Read-along: The Darkest Road – week three

The Darkest Road: A Wyrd & Wonder Read-along

As Matt seeks to reclaim the Dwarven throne and the survivors of Prydwen board Amairgen’s ghost ship, Darien gets stuck in Daniloth to enable an utterly unnecessary and completely infuriating sideplot (guess you know where I stand on this week’s third question…)

A read-along is a group read with weekly discussions of set chapters (not a review, so ’ware spoilers!). This week we’re discussing Part III, with discussion prompts set by Mayri the BookForager – fair warning, I’ve composed my responses from my mobile whilst on a train, so they’re short, punchy and in some places unintentionally hilarious (Karen).

As a warm-up exercise, let’s talk about Amairgen’s ghost ship, shall we?

Well that was creepy. I love that the living can’t see the dead during the day, but can see the past – which can’t see them. It sends shivers down my spine; ghost ship and reverse ghost ship all in one. As for Diar standing on a hole in the decking – it is so very Diar and (given my discomfort with heights and drop offs) makes me queasy even to imagine. 

Finally, we’ve met the Dwarves en masse. Reactions?

The visit to the Dwarves is probably my favourite aspect of the week; but – like so much of the trilogy, and increasingly so as we rush to the end – it leaves me a little sad these books aren’t longer to spend more time on such momentous events and gorgeous supporting world building.  

Self-absorbed to the point of evil – Kim nails it. Wrap in Kaen’s charm and talents and he is a perfect thumbnail of a populist politician leading his people astray to serve his own ambitions (he doesn’t have the magic to mirror Saruman in spite of his wordcraft, but you bet I looked at Matt and thought all that is gold does not glitter). If only we had crystal dragons to champion those of common sense and pure heart in the real world!

As an aside: my phone autocorrected Kaen to Karen and I almost didn’t notice… and I admit I was tempted to run with it.

Thoughts and feelings on Leyse of the Swan Mark’s chapter, if you please.

In case it wasn’t obvious from my opening remarks: pure eye-roll. Yes, I get the allusion (although I’ve never been fond of the Lady of Shalott), but writing in a female character as the most beautiful and most unattainable only to have her fall in love at first sight and immediately die of it being unrequited?

Fuck all the way off – and when you get there, keep right on going and fuck off some more, because her tragedy serves only to progress Lancelot’s pain (who responds with all the weary. Ye gods.

This shit may have been popular in French medieval courts, but I don’t need it in modern fantasy (I remember the mid-80s, don’t crush me by telling me I can’t call them modern). Kay is way more invested in his medieval Arthurian romances than I am; they are the aspect of this trilogy I’d cheerfully cut out with a sharp knife. 

Also, what a waste of a lios POV. Fucksake.

(I want to be happy to have a lios hear their song and make it safely across the sea, but not like this. Not. Like. This)

While I can be this irritated by a tiny handful of pages, I can also completely erase any memory that they ever existed from my mind until next time I reread The Darkest Road. So now we’ve talked about them, I’m going to do just that.

Kim makes a choice, overruling the demands of the Baelrath. All thoughts and feelings welcome, obviously, but also, why for the Dwarves, but not for the Paraiko??

Poor Kim. Her life has been ruled by duty and jewellery since Ysanne died. One day you’re a medical student, the next the fate of all the worlds is on your shoulders (or your ring finger) and you have to gird yourself to Do What Is Needed At All Costs.

…or not, as it turns out.

I felt Kim’s decision to reject the Baelrath’s flame this week was as much about the Dragon as the Dwarves – would she have made the same choice if it hadn’t meant betraying such an overwhelmingly beautiful and powerful creature? Possibly not. It’s like standing in front of Niagara Falls and signing the warrant to dam the river upstream; so hard to condemn a natural force that sings to your soul. Except of course that the Paraiko also – and literally – sang to her soul and she commanded them out of Khath Meigol anyway.

Still, I don’t hold that against Kim; perhaps because I don’t see her decision this week as putting the Dwarves above the Paraiko. I think she’s finally reached the point where she can no longer force herself to keep doing the ruthless thing again and again and again; in part because she is so keenly aware of what she has just done to the Paraiko. And Kim isn’t ruthless – we’ve seen her compassion and empathy and growing guilt throughout. It’s amazing she has bowed to the demands of the Baelrath this far. But now she has resisted it, what will it cost? 

There is a point beyond which the quest for Light becomes a serving of the Dark“. There has been a lot of talk about the nature of Light and Dark this week. As we approach the completion of this weaving, now seems like a good time to reflect on our understanding of Light and Dark, paying particular attention to how Darien fits into it all.

My instinctive (and unfair) mistrust of all things Lawful Good is very comfortable with the premise that pushing too hard for the Light will leave you serving the Dark. I don’t embrace dualism as a rule – altho Kay’s pitch black depiction of the Dark doesn’t leave me with any secret sympathies for it! But his forces of Light are impure and imperfect and only really aligned by their overarching conviction that they don’t want to be destroyed (or ruled) by Rakoth, so I’m very comfortable with them. And, as we see this week, they can and do acknowledge the harm that can be incurred in pushing singlemindedly for any goal, which resonates so much with me.

There are two things that echo back to me around this: the idea of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, and the power (and consequence) of free will. And I’m not actually sure they are two things rather than two aspects of a harmonious theme – free will means choices; choices mean consequences… and room for grievous errors.

The Dwarves are only the latest in a line of characters who set out to do something for good reasons, (let us reclaim this life-giving treasure of our people) only to find themselves in the shadows. I have questions about the extent to which they ran with it: I’m not sure – given the context of Fionavar – how you get to the point where you’re tramping off to join Maugrim’s armies and still not questioning your leadership (although history tells me it’s far too easy). But on this read, I see them as a stark warning of what a nominally good (Light) people can become if they don’t question their choices – or are perhaps to proud to admit they erred. Perhaps they place too much power in a single pair of hands, perhaps they overly rely on the intervention of a crystal dragon (there’s a separate set of critical thoughts on the redemptive nature of a supernaturally-selected monarchy, ahem) – although you would think the Dwarfmoot would have forced Kaen to go to the Lake before he led them to war allied to Rakoth.

Arthur’s curse stems from a similar error: he wanted to protect his kingdom and legacy – Camelot here the Light against the Dark of invasion and a fracturing kingdom – but he did so through an unforgivable act. There is no lesser evil; it still serves the Dark.

Which brings me to Jennifer. My heart tells me that refusing to show your child affection serves the Dark; and doesn’t accept that a child will read love into your refusal / understand your goal. I am firmly of the opinion that Darien’s choice requires context to understand what he’s choosing between. But Kay has positioned this as the purest exercise of free will, informed by only the briefest flashes of love (Finn), beauty (Brendel) and self-sacrifice (Lancelot) – although arguably Darien has also seen very little of the Dark, either, beyond his own deadly powers and the fear (of him) that he sees in others.

On the flip side, if questing for the Light can serve the Dark, is there a point where questing the Dark can serve the Light? I guess we’re about to find out.

Threads for the Tapestry

But wait, this is a read-along – what did everybody else have to say?

Links will be added once they go live.

Reading Schedule

Our read-along is nearly done: this week (because yes, I am running very late), Peat Long will be hosting our discussions of Parts IV and V.

Art credit: banner features the gorgeous cover art created by Janny Wurts & Dan Maitz for the Canadian editions