What is worse, to see good people fall to grief from their flaws, or from their virtues? I couldn’t put those in a hierarchy, and “tragedy” is a terribly watered-down term these days—but Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace and The King’s Name reminds one of why the term gets expanded.
[I read this Friday on the train back to New Haven, but have been putting off writing it up because I knew I had a lot to say. You've been warned.]
This variation on the Matter of Britain is set several worlds over from ours, where the gods are indisputably real and magic works. (A very solidly built world, as well. I like Chad’s description that it has “a sense of coarse and grubby realism without reveling in the dirt.”) It’s fantasy as history not yet turned into legend, as remembered by one who was there: Sulien ap Gwien, armiger to Urdo ap Avren ap Emrys, the High King of Tir Tanagiri and, in Sulien’s view, “the best man of this age of the world.” (We as readers are not terribly inclined to disagree, though a ballad quoted about Urdo’s Queen, Elenn, says that “The two best men in all the world have loved me,” and we’re going to meet the other one in the forthcoming The Prize in the Game. Which is my fault, so I’m looking forward to it even more than I usually would.)
I’m coming to realize that what I value most about narrative voice is the sense that an actual, highly individual person is doing the talking. This is probably why I enjoyed the Ivory books more than some people, and certainly why I bought Ovid’s Amores, and also why I have an abiding fondness for the well-done First Person Smartass. Sulien also has a very distinctive voice and personality, to such an extent that I was just boggled when other people tried to fit her in the established pattern of the legend—”She’s Lancelot!” *choke* “No, she’s Sulien.” (There are in-story reasons to think she’s not Lancelot, also, but those weren’t why I choked.) On a slight tangent, this is why I don’t care for the “academic” Prologue to The King’s Name; it jars me out of Sulien’s narration. (I’d read it on the web in a slightly different form, so I just skipped it this time.)
Sulien claims that her “story has no drama; a land defended, vows unbroken, faith upheld. That is not the stuff of legend.” Well, maybe so, but it does not lack for drama all the same. Her narration, looking back from the end of her long life, is finely balanced and plausible; Sulien as a character does just enough reflecting on future events (things like “It’s strange to think of them being grown-up and married now”) as someone would, remembering, but (usually) not too much to spoil the suspense. She also notices the kinds of things that her character should, well, notice, and doesn’t explain in detail the kinds of things she wouldn’t think about. This means a reader must pay attention, but I would not call this a difficult book.
The story spans about twenty years and is divided into three books: The King’s Peace, which is the story of how the Peace was won; The King’s Law (published in the same volume as the first), which is the years after, making and holding the Peace; and The King’s Name, when civil war threatens the Peace. (The first line of Name is destined to feature prominently in “identify the book by this first line” threads, I am sure: “The first I knew about the civil war was when my sister [name omitted] poisoned me.”) The story is studded with some wonderful and well-realized characters; even the skin-crawling villain has his reasons, he who, of any character I’ve met, most deserves the description “that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” (Far more than the killer in the Rex Stout novel.)
More importantly, the key parts of the story have that sort of dread inevitability that accompanies your classic tragedy—you can see exactly where and why it’s all going to go smash, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it—but, as I said, there are no fatal flaws here (though perhaps there is harmartia; I’m working off high-school English classes and couldn’t really say). We know, from the Prologue of the first book, that Urdo falls but the Peace survives; but seeing it happen is (of course) entirely different, and, well—I cried, anyway. (The ending’s mix of bittersweet emotions reminds me a bit of my reaction to Lord of Emperors, for people who’ve read that as well.)
From the sheer length of this, you’ve probably guessed, but yes, I think these books are very strong, well-crafted down to the small details, and enjoyable, and not just because I know the author. If this were a Hollywood pitch, I’d describe it as “sort of like if you took Guy Gavriel Kay doing the Sarantine Mosaic, and Lois McMaster Bujold doing The Curse of Chalion, and John M. Ford doing The Dragon Waiting, and Caroline Stevermer doing When the King Comes Home, and then shook them all up”—but it’s not, and aren’t you thankful? Those kinds of pitches can only capture pieces of a work, not the entire thing, and The King’s Peace and The King’s Name are, like Sulien, entirely themselves and their own, for which I am glad.