Flewelling, Lynn: Oracle’s Queen

(I reviewed the first two volumes of this trilogy for The Alien Online

The Boy Who Would Be Queen

I’ve been looking forward to The Oracle’s Queen, the third volume in the Tamir Triad, with eager anticipation and it doesn’t disappoint. Central characters remain true to the previous volumes, and at the same time we see new facets to their personalities. The inexorable flow of events drives the narrative forcefully onward while unexpected twists keep us guessing. Some of those twists are woven around new characters who add an intriguing freshness as Flewelling brings her story to a convincing conclusion.

The first of these newcomers is Mahti, a hill man and a witch. Mystical destiny brings him down from the mountains in search of the girl who was once a boy. We learn a good deal more about the strange magic of his people and are reminded of the grim enchantment woven around the twin children, Tamir and her brother, back in the very first volume. The boy was sacrificed so that the girl could grow up disguised with his form. If she had been discovered, she would have been killed by her uncle Erius, driven to slaughtering his female relatives by the madness of his mother, queen or not. He was determined to negate the prophecy declaring Skala could only thrive with a queen on the throne.

Only Skala has not thrived under kings. Erius’s son, Korin, has only succeeded in fathering monstrously deformed children, causing the death in childbed of his own beloved wife. The savage Plenimarans have invaded. Erius was killed in battle while Korin’s inadequacies as a leader were cruelly exposed. It fell to Tamir to save the day, with the skills she had learned as a supposed prince which she would never have learned as a princess.

A lesser writer might have ended the story there, with some swift version of ‘and they all lived happily ever after.’ Flewelling doesn’t duck the challenge of working through what must happen as the dust settles. And, handily, as friends and enemies regroup after the fighting, discovering who is alive and who has perished, the necessary recapping of the story so far is deftly woven into the opening chapters. I’m looking forward to enjoying the trilogy from start to finish some time but I don’t feel I should have read the first two books before starting this one, for which I’m thankful.

Tamir must deal with the divided kingdom, as the nobles pledge allegiance either to her or to Korin, who cannot believe in her transformation. There are plenty who can’t, writing her off as a ‘mad boy in a dress’. Which is understandable, after all. Then she must deal with the reactions of those around her. Those faithful friends who saw her revealed with their own eyes are still struggling with her changed status and new responsibilities. So is she. She must come to terms with wearing those dresses on the one hand and handling her authority as ruler on the other. She must learn when to delegate her authority and when to impose her will. She must find a way to change the loyal friendship she shared with Ki, when they were both youthful squires together, into the love of a man and a woman who now happens to be queen. She must come to terms with the fact that if Korin won’t yield, she must defeat him through force of arms.

The quality of Flewelling’s writing comes through here, because if any of this rang even a little false, the whole trilogy would be fatally undermined. But Tamir’s confusion and determination as she handles all of this is wholly convincing. More, it enables the modern reader to really empathize with her. We will all face instances when promotion or some other change of circumstance puts a distance between once close friends. Any contemporary woman called back to the Middle Ages would struggle to adjust to the restrictions on her life and choices. But we don’t find abrupt modern attitudes jarring against the quasi-historical background. All of this is believably developed, grounded in Tamir’s experiences, with acute sensitivity to the realities of the feudal background. It’s the life she’s led that convinces her of the necessity of challenging established wisdom, looking for merit above lineage.

Tamir’s situation contrasts most forcefully with that of Nalia. She has been hidden away too, as a distant female of the royal blood. Now she has been married off to Korin, who beds her without love, merely desperate to continue his dynasty. Nalia has none of the choices open to Tamir. She can’t even kill herself, thanks to cruel magic woven around her by Niryn. He’s Korin’s wizard, a vile man who won’t shrink even from murder to achieve his ends. On the one hand, he’s working to preserve the prophecy too, on the other, he’s dedicated to his own aggrandizement. Though there’s far more to him than motiveless malignity. In this book, we learn far more about how his character was formed and deformed by his upbringing.

This is another strength of Flewelling’s writing. While the prophecy runs through all these events, the action, the fulfillment or otherwise of that prophecy depends on these very real, very believable people. This tension runs through the whole story. Is Korin incapable of being king because of the prophecy, because of his character flaws or because of the way he was brought up, indulged and unguided? Will Tamir succeed because of the prophecy, because of her essential strength, or because the bizarre life she has led has ultimately equipped her to deal with these unprecedented challenges?

It was wizards who imposed that distorted life on Tamir, by robbing her twin of his own destiny. Duality runs through this final installment of the story even more strongly than in the previous volumes. As Korin and Tamir both try to secure their rule over Skala, we see the very different ways they deal with those whose loyalties are torn between them. His relationship with Nalia contrasts with that between Tamir and Ki. The magical machinations of Iya and Arkoniel are set against those of Niryn, and there we see unwelcome similarities. As events come to their inevitable conclusion, the wizards are all called to account by those they have manipulated, and not merely by the living.

Brother, the demon spirit, is an ominous presence throughout this book. The ghost of Tamir’s mother broods, unquiet, in her locked tower room. Lhel, the witch woman who shared her people’s sorcery with Iya, still travels with Mahti the witch man even though she is long dead. The mystical is another potent thread in the story, adding an eerie extra dimension. These people believe in their gods. Tamir must visit the Oracle to truly become queen, proving herself by confronting the visions she is granted. All of this plays a vital role in the final resolution, when Korin and Tamir must join battle. But this remains a story about real people, where the ultimate tragedy of civil war, the reality of friends fighting friends balances the high heroics of fantasy fiction.

I’m glad to have been able to review this final book of the trilogy, so I can recommend it and indeed the whole series to lovers of intelligent contemporary fantasy that nevertheless keeps faith with all the strongest traditions of the genre.

This review originally appeared in Emerald City.

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