Queen's Hunt by Beth Bernobich
Cover art by Scott Grimando
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In her freshman novel, Passion Play, Beth Bernobich introduced us to Ilse Zhalina, who fled her family home rather than be wed to a clearly abusive man, only to have her un-streetwise naivete land her in even worse straits when the caravan master to whom she entrusted herself proved to be an even worse sort of abuser. Only a series of chance events finally landed her in the hands of a good man, but he proved even more complex, a former courtier who now ran a brothel that actually functioned as a center for intelligence operations. The very act of trusting him, of accepting a responsible position within his organization, placed her in danger -- and thus brought everything she'd built for herself to an abrupt end.
I had some reservations about Ms. Bernobich's handling of bullying, and particularly the way in which it became conflated with the rite-of-passage rituals by which a newcomer is integrated into an established group, such that it appeared to be reinforcing the destructive tropes that bullying is just part of life, that dealing with it is the victim's responsibility, that surviving it can be an empowering experience that better equips one to deal with life. But even with those reservations, I could tell I had a significant work in my hands, the beginning of a very promising new series of epic fantasy by an author who's not afraid to confront the harshness of pre-Industrial life, who doesn't try to prettify it away, but equally who doesn't wallow in the nastiness and brutality of it like certain male writers of late have taken to doing.
Thus I was quite excited to hear that the sequel had come out, since the ending of Passion Play clearly indicated that we had not seen the last of Ilse Zhalina and her complicated relationship with Lord Raul Kosenmark, courtier and spymaster. Far from it, I could see strong signs that Ilse's removal to a distant city, ostensibly to protect Raul from machinations going on in the capital, would be the stepping-off point for another novel.
However, when I first sat down to read Queen's Hunt, I was somewhat surprised to meet a brand new character, one Gerek Hessler. We also learn more about the concept of life-dreams, which were mentioned in passing in Passion Play. Now we learn that this world is one in which reincarnation is not only known to be objectively real, but is going to be an ongoing force in the storyline, as characters work out unresolved conflicts from previous lives, fully aware that they have lived before and had different relationships with the other characters with whom they will interact this time around.
When we first meet him, Gerek is coming to Tiralien with letters of recommendation and other preparations, seeking employment at Lord Raul Kosenmark's house. It soon becomes obvious that his motives are more complex than he presented them to his new employer, and that they deal in some way with the painful circumstances that led to Ilse's introduction to Raul's household. Maybe my worries that this story was going in a completely alien direction were unfounded, and Ilse would soon reappear.
As I read further, I was not disappointed, for Ilse returned a few chapters later. Some time has passed since the end of Passion Play, during which Ilse has been busy, and not just in her official capacity as secretary for a new bawdy house in Osterling Keep, which seems to be as much a military outpost as a city. For one thing, she's been busy drilling with some of the soldiers, trying to develop fighting skills she feels she may need. And somewhere along the line, she's learned some serious skill in magic.
In Passion Play, magic was presented as something very rare, that an ordinary person might glimpse from a distance at some extraordinary moment in their life, but which by and large was primarily the province of myth and legend unless one was a member of the royal elite that might attract one of the relatively few users of magic. But at the same time, the focus of that novel was quite narrow, on Ilse's personal struggle to find her place in the world after her father's home became an intolerable place for her. Even when she was fleeing across the countryside after her escape from Alaric Brand's clutches, the extent of her trauma and her inability to know how to trust led her to avoid the villages she passed, so we learned nothing about them. Once she became a member of Raul's household, and particularly after she gained a responsible position, we learned bits and snatches of the story of Leos Dzavek and his search for the three mysterious jewels that were associated with the goddess Lir, jewels of vast magical power. Even so, it remained peripheral to Ilse's story.
Not so any longer. Almost as soon as we reacquaint ourselves with Ilse, she's on a mission into the magical realm of Anderswar, sometimes called Autrevelye, in search of the jewels. There a foul monster approaches her, claiming to know the way to the jewels if she's willing to pay the price, only to trick and betray her. The brutal sexual elements of this encounter are a stark reminder of the psychic scars she bears as a result of her abuse at the hands of Alaric Brand and his men -- especially if one goes with the idea that the various guardians of Anderswar are formed from the dark and hidden parts of the seeker's own mind.
But Ilse gets no time to ponder the encounter, for she's thrust into an emergency that calls out the local garrison, including a young woman fighter, Galena Alighero, who's infatuated with her. The situation turns very bad, and Galena freezes in panic during a critical encounter, leaving her in disgrace.
Thus begins the sequence of events which put Galena and Ilse on a collision course with the titular queen, Valara Baussay of the mysterious lost kingdom of Morennioù. She too is searching for the jewels of Lir, and when her investigations in the magical realm went awry, she was captured and held prisoner in Osterling Keep. So she's been struggling to escape, and finds the newly humiliated Galena quite susceptible to recruitment. And thus begins a desperate chase through both the material realm and the magical, simultaneously seeking the long-lost jewels of Lir and information on the intentions and plans of King Dzavek, whose forces have been moving with greater frequency and in patterns that suggest he is about to make a major move against someone or something.
