deciding what’s best for the people, but the women work in a fairly equal partnership with men, who are the warlike, saber-wearing, horseback-riding element of the tribes. They are proud, romantic, mostly illiterate but nonetheless intelligent people with an oral tradition and an elaborate history. And under the leadership of the charismatic and visionary Ilya Bakhtiian, they have recently grown larger aspirations and are in the process of conquering the khaja within their realm of influence.
The khaja are all the peoples on Rhui who do not follow in this nomadic tradition—those who have settled down into city-states or kingdoms and jealously guard their land for their own people, who speak various local dialects and are unwelcoming to strangers. Their lifestyle differs markedly from that of the jaran, not just because they are not nomadic, but because they follow a more traditional pattern of patrilineal societies in which women have few rights and are treated as chattel. This includes those groups spread out across the landscape of Rhui and also the inhabitants of the city of Jeds, which is the secret stronghold of Charles Soerensen, the aforementioned duke of the planet, known in Jeds as the Prince of Jeds. This city is the de facto capitol of the planet, where there are schools and universities, a library, and supposedly more “civilized” inhabitants, although under their thin veneer of culture, they also subscribe to the unequal treatment of men and women.
The people of Earth associated with Soerensen cautiously visit and explore the planet in various ways, while maintaining a cover as locals. The Chapalii are supposedly forbidden by the interdiction from traveling to Rhui at all, but as the first book opens, we discover they are not all sticking to this contract.
Charles Soerensen’s heir to the “throne” of Jeds (and actually to all his holdings on all planets) is his sister, Tess. She is young, just graduated from university, and is uncertain of the role she wishes to play in Charles’s complex agenda. She is also suffering from a broken heart, and feeling rebellious. So she sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, intending to go to Jeds and buy herself a little time to think; but because the Chapalii on her ship are involved in an illegal operation, she ends up getting dumped somewhere out in the wilds, and is picked up after a week of wandering by the leader of the jaran warriors.
Tess decides that she will remain with the jaran people, immersing herself in their society, as the perfect cover for attempting to solve the Chapalii smuggling scheme that put her there on the planet. What she doesn’t reckon with is her seduction by the warmth and inclusiveness of their lifestyle, and her growing feelings for their leader, Ilya Bakhtiian (and his for her).
Whew! That’s a long and complex introduction to an equally elaborate and convoluted story, but if it sounds like something you’d like, definitely invest the time. With each book more conflicts arise, more truths (about each of the peoples depicted) become apparent, and more investment in the future fates of all takes place. And while we do eventually reach an ending that is satisfactory, the potential is there for more about the individuals and the cultures involved, should Elliott ever decide to revisit them. I can’t help hoping that someday she will!
The four books are as pictured above: Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, and The Law of Becoming. Don’t be put off by the covers (dated looking and unfortunately not great to begin with); two of the four books are out of print at this time anyway. But this could be considered a good thing: Who has room on their bookshelves for four more 500+-page books? Do as I did and buy them as a four-book set on Kindle. If you’re not sure you want to read the whole series, you can get each book individually for the Kindle, but why spend the extra money? I checked out the first one from the library, and then got tired of being on the holds list for the other three and bought the set.
If you have ever had a romantic dream of wandering on horseback with the Travelers; if you have ever wondered how a matrilineal society might work; if you have ever wondered if there are, indeed, aliens among us; this is the series for you. (And do check out the Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin as well!)
As I was driving along the other day,
I found myself behind someone whose car had a personalized license plate that read “STREEL.” This is a place-name (and something more) in a large and dramatic story I haven’t thought about in a long while, and it made me reflect about everything that goes into the writing of an epic fantasy. We have rich examples of this subgenre, both in book and visual form, with Tolkien’s masterpieces on the large screen and Game of Thrones on the small one, as well as recent epic stories such as Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer or N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. But what, exactly, keeps so many mesmerized by this story form?
