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Literature / Sulien

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Jo Walton's Sulien series, consisting of The King's Peace and The King's Name, is a loose retelling of the King Arthur story set in an alternate sixth century Britain called Tir Tanagiri. The protagonist is the woman warrior Sulien ap Gwien, who fights to support her king, Urdo ap Avren, and the peace he is trying to establish. The King's Peace follows Sulien as she joins Urdo's army, forms her loyalty to him, and has to make a difficult choice between the peace they both seek to establish, and the vengeance to which she is entitled by law and custom. The King's Name has Sulien returning to Urdo's service after some years, during a civil war.

There is also a prequel, titled The Prize in the Game, which is a retelling of part of the Táin Bó Cúailnge as well as a backstory for Urdo's wife Elenn, her sister Emer, and Emer's lover Conal. It details their adolescence and coming of age, as well as a war between their home kingdoms. A direct sequel was planned at one time, but has been cancelled. It would have been titled Breaking the Ward.


Tropes in the series as a whole:

  • Action Girl: This series is full of women who fight. Between one-tenth (at the beginning) and one-fourth (by the end) of the armigers are women. Several Isarnagan women are also warriors, including Elenn's sister Emer ap Allel and Atha ap Gren. By Word of God, the foundation of the whole series was the idea of women having a feudal obligation to fight.
  • Arranged Marriage: Arranged marriages are common among the nobility. Sulien was originally promised to marry Galba ap Galba, although when she proves unwilling, she is released from the arrangement and he marries her sister Aurien instead. Urdo marries Elenn ap Allel in order to secure a military alliance with her mother Maga, the king of one of the Isarnagan kingdoms. And besides marrying Elenn off to Urdo, Maga had previously married her off to several men in a row, using her famous beauty to persuade champions to fight Darag—who killed them all. Maga also arranged her other daughter's marriage to King Lew, and her own marriage to Allel was a condition of her being made king. Finally, in the peace settlements at the end of The King's Name, Darien agrees to marry Ninian ap Angas, whose father killed Urdo.
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  • Composite Character: Elenn is a combination of Guinevere with Fionnbharr from the Tain, because the author noticed that the two names have a common origin and thought it would explain a lot about Guinevere if she had had Fionbharr's experiences.
  • Curse/Geas: Certain characters have the ability to lay a curse on someone that they will die if they perform an action or achieve a state specified by the curse-layer; a major example in the series is a man who is cursed to die if he says his name in another character's presence.
  • Cycle of Revenge: A constant possibility. Blood feud is so accepted that it's important to arrange banquets so that no one has to eat with someone they have a feud with—because lots of people around have feuds with each other.
  • Death by Childbirth: Averted: normally, charms and prayers to the Mother make death in childbirth unheard of. Darag mentions a woman of Muin who is said to have died in childbirth "in our great-grandfather's time". Conal finds the story strange and unbelievable.
  • Fantasy Contraception: Conception and pregnancy are governed by magic. Unmarried women cannot become pregnant without divine intervention, as the ritual to allow conception is part of marriage. No one—neither men nor women—can have more than four children, or in extremely rare cases five, even if some of those children die before the parent. And Elenn, married off to several men who all die the next day, knows she will not become pregnant because dead men cannot father children.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Tir Tanagiri is post-Roman Britain, Tir Isarnagiri is Ireland of the same time period, the Vincans are Roman Empire, the Jarns are Saxons, and the religion of the White God is Christianity.
  • Heroic Bastard: Darien Suliensson in the duology, and Black Darag in the prequel.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Very common in the series. Vineva outlives all of her children but Sulien, Thurrig outlives two of his three children, and Sulien herself outlives her only son. In the prequel, King Connary outlived his four children. Since he can't have more (no one can have more than four or five children over the course of their lifetime, and fifth children are so rare as to be considered miraculous) he must look to his siblings' children for an heir.
  • Ruling Couple: In Tir Tanagiri, it's possible for a married couple to hold a kingdom together. Guthrum and Ninian are this from the start; later, Alswith and ap Erbin hold their kingdom together and she does alone after his death. In Tir Isarnagiri, one person only can hold the land; this is an issue for Maga and Allel, as they were rivals for the throne before they married and she became king.
  • She Is the King: Monarchs are called kings regardless of their sex, including Sulien as Lord of Derwen.