Meanwhile, Raul has been given word of Ilse's disappearance from Osterling Keep. Alarmed, he has left Tiralen to lead the search for her in person -- and thus undid the very protection Ilse had sought to give him by leaving his establishment and striking out on her own. For Leos Dzavek is not the only person searching for the jewels. So is the king's mage, Markus Khandarr, a powerful and ambitious man who may or may not have the best interests of the kingdom at heart when he goes about his various machinations.
When I originally realized that Passion Play ended with the setup for a second novel, I had assumed that it was the first of a trilogy. However, I am happily surprised to discover that Ms. Bernobich has eschewed the trilogy format, which has become so standard in epic fantasy but which in fact was originally an accident of the economics of publishing in the United Kingdom at the time The Lord of the Rings came out. Instead of being a middle volume of three, Queen's Hunt in fact brings the storyline of the quest for the jewels of Lir and the threaded lives that surround King Dzavek to a close. It's a bittersweet ending, with equal measures of triumph and tragedy as a man old beyond his natural span is brought to see the necessity of accepting mortality, while another is cut down before his time and a love that might have been is cut short because another hesitated to act upon it while there was still time.
The author scores another triumph in her handling of the matter of the jewels. I've noted that many of the various imitators who cropped up after Tolkien's resounding success have failed to grasp the real heart of The Lord of the Rings; namely, the rejection of power over others. While in the traditional literature quests were typically to retrieve something, Tolkien gave us an anti-quest, a journey of seeking to destroy the very Object of Power which was the core of the story. The Ruling Ring was inherently evil, the product of Sauron's malice and illegitimate desire to exercise domination over those he had no right to rule, which meant any effort to use it by the good guys would inevitably be warped and twisted into evil, as witness the fall of Sauruman the White as he thought to either use the Ring against its master or to create his own Ring to strive against Sauron. Thus the only solution was to take the Ring to Mount Doom where it was forged and destroy it utterly, so that it would no longer be around to work evil or tempt others into working evil.
However, most of Tolkien's imitators have gone back to the old pattern of the quest to retrieve or otherwise gain the object of power. Of course in many of them it's a good object that was lost or outright stolen, and the Dark Lord is intending to sully in some unspeakable fashion that will forever despoil the good peoples of the fictional world and their lands. But somehow it doesn't have quite the power of the idea of rejecting an Object of Power, and by destroying it setting everyone free to work out their own destinies for good or ill, without tyrants or well-meaning do-gooders to compel their wills.
Given that in this novel the Objects of Power are jewels, it would hearken back to another kind of Object of Power Tolkien wrote about long before he set forth to tell the story of the end of the Third Age and the fall of Sauron with the destruction of the Ruling Ring. That is of course the Silmarils, the three jewels of Feanor, made from the light of the Two Trees and hallowed by Varda queen of the Valar, then stolen by Melkor who was Dark Lord before Sauron. They were the subjects of various quests, most notably that of Beren, in response to King Thingol's setting what he thought to be an impossible bride-price for his daughter Luthien. But they were also the object of the terrible Oath of Feanor, by which all the efforts of elves and mortals to retrieve the Silmarils became entangled with suspicion, betrayal and murder, until all three of the fabulous jewels were placed forever beyond the reach of embodied beings.
However, in the conclusion of Queen's Hunt we see a completely new take on the theme. Fantasy has been called an essentially conservative genre, in contrast to science fiction. We may have a world populated by multiple intelligences, but the various elves and dwarves and orcs are almost always pretty much variations on humans, with few significant physiological differences from Homo sapiens, and almost no real behavioral ones (compare the atevi of C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, who may be superficially humanlike in outward form, but have a vastly different way of forming social relationships that makes them very alien indeed). Occasionally we'll see a fantasy novel with Talking Animals or Petting Zoo People who are treated as equal to human-type people, but when we have talking swords or other artifacts that exhibit intelligence and volition, they are still objects, not people.
By contrast, in this novel we have an almost science fictional response of our protagonists to the discovery that the jewels of Lir are in fact thinking entities, able to talk and reason and desire. It makes me think of Aide, the charming crystal from the future who serves as counselor and friend to Belisarius in David Drake and Eric Flint's fascinating alternate history of the Byzantine empire battling against an India dominated by an evil computer from the future.
Although this novel completes the storyline that began in Passion Play, it will not be our last visit to the River of Souls universe. At least two more novels in that world are already contracted, and the author has mentioned an additional novel she would like to write.
I just wish the publisher would've kept the same style of cover design that was used in the hardcover release of Passion Play. It was actually prepared, and looked quite handsome -- and then someone in the marketing department decided to 86 it and replace it with the current very dark cover with the model in a decidedly awkward pose, which is quite similar to a lot of fantasy covers I've seen lately that feature women in improbable poses and outfits that expose far too much skin for someone who's supposed to be an accomplished fighter and wielding an edged weapon. But it appears that these covers sell better than the original cover that was never used, and given that an author's success is entirely dependent upon her ongoing sales, I guess something's working.
Review posted January 1, 2013.
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