The job of the fantasy story is to create a world and characters so believable, a plot so urgent, and a conflict so daunting that the reader must live with and through it to the end. The story must have relevance to the everyday lives of the readers, by creating characters who are people with a common nature, regular folk like us; perhaps a bit naïve, retaining a certain innocence of character. The world must be different enough from that of the readers’ so as to engage them in its uniqueness, but it can’t be too obviously fictional; in fact, it needs, despite all of its anomalies, to feel real to the reader. We as readers step into it. We don’t call it up or create it, but we do commit to it, believe it, and go with it.
There must be an essential conflict in fantasy. It can vary in its nature, but it is usually a keen sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and a driving necessity to act to preserve good and defeat evil. That premise leads directly to the quest. It may be a spiritual or religious undertaking, with a protagonist fated to pursue it, so it is a serious undertaking, that includes danger, struggle, willpower, and perseverance. And since a quest is undertaken only when the well being of a society is threatened, the quest is often pursued to restore that society’s original well being. So perhaps a final element of the epic saga is (in some sense) a happy ending?
The author Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down, his classic heroic fantasy featuring a group of rabbits. It was the first book he ever wrote, and although 13 publishers turned him down (“you want to publish a book about a bunch of rabbits, one of which has ESP? really?”), once someone finally said yes, the book has remained continuously in print since 1972. It has won multiple awards, is regularly assigned reading in classrooms across America, and is a wonderfully told, moving story. But Adams also penned another lesser-known heroic tale written in two volumes: Shardik, which he wrote in 1974, and its sequel, Maia, which he didn’t complete until 10 years later, writing two other books (The Plague Dogs and The Girl in a Swing) in between. It is this saga that the powerful word “streel” on the license plate summoned up for me.
The people who live on the river island of Ortelga, a tiny part of the vast Beklan Empire, worship a bear-god named Shardik. The Ortelgans used to rule the empire, but now they inhabit a few insignificant islands on the outskirts. Although Shardik is a mythical creature from ancient history to most, to Kelderek, a simple man known as “Play-with-the-Children,” the immense bear that was driven by a forest fire to shelter on his island is the literal embodiment of the Power of God.
Kelderek labors to heal the bear of its extensive wounds sustained during its escape from the fire, and then convinces the local priests and barons of its divinity. Its appearance at this particular time is taken as (or used as) a portent by both religious and secular powers that it is Ortelga’s destiny to rise to greatness again; and a series of events leads to Kelderek assuming a high rank in the kingdom of Bekla. Building your power base on the whims of a wild beast, however, is bound to have unexpected consequences, as Kelderek finds when Shardik escapes the imprisonment imposed upon him by the power-hungry, and Kelderek must choose whether to cling to his position without the bear, or once again abandon everything to roam the land after Shardik, seeking to know his will.
Following Shardik leads Kelderek from the heights to the depths, and Adams’s story is really a saga of self-discovery and a study of the effects of faith on the behavior of people. This is an extremely simplistic summary of a complex story, containing a wide array of characters and a deep exploration of philosophical issues. It’s also an enthralling read!
The second book, Maia, is actually a prequel of sorts, with events that begin about a dozen years earlier than Kelderek’s story; but my recommendation would still be to read the books in the order they were written (Shardik first, Maia second), so that you will understand the setting and context.
Maia is a beautiful, lighthearted and engaging teen girl whose indiscretions with her stepfather lead her jealous mother to sell her to a passing slave-dealer. The rest of the book is the tale of her experiences as a slave (mostly as a “bed-slave”) that take her to both the most degraded and the most elevated levels of society. Adams uses Maia’s naiveté and provincial outlook to explore the politics, religion and philosophies of his fantasy kingdom, as seen through her eyes and those of her best friend, the concubine and spy Occula.
Although this second book shares only a few characters in common with Shardik, the events also transpire within the kingdom of Bekla, in the middle of similar religious and secular political struggles, and this book expands upon a particular theme—the existence and morality of slavery—that was treated as only a small part of the first book. Again, the themes are sweeping but the characters are specific, beautifully evolved, and memorable, and the language is rich.
By the way, the Streels of Urtah (which provoked this review) are a series of dark, narrow chasms in the middle of a vast plain. The people of Bekla believe that no one goes into them unless they are drawn there by their own evil. Once someone enters the Streels, they are not permitted to leave alive. Well, nobody ever said that epic sagas were supposed to be consistently cheery…