(first published in the SFX magazine ‘Book Club’ series 2012)
Dragons and princes. Arguably the two greatest clichés of epic fantasy fiction. Don’t be fooled. This book exemplifies the crucial mid-to-late Eighties shift from straight-forward Tolkien-template tales to more deeply thought-through and thought-provoking fiction enriched by both historical research and psychological nuance. Rawn further displays the growing maturity of writing style and the testing of accepted forms becoming more prevalent in the genre through the decade.
The story opens not with the prince but with the king out to slay a dragon. We first see Rohan through his father’s baffled affection and then in the coldly astute assessment of his aunt Andrade, high priestess and leader of the magically-talented Sunrunners. When our hero finally appears, playing a silly game with his nephews, the reader is invited to judge who is right, or to decide that Rohan is someone else entirely. This book demands engagement from the outset, not merely offering passive entertainment.
Questions of perception and reality are vital to the narrative because Rohan’s most dangerous foe is not the dragon which kills his father, thrusting him onto the throne. High Prince Roelstra is one of epic fantasy’s great villains precisely because he is so far from some clichéd Dark Lord. He’s charming, clever, a ruthless manipulator, proving that nobility of rank is no guarantee of nobility of character. Exemplifying the inherent evils of feudalism, he is brutal to his family in his unceasing quest for a son since none of his plethora of daughters can inherit, while slyly and divisively manoeuvring this ocean-ringed continent’s lesser princes to secure his realm’s advantage and ultimately, absolute supremacy. Thus the scene is set for his clash with Rohan who would see education, peace and the rule of law valued above the notion that might is right, bloodily enforced at sword point.
But Rohan remains a prince of this feudal world. He must have an heir and he must marry. Andrade presents her candidate, the Sunrunner Sioned, despite accepted custom and practise separating magical and political power. Andrade loathes Roelstra and throughout the story, she proves that women can be as callously calculating as any man. From the outset, this passionate marriage is far from a conventional romance as Rohan strives to defeat his enemy through manipulation and misdirection with Sioned’s connivance. They prove a formidable political partnership, in contrast to Rohan’s gentle sister Tobin and her loyal, loving husband. Such uncomplicated domesticity is an unobtrusive reminder of the prices paid by those in power.
Rohan can’t secure his civilized peace, not only because of Roelstra’s scheming with the most vicious of his daughters. Uncaring catastrophe strikes too because reality sees bad things happen to good people. Despite deaths and grief, life must go on and finally Roelstra must be confronted. The evils of war are outweighed by the evils, personal and political, that would follow Rohan’s defeat. At least he and Sioned have the conscience to question their right to magic-backed tyranny.
As the conflict turns bloody, Rawn doesn’t shy away from the resulting pain and suffering. This is particularly effective given the absence of gory detail thus far. Not that such lack is mere squeamishness; Rawn clearly realises a murder can be far more horrific when the reader must imagine what’s provoking those screams; devotees of unremittingly gritty writing take note. By the story’s conclusion, Rohan and Sioned have been tested, brutalised and compromised in ways they never envisaged. Their loyalties divided and their love strained to breaking point, the survivors are left mentally and physically scarred.
Rawn’s writing challenged the conventions and assumptions of consolatory fantasy, alongside Barbara Hambly, David Gemmell, Judith Tarr, Tad Williams and many others published at the time. All this laid solid foundations for the breadth, depth and sophistication now found in the best epic fantasy.
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Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr (1986). Absorbing adventure blending favourite genre themes like reincarnation, prophecy, elves and dwarves all rooted in a sound understanding of Celtic history, society, technology and development.
The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon (1988-1989). Fantasy trilogy following a girl fleeing arranged marriage for a mercenary soldier’s life, exploring what truly makes a hero, male or female.