Tropes in the original duology:

  • The Ace: Sulien is the best of Urdo's armigers. Ap Lew is said to be the best of the next generation.
  • Action Mom: Sulien becomes the king's greatest armiger after her son is born. Emer and Alswith also have kids back home during the second civil war.
  • Anyone Can Die: Many of Sulien's friends and fellow armigers die; Morwen also dies surprisingly early considering that she plays the role of both Morgan and Morgause. Also, almost none of the kings from the beginning of the story are still alive by the end.
  • Asleep for Days: Sulien, following a major battle in The King's Peace.
  • Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence: The ultimate fate of both Urdo and Ohtar. After their deaths, they becomes new guardians of the land—essentially, minor gods. As such they will never be reborn, and Urdo is able to speak to other people and make parts of the land resemble him after his death. It is possible that Sulien did the same, given that the story her grandson tells has her simply riding away and vanishing rather than dying in her old age. (He says "none pious believe it", but does not add that he himself burned or buried her body.)
  • Asexuality: The author has described Sulien as asexual and aromantic; her characterization in the book bears this out. She is never attracted to anyone, never falls in love, and is perfectly content with both.
  • The Atoner: Ulf Gunnarsson murders Sulien's brother, rapes her and leaves her to die. He spends the rest of the series atoning for his actions.
  • Avenging the Villain: Part of Morthu's motivation is avenging his mother, the High King's sister Morwen ap Avren, who herself started a civil war against her brother.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Although much sweeter than typical Arthurian retellings. Urdo is dead along with many others, and Sulien will never forgive her old friend Angas for killing him… but his chosen heir is able to maintain the rule of law.
  • Black Magic: Both Morwen and her son Morthu practice evil sorcery, murdering people and stealing their souls to keep the gods out of the land. Morwen also destroyed her own soul doing this.
  • Book-Ends: Near the beginning of The King's Peace, Sulien reflects on what it means to be old, and that tragedy made her old before her time. Near the end of The King's Name, she reflects on what it means to be young, and that she remained young at heart the end of a very long life.
  • Cain and Abel: One of Urdo's most dangerous enemies, in the early part of his reign, is his older sister Morwen ap Avren.
  • Child by Rape: Sulien's son.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Elenn has a mild case of this. She strongly dislikes Urdo's former lover ap Rhun, and cools to Sulien when the rumors surface that Urdo is the father of Sulien's son. Morthu's machinations (which range from normal manipulation to More Than Mind Control) make it worse, to the point where she refuses to leave Caer Tanaga—where she is a hostage—because she believes her husband has taken up with another woman.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Inis really is as unstable as he seems. He still saves the gathered kings from Morthu's final attempt to kill them.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The religion of the White God is a direct analogue of Christianity. The only differences are that the god was stoned rather than crucified (leading to "taking the pebble" in place of "taking the cross") and that the religion claims to convert local gods rather than quietly retconning them into saints or claiming that they are demons.
  • Death by Origin Story: Sulien's brother Darien. His death is a major factor in her later actions and her primary motive to seek revenge on Ulf.
  • Deceptive Legacy: Sulien tells her son nothing about his father, because she doesn't want to tell him or anyone about her rape. He—along with the rest of the country—assumes that his father is the High King, Urdo, because of Sulien's close friendship to him and the interest he shows in Darien.
  • Determined Widow: Alswith, after her husband's death. She defies Jarnish custom to rule their kingdom instead of serving as regent for her minor son.
  • Divided for Publication: The King's Peace and The King's Name were originally intended to be published as a single volume.
  • Due to the Dead: The old custom is to burn the bodies of the dead; the new one is to bury them. Most soldiers lie where they died, while kings and lords must be returned to their own lands. Many Tanagans follow the Vincan custom and cut their hair in mourning and throw it on the pyre, but the native Tanagan way to show mourning is to unbind one's hair. Breaking the rules for mourning, even for good reason, can be a source of considerable tensions—when Sulien leaves a funeral to heed a messenger who brings news of an invasion, it's a breach of courtesy for which the widow never forgives her.
  • Elective Monarchy: Discussed, though no elected monarchs appear. In the future, when the succession for any of the kingdoms is unclear, it will be decided by a council of the other kings.
  • Exact Words: Elenn asks the (dead) Urdo if Darien is his son. The answer: "He is now."
  • The Exile: Thurrig is exiled from his homeland for mysterious reasons. He eventually tells Sulien that he won a battle he wasn't supposed to fight, and that he also took the blame for his wife killing a king. Sulien finds the latter a little unbelievable. Urdo sends Marchel into exile after she dishonors him by killing surrendering enemies. Sulien notes that by rights Urdo should have killed her, but her father is an old friend and also his admiral. His mercy comes back to bite him later on, as she returns with an army at the start of the civil war.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Morthu is very good at this. He plays on Urdo's mercy by recruiting enemies he had spared, on Elenn's insecurity to keep her trapped in Caer Tanaga, and on the kings' distrust of the changes Urdo is making to make them rise against them. Darien notes that Morthu especially tries to use people's kindness and virtues against them.
  • Foreshadowing: Sulien mentions for the entire first book that she knows no real curses. Emer tells her how cursing really works in the second, and Sulien curses Morthu herself after a failed peace talk, leading eventually to his horrific death.
  • The Good King: Urdo, who unites the kingdom and enforces peace and the rule of law. Darien will follow in his footsteps.
