Reviews: Chronicles Of The Kencyrath
Blood and Ivory: A Tapestry: for completists and fans
Blood and Ivory: A Tapestry is a collection of shorter works by P.C. Hodgell, all but one being part of the Kencyrath universe. It opens with three short stories published here for the first time. The first, Hearts of Woven Shadow, covers events surrounding the death of Jame's grandfather and the ascension of her father, Ganth, to the position of Highlord. It occurs just after the flashback scenes in To Ride a Rathorn, and should be read after that work, since it is somewhat spoiler-y. The second, Lost Knots, is a short letter written by Jame's great-great-grandmother Kinzi just before her murder. The third, Among the Dead, covers Jame and Tori's childhood in the Haunted Lands with a mad father, just before Jame's casting out to the darkness. Much of this appears in previous books, especially Rathorn, but this goes into more detail. All three are interesting to fans, and they reveal many back-story details that have not been fully revealed yet in the main series. None are absolutely critical to understanding it, either. Following it is Child of Darkness, Hodgell's first Jame story; she has deemed it non-canon, "too baroque to keep". It's somewhat science-fiction. Also included is "A Matter of Honor", the short story which formed the seed of what became God Stalk. It's the same in broad details as the similarly-named chapter in the novel, but different in the details, and is an interesting point in the development of that novel's ideas. The Kencyrath portion of the book closes with two previously published short stories; Bones is a fascinating one set during the God Stalk period, while Stranger Blood is set further ahead than the main series has yet reached. Bringing up the rear is A Ballad of the White Plague, a Sherlock Holmes story that's "less detective than gothic", included for completeness. Fans should buy this, because it fills in details and gives much more to speculate and wonder about. Essential if you want to participate in the mailing list discussions. Otherwise, it's not worth owning on its own; not much of it stands up by itself, and without the context of the Kencyrath series, there's little point to it.
To Ride a Rathorn: Jame goes to military school
Declared her brother's heir or Lordan, and thus legally male, not bound by the normal rules for Highborn women, Jame seems to have found herself, at last, a place in her society by this fourth book in P.C. Hodgell's series. There's one catch; tradition says that the Knorth Lordan must attend Tentir, the Kencyr military college, and train to be a randon officer. At Tentir, her brother cannot protect her, and unfortunate "accidents" could so easily happen—especially since the rotating command of the college has fallen, this year, to her family's enemies, the Caineron. This book, the first of three to cover Jame's year at military school, is thus rather a departure; self-reliant, independent loner Jame must learn to work with others — to command, not just do. It's a struggle. Once again, Hodgell sets her heroine a challenge where she must change and learn in order to survive. It would be so easy to have Jame just remain the same, as such a strongly-drawn character, and have the world bend around her, but that's not what Hodgell does. There are, after all, worse times and greater challenges to come, and only through growth and flexibility will Jame be able to withstand and triumph. This one comes from an author in a much happier place in her life, and it shows; Rathorn reads much more like God Stalk, the first in the series, than it does the intervening, drearier installments. It's a joy to read, and a pleasure to consume. If it has a flaw, I think it is that it's just a touch less imaginative than the previous volumes; not, overall, lacking in such, except by comparison to those, in which ideas fairly pop off every page. Perhaps it's the fairly static setting; much of it happens at the college, or at locations we've visited before, although Jame does manage to hare off into the wilderness a few times. Perhaps in contrast to the masculine role she's adopted, femininity and domesticity are among the challenges Jame encounters at Tentir. Formerly a very asexual heroine, sexual desire arrives unexpectedly and confusingly for Jame, and it's not something she's very prepared for, especially the direction that her newfound desires appear to be leading her. I like the way Jame is growing here, and I want more; with two more volumes to come covering the Tentir year, I can't wait.
Seeker's Mask: Jame's nadir
If Dark of the Moon was a difficult book in some ways, Seeker's Mask is more and worse. For a reader who fell in love with the strong, confident, capable Jame of God Stalk, this is hard going indeed; here we see a broken Jame, physically and mentally. She's found her people and her brother, and found what their idea of her place is: to become what she is not, to be broken and caged and obedient and, in that it is not any part of her nature to be such, doomed and destined to be a useless failure. The hope of a place and a family and a home is what sustains the orphaned child; she has found them and lost them simultaneously, and her despair is agonizing to witness. Despair, though, is a place on the road a heroine must follow, where her weaknesses are brought to the forefront and must be overcome. Jame is knocked down so she can be rebuilt as an adult instead of a child, so that she can grow again from a stronger foundation. This has that middle-book feeling; the nadir of hope, the icy midwinter of the soul. And the days do get longer and warmer, starting about mid-way in the book, and ending up with Jame in a much better, stronger place. Like the previous volume, many seeds are laid for the future here, many mysteries are revealed only to discover bigger, deeper questions behind them. We're introduced to a number of characters that are important to the larger story, and Hodgell's as always over-active imagination can't be kept down; there are so many wonders shown. Jame also manages a few crowning moments of awesome here; the comeuppance of Caldane, Lord Caineron, chief among them, although it's also an insight into her terrible power and potential for cruelty. As always, the visual imagination in me would love to see this in graphic-novel or animated form; it would be stunning. This book, and series, strongly rewards a careful read. Hodgell is familiar enough with fantasy to cover many of the common tropes and yet present them anew and differently, in a shockingly colorful and detailed setting.
