Review: When the King Comes Home, Caroline Stevermer

"One day, all well-meant promises would be made good; that's what it meant, when I was a child, to say 'When the king comes home.' Wishes granted. Dreams made real.

I never hear the phrase used any more. No one refers to it. It is as if it has been lost to all memory save mine, vanished away, like the bits of some broken spell, some prophecy fulfilled. When the king comes home."

—Caroline Stevermer, When the King Comes Home

In A College of Magics, Caroline Stevermer created a charming alternate version of our world in the early 20th century, where colleges like Greenlaw and Glasscastle turn out into society finely-polished witches and wizards, and where the map of Europe has a number of additional small countries, such as Ruritania and the four countries once part of the Lidian Empire. Stevermer's new novel, When the King Comes Home, is an elegant and moving stand-alone fantasy set in the same world, during the Renaissance and before the Lidian Empire's end.

When the King Comes Home is written by the narrator, Hail Rosamer, near the end of her long life. As she explains at the beginning of Chapter One ("In which I am born into a family of wool merchants."),

I was born on the coldest day of the year. When the midwife handed me to my father, he said, "Hail the newcomer! Hardy the traveler who ventures forth on such a day."

After four sons, my father was pleased to have a daughter at last. My father persuaded my mother that I should be named Hail, to commemorate the welcome I'd been given. My name is a greeting, dignified and sober, not a form of bad weather.

We hear directly from Hail-as-elderly-narrator in the introduction and conclusion of the story, and in interludes discussing the changes in her city. Stevermer handles very well the transition between the elderly Hail and the Hail of the plot, who is a teenager studying art in Aravis, the capital of the Lidian Empire. By mostly keeping "That was the last time I would ever see him"-style intrusions out of the main narrative, Stevermer allows the reader to fully sink into the teenaged Hail's voice and story. [1]

All her life, Hail had heard the phrase "When the king comes home"; it originated in the belief that the remains of King Julian the Fourth, Good King Julian, may not have been brought back from the Austrian Empire when he died two hundred years ago. (King Julian is an Arthur-like figure in the Lidian Empire, but I hasten to assure Arthurian-wary readers that he is not Arthur himself, whose story exists in this world much as in ours.) Hail is passionate, impetuous, and possessed of the peculiar single-mindedness often (though not exclusively) found in teenagers. She develops twin obsessions—with Good King Julian, Queen Andred, and Istvan, the King's Champion, and with an artist of the era, Gil Maspero—during her apprenticeship. And then, finding herself outside the city one day, Hail encounters a man who looks exactly like King Julian (all unaware, she calls him "Fisher," because she first saw him catching fish from the river—and eating them raw).

It's a puzzle of the finest sort, and between Hail's empathy for the stranger, cat-curiosity, and sheer stubbornness about her passions, she ends up right in the middle of it. The resulting story is touched with grace, beauty, and a pervasive gentle sorrow at how such things pass away. There are horrors, but they are suggested with a telling detail rather than laid out in all their gore; there is a concluding scene of simple and utter perfection, one that echoes a fairly famous fantasy series in, for me, a much more satisfying way. For that scene alone, I would count this book as worth its purchase price.

The links between When the King Comes Home and A College of Magics are small, and people unable to find A College of Magics (unfortunately out of print) should not be dissuaded from reading When the King Comes Home. They can be viewed as each taking a small fact or two from the other and making that fact central to the plot. Readers of A College of Magics will recognize an ancestor of Faris Nallaneen's, and understand a one-sentence reference to the wardens; the fact that A College of Magics took from When the King... would, unfortunately, be a spoiler.

When the King Comes Home is an extremely good novel and well worth the wait. The characters are vivid and sympathetic, the musings on art interesting even to a non-artist, the conflicts heartfelt, and the prose lovely. It's a fantasy that's concrete, not in recipe-spells but in the details of the world and the dialogue and the essential grounded nature of Hail. I recommend it highly.

[1] In this way, Hail's narrative differs from Sulien ap Gwien's, the narrator of that other recent "elderly woman writes down long ago events, with some sort of Arthurian connection" novel, The King's Peace by Jo Walton. As the quotation opening this review suggests, however, I think Hail would agree with Sulien that "What it is to be old is to remember things that nobody else alive can remember."

%T  When the King Comes Home
%A  Stevermer, Caroline
%C  New York
%I  Tor
%D  2000
%G  0-312-87214-3
%P  236pp
%O  hardcover

Copyright September 10, 2001 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

[ The Paired Reading Page | Book Log | Miscellany ]
[ Home | E-mail ]