  • Hidden Backup Prince: Urdo was raised secretly at the religious community of Tansethan after the deaths of his father and older brothers. Played with for Darien—while he is a prince, he is not the prince everyone assumes he is… but that assumption allows Urdo—one of the few who knew the truth—to choose Darien as his heir.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Morthu's attempt to kill the assembled kings at his trial leads directly to his death—the charm he uses to set off the stored fuel in the underground pipes also opens him up to the gods, meaning that the sorcery he had been using to keep Sulien's curse at bay no longer works.
  • Important Haircut: Sulien is one of those who hold the Vincan custom of cutting off one's hair in mourning, so each time someone close to her dies, she cuts her hair short again.
  • In-Series Nickname: When Sulien first meets the very handsome Conal, he refuses to give any of his names to her, so she gives him the silliest nickname she can think of—Fishface.
  • Fisher King: Inverted; the land and the ruler have a connection, and sometimes the land can heal the ruler. When Sulien returns to Derwen after being poisoned, the land isn't affected, but she is instantly free of the poison's effects.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Sulien tells us from the beginning that she survives to old age but outlives her king, that the king who reigns in her old age is more Jarnish than not, and that the religion of the White God has continued to expand. Past that, the connections to our mythology—that Urdo is King Arthur, and Black Darag is Cuchullain—suggest their fates and those of several other characters.
  • The High King: Urdo is king over many other kings; while he is technically also the King of Segantia, in practice it's ruled by his mother. For complicated reasons, the kings of Dun Morr end up subordinate to the Lords of Derwen, who are sometimes called kings and in any case subordinate to the High King.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The preface to the second book indicates that Martel was sainted at some point after her death. Martel was a devout follower of the White God, but also a zealot who was exiled for murdering soldiers who had surrendered.
  • Irony: A great warrior insults Elenn's fidelity to her husband, so she challenges him to a duel. She chooses as her champion the woman that she believes is her husband's former or possibly current mistress—a belief which is just as false as the insult against Elenn.
  • Jackass Genie: The Jarns' god Gangrader, who finds it amusing to give his followers exactly what they ask for, in such a way that they don't get what they actually wanted. A major example, unfolding over the course of the duology, is the outcome of Ulf's prayer that his descendants would rule as High Kings of Tir Tanagiri.
  • Kill Me Now, or Forever Stay Your Hand: Ulf to Sulien at his trial, by means of choosing unarmed combat and then refusing to fight back. She has a choice of beating him to death or sparing his life. She spares him.
  • Kissing Cousins: Subverted. Darien agrees to marry a girl who he believes is his second cousin on both sides; both Sulien (who knows he's not related to her) and Rand (who may or may not know) tell him that the relationship is distant enough for him to go through with it.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Sulien, the honorable warrior who wears literal shining plates of armor.
  • Knight Templar: Marchel, as it turns out. She's a devout pseudo-Christian… and believes that anyone who won't convert to her religion is unworthy of honorable treatment. She's exiled for executing people who were trying to surrender, and returns years later with an army.
  • Last of Her Kind: Sulien's mother Vineva is known as "The Last of the Vincans" for her devotion to Vincan (Roman) ways and culture, which are fading from Tir Tanagiri.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Urdo, as High King, could really use an heir. His wife Elenn gets pregnant once after years of waiting, and then miscarries.
  • Mad Oracle: Several examples. Part of it is that oracles can't see the future, only the futures of nearby alternate timelines, any one of which may or may not be the same as the future that actually happens.
  • The Magnificent: Gwien Open-Hand, Vineva the Last of the Vincans, Connal the Victor... Inis, Grandfather of Heroes, is also quite proud of his title, to the point where he stops using his patronymic altogether.
  • Malicious Slander: Morthu accuses Sulien of having had an incestuous relationship with her brother. This is so outrageous that most people don't believe it.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Urdo uses this to his advantage. He knows very well that Sulien's son Darien is a Child by Rape, and who the father is—but he uses the rumors that Darien is his son to reassure the people that he can have children, and may be able to have a legitimate heir. When he dies childless, he names Darien his heir. After all, everyone believes it already…
  • Manipulative Bastard: Morthu causes a civil war by spreading rumors and influencing the various kings against Urdo.
  • Meaningful Name: Ohtar Bearsson, who spent the whole series wearing a bearskin, turns into a bear at a climatic moment in the final book. (His grandson does the same thing at the same time). This ability is unique in the series and never really explained, but we can probably assume that Ohtar's dad was not just a guy named "Bear".
  • Medical Monarch: Urdo is one of the few people who can cast the elder charm and heal people when Morthru's curse inhibits the charm against wound rot; the others are Sulien (technically a king as well) and Teilo (the series' equivalent to a powerful abbess). And both Gwien Open-Hand and Darien Suliensson meet their ends trying to seek a cure for a plague.
  • Mercy Kill: Ulf to Osvran. Probably a big part of why Sulien does not kill him when she has every chance. Later, Sulien does this for her sister, who after trying to kill her attempted suicide and did not quite pull it off. Rand lets her do it, despite his own beliefs.