Dark of the Moon: a darker sequel to God Stalk, and a tougher read.
Dark of the Moon is appropriately named; while God Stalk was a brightly-lit although often cruel place, its sequel plunges into a much darker world. Hodgell wrote this one in a state of deep depression, and although there are moments of joy, this is not a happy book in the least. It's also much more complicated a story, told in two parallel threads, following Jame in one and her twin brother Torisen in the other as their fates bring them together and far from home. It's a book consisting entirely of travel and passing through, a journey of both the body and the mind for both of them. The wonders of Hodgell's created world delight as always; it bursts with imaginative, magical touches. Along the way, many seeds are planted for later volumes, and we start to understand the depth of things, and the weight of history behind the very alien world and its people. God Stalk was the detour that Hodgell found she had to take for Jame to find herself and for the readers to understand her and like her, but Dark of the Moon is the main-line of the epic fantasy story she always wanted to tell. The difference in tone bothers some readers, I think, and the abrupt transition in setting; only Jame, her cat, and her companion Marc are carried over from the earlier book. Having found herself, Jame has to find her people and her world, as well as her personal history. None are all that pleasant. This is also, much more than God Stalk, not self-contained, but a book in a series. Lots of things are tossed into the air here that do not come down by the close of its pages, and lots of questions are left unanswered. Our heroine is left having found things — her brother, her people — and lost things; but she's more alone than ever by the end, and I think that leaves an unsatisfied feel in the mouths of some. After this, Jame and the readers were left hanging for many years, until Seeker's Mask; Hodgell lost her publisher, her academic career left her writing career hanging, and personal issues intervened. Dark of the Moon is a tough book to like, but I feel it's worth it, and especially it rewards rereading and trying to understand it. I'm glad, though, that this was not where Jame was left for all time, in a mask and a badly-fitting dress.
God Stalk: One of fantasy's unappreciated classics.
For a myriad of reasons, P.C. Hodgell's Kencyrath novels haven't received much love, or luck. It's a shame, because although flawed there's plenty to reward the reader here, and as for the troper, these books are so Trope Overdosed—you'll love it. The first book, God Stalk, is self-contained enough that you can read it by itself and see if you like the characters and writing style, and stop after that if you wish. The setting, though, is not returned to so far in the series; the great city of Tai-tastigon, shamelessly borrowed in part from Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar but fairly popping with Hodgell's original ideas as well; she casually casts around magical details that other authors could base whole books on. The book follows amnesiac teenager Jame as she arrives in the city, alone and hunted, and is drawn into its strange worlds of gods and guilds and thieves and cults, and magical happenings of all kinds. Hodgell avoids the typical fantasy races and thus Jame's slowly-revealed nonhumanness doesn't hit home as quick as it otherwise would. The book is joyful and fabulous and dark and bloody and destructive and, in odd moments, hilarious, and if you like fantasy cities, you should read it. If you love the city more than the character, you might want to stop there, because Jame doesn't go back. God Stalk would make an excellent graphic novel or animated series, I think. The imagery is vivid and beautiful, the wonders jump off the page, and Jame is such a wonderfully physical heroine. Her acrobatic, fluid unarmed combat and feats of physical daring would make for stunning animated action in the right hands. Collecting names and roles as she tumbles through the city, Jame is enigmatic, multi-faceted, charismatic, captivating, and deadly. Her cold predatory side turns some people off, I think; they have trouble empathizing with a killer, and Jame's nonhumanness comes out strongest in such scenes. At other times she displays other facets of her oh-so-catlike nature; inquisitive, protective, stubborn, silly, clumsy, graceful. Perhaps, in the end, you'll like these more if you're a cat person. Jame is, in the end, no housecat, but her untameable felinity is utterly captivating to me, and has kept me entranced and obsessed through all these years.