Rapacious Outworlders have occupied Taan for its natural resources. Tensions are rising within the local population, with the warrior caste agitating for war and the temples seeking a peaceful resolution. Hope rests on the shoulders of a rebellious young prince: will he lead his father’s troops to battle or make peace with the sisterhood?
A few years back, my mother finally evicted my old books from her basement. I had the joy of putting old favourites back on my shelf – followed shortly after by the fear that they may have been visited by the suck fairy in the intervening decades. Let’s face it, the world has changed and so have my tastes and tolerances.
So I’m delighted to find the suck fairy has largely passed this by (although I admit I’ve rounded up to 4 stars for sentimental reasons; it doesn’t quite stack up my adult prejudices). Unexpectedly for a book about characters staring the possible end of their civilisation in the face, the novel focuses on the build-up to world-changing events rather than their resolution. This is less about young people saving the world than about how they pick sides and what future they are prepared to fight for.
…which suddenly feels rather relevant, doesn’t it?
We meet novice priestess Elana as she is preparing to be sent away from her home village to the capital; she’s as unhappy to be assigned to Prince Khian’s care on the journey as he is to have to care for her – a classic ‘hate at first sight’ relationship that stands in for (and is partly driven by) the existing feud between warriors and priests. Thankfully, he has a charming friend (Leith) to take the edge off, because it’s a long old trip and they’ll need all the help he can give them to give in to their hormones and admit there’s an attraction (yes, of course there’s a romantic subplot – Elana’s value to the priestesses is in part as a means to influence the prince to their way of thinking).
Reading it now, I can’t help but ship Khian/Leith rather than Khian/Elana – there’s some hefty hints in the narrative that their bromance is of epic proportions, and it would fit well within the structure of their gender-segregated their society. Given its age and intended audience, it’s not surprising that this isn’t explored, but it is inescapably part of my head-canon now.
The focus stays tight on our young protagonists throughout, who are pivotal to the politics but kept on the periphery – quite literally, spending large portions of the novel in out of the way places (farflung outposts; locked up; underground). Rather than being plunged into world-saving adventures as I was used to from reading fantasy classics such as The Chronicles of Prydain or The Belgariad, this is a book about having character-building experiences while you try to figure out the right thing to do. I remember it was unexpected and beguiling at the time (although I suspect some would find it frustrating) – it’s not perfect now, but it’s still rather sweet.
With adult filters, there’s no avoiding that this is all feminist ecomentalist propaganda – and I say that as an environmentalist and feminist myself (looking at things like this and Mrs Frisby, I’m starting to wonder how influential my childhood reading was). It’s certain to outrage right-wing readers, with its manipulative peace-mongering priestesses and its criticism of humanity’s right to plunder the stars in the name of capitalism.
But as long as you can jump on board with the politics, there’s lots to like in terms of positive female relationships, buckets of character development, a solid plot that rockets along at a fine pace, and some intriguing aliens (the stonewraiths). It’s biggest flaw (and again, it’s big enough to be a complete turn off for some readers) is its gender essentialism: there’s a lot of men being aggressive idiots while women have special instincts and are inherently peaceful, which I can’t subscribe to and I’ll admit nostalgia is my armour against this.
In a move that is unique to my childhood reading as best I recall, the book never actually details the resolution. Our characters make their choices and commit to their course – and we leap to a bruising epilogue that tells us how that worked out for them. It still feels shocking not to actually watch them Do The Things, and while it feels like it’s left open for a sequel it would make it awkward (as far as I know, there isn’t one).
Overall though, I think this has escaped the suck fairy’s notice, so I’m looking forward to revisiting Lawrence’s Moonwind in due course.