  • Mistaken for Romance: There are rumors that Sulien and Urdo are lovers, when they are actually Platonic Life-Partners. This actually works to their favor, as Urdo treats Sulien's son—widely believed his—as his own, allaying worries that he could not sire children, and the boy is able to succeed him as king. (It takes Sulien a long time—due to her complete lack of interest in sex or romance—to realise that the rumors about them are serious.) Less pleasantly, Connal rudely jokes that Elenn might be having sex with Ulf, who she's friendly with but nothing more. Elenn is enraged and challenges him to a duel. So that no one can say she favors any man too much, she chooses Sulien as her champion.
  • Mixed Race: Urdo is the son of a Tanagan king and a Jarnish princess. Darien has similar heritage, which makes it possible for him to be mistaken for Urdo's son.
  • More Than Mind Control: Morthu is very good at this, combining actual mind control with simple manipulation.
  • Multiple-Choice Future: All seers can see multiple possible futures, and have to weigh up which one seems most likely to come true and what they can do to bring it about. In a twist, it's said that what they're actually seeing is the futures of alternate timelines, meaning that the one future no seer will ever see is the one that's actually about to happen to them. Most of the time this makes no practical difference, since they will see futures that are like their real future in every relevant detail, but they can be blindsided if a god intervenes to cause something impossible to happen, since that won't be reflected in any other timeline.
    • Sulien herself has her life saved by divine intervention early in the series, with the result that seers have no idea what to make of her because she never appears in the futures they see.
  • No Ending: The King's Peace ends very abruptly; the split point is fairly arbitrary, coming when Sulien has to leave the ala to take her brother's place as Lord of Derwen after his very unexpected death.
  • Parental Substitute: Urdo during Darien's youth, although Darien and most of the country come to believe that he is in fact Darien's father.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Some of the arranged marriages in the series are happy, including Sulien's sister Aurien with Galba ap Galba. It helps that the marriages are often arranged with some input from the potential spouses; Sulien was originally the one engaged to Galba, but bowed out when she realized she couldn't go through with it. Aurien took her place and fell in love with Galba.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Sulien and Urdo, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding. There is no hint of romance between them, but the relationship is central to both their lives and he is definitely the most important person in hers.
  • Prophecy Armor: It's possible to curse a person to die if they ever break a particular condition; a person thus cursed will never die any other way than by the curse. It's mentioned that people have occasionally tried to come up with creative conditions that will make themselves or a loved one effectively immortal, and it always backfires horribly.
  • Rags to Royalty: Garah goes from servant to queen before her death. (In between she's an important quartermaster and spymaster.)
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: King Urdo. A little too reasonable, when it comes to Morthu—since he has no proof, his own principles mean he cannot take any action.
  • Religion Is Magic: Charms are basically set prayers which are addressed to the appropriate god. Some followers of the White God stop using charms that name gods other than their own, while others change the name (for example, Darien sings a charm to St. Rigatona, while Sulien would sing the same charm to a goddess). This seems to work just fine.
  • Royal Blood: It becomes a bit of a plot point that one pair of rulers doesn't have any. Also, it is relevant that Darien has royal blood even though it's not quite the royal blood everyone thinks…
  • Rule of Three: Characters frequently refer to "The Three Great X of the island of Tir Tanagiri," with X being anything from queens to social blunders.
  • Screaming Warrior: Sulien sometimes screams during battle, but never remembers doing so.
  • Spiteful Spit: Elenn spits in Morthu's face while he is dying of Sulien's curse.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Emer and Connal. There are three reasons that their relationship is doomed: she is married to his uncle; he killed her mother, thus causing a feud; and she cursed him to die if his name be spoken in her presence. The relationship predates all of these problems, and lasts until his death, which is a result of her curse.
  • Succession Crisis: A looming threat for most of the series. Urdo has no children; his wife becomes pregnant once and miscarries, possibly due to Morthu's machinations. Urdo asks Sulien not to deny the rumors that he is the father her son Darien, so that people will be able to hold out hope for a legitimate heir. Eventually, he ends up decreeing Darien his heir in truth, averting this trope.
  • Taking the Veil: After Urdo's death, Elenn goes to the monastery at Tansethan to recover from her captivity (and the More Than Mind Control that Morthu subjected her to). She takes vows there, and ultimately becomes head of the community.
  • Trial by Combat: The principle that the gods will ensure the victory of the righteous party is widely believed. In the major in-story example, the victory does in fact go to the righteous party, but it's ambiguous as to whether that's divine justice or just luck.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Angas takes the other side in the civil war and kills Urdo in battle. Although the new king makes peace with him, Sulien never forgives him.
  • When You Coming Home, Mom?: Sulien loves her son but sees him rarely: not only is she very busy as an armiger, but he ends up being raised at a religious community whose leader spends some time convinced she's a summoner of demons. King Urdo actually visits him more often, which is one of the reasons for the rumor that Urdo is his father.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: Ulf forces Sulien to magically heal the wound she gave him, but the healing is only partially effective and he limps for the rest of his life. Much later, Morthu uses Black Magic to prevent the use of a healing charm that is usually used to prevent wounds from becoming infected.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: Near the end of The King's Peace, Sulien has a mystical experience that seems to her to last several hours; when she returns to her companions, they tell her she's been missing for several days.

Tropes in The Prize in the Game:

  • The Ace: Darag is the best at nearly everything. This makes life frustrating for his cousins, especially Conal.
  • Amazon Brigade: Atha and her handmaidens, all skilled in the "womanly arts" of war.
  • Can't Catch Up: Leary is a distant third in the three-way rivalry between the royal nephews. Conal is more on Darag's level, but Darag is a little better at most things besides sword-fighting, and also is the son of a god.
  • Divine Parentage: Darag's unknown father turns out to be the god who (non-fatally) beheads and is beheaded by both Darag and Conal. Because of his parentage, Darag is the only one of the fighting folk of Connat who is not struck by Rhianna's curse.
  • Doomed by Canon: Ferdia's death is mentioned in The King's Name, along with Elenn's short-lived husbands. Emer will marry Lew ap Ross, even though she is in love with his nephew Conal. Also, the deaths Conal and Darag see for themselves will indeed come to pass. The outcome of the "cattle raid" is briefly mentioned by Angas when he explains the treaty to Sulien in The King's Peace.
  • Downer Ending: Ferdia is dead at Darag's hand; Conal reappears only at Emer's wedding, so she gets her lover back immediately after she gave up and let her mother marry her off to someone else. Maga has made everyone else miserable without actually getting what she wanted (she doesn't have the island, and she and Allel are still fighting as usual). Elenn is well out of it, and has a husband who will live a reasonable span of time, but...
  • Evil Matriarch: Maga treats both of her daughters cruelly. She has Elenn marry several men in an attempt to get more champions to face Darag, even though the marriages and instant deaths of her husbands take a toll on her. And it's heavily implied that she cast a spell on Emer to make her compliant with Maga's wish that she marry Lew.
  • Graceful Loser: When Atha loses to Conal, she not only surrenders but gives him a praise name: Conal the Victor.
  • Loophole Abuse: Atha can fight against Maga's "raiders" when all the fighting folk of Connat are laid low by Rhianna's curse because she was not "fighting folk of Connat" until her marriage, which occurred too late for the curse to get her too. She also brings handmaidens who are "skilled in womanly arts." Fighting and especially charioteering count as womanly arts, and her handmaidens are not fighting folk of Connat either.
  • The Rival: Conal to Darag. It's somewhat one-sided—Conal really does hate Darag, and Darag is not nearly as invested in the rivalry. Interestingly, Conal is the POV character and protagonist, while Darag is not.
  • Pregnant Badass: When Atha and Darag hold the roads for eight days, she is newly pregnant.
  • Suffer the Slings: Atha's handmaids are skilled with these. They use them against the invading army in the conclusion, forcing those soldiers to answer Atha's challenge.

Alternative Title(s): The Kings Peace


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