So, the cover. In my old paperback edition of the book, the cover art is a thin, frightened-looking woman dressed in brown riding a…well, a quasi-horselike-animal-thingy. The QHAT is silvery-blue all over, with proportions that land, in my eyes, squarely in the Equine Uncanny Valley, and flat, pupil-less blue eyes. It has blue reins and saddle and things. It’s not something I would want my hypothetical teenage daughter riding.
Let’s look at the first page:
Originally Posted by *Arrows of the Queen* A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the tree, but the young girl seated beneath it did not seem to notice. An adolescent of thirteen or thereabouts, she was, by her plain costume, a member of one of the solemn and straight-laced Hold families that lived in this Borderland of Valdemar come there to settle a bare two generations ago. She was dressed (as any young Holdgirl would be) in plain brown breeches and a long, sleeved tunic. Her unruly brown curls had been cut short in an unsuccessful attempt to tame them to conform to Hold standards. She would have presented a strange sight to anyone familiar with Holderfolk; for while she sat and carded the undyed wool she had earlier cleaned, she was reading. Few Hold girls could read, and none did so for pleasure. That was a privilege normally reserved, by longstanding tradition, for the men and boys of the Holdings. A female’s place was not to be learned; a girl reading even if she was doing a womanly task at the same time was as out of place as a scarlet jay among crows.
If anyone could have seen her thoughts at that moment, they would have known her to be even more of a misfit than her reading implied.
OK. A promising start, full of description. Let’s consider this. We learn several things about the Hold people. They recently came from another land to Valdemar. They strongly encourage plain dress and appearance, and appear to have very conservative social customs and fixed gender roles. We also learn that the girl being described doesn’t fit in. She is clearly making an effort, with her conforming to the dress standards and doing her best to keep her hair tidy. Likewise, she is choosing to mix her defiance of custom with what I assume is traditional women’s work, presumably to keep the peace and stop her from having to smack a bitch with spiky metal carding brushes.
So, based on my knowledge of the romantic fantasy, I’m going to go ahead and make a few predictions, based on the first page of the series and the cover art. The girl matches the cover art; presumably, she is the protagonist. (If so, hurrah for protagonists who seek knowledge in defiance of their soceities’s traditions. I hope we hear her saying “Excuse me, that poem was needlessly cryptic. Could you please rephrase that last bit to be more literal?” to any oracles, seers, or mad old wizards she encounters.) I assume that she will discover some magical talent that will put her at odds with her soceity, that she will flee, and will end up in a better soceity with much more liberal attitudes towards gender roles and her hypothetical magical power.
Also, I assume that the magical power will involve QHATs in some way. Let’s turn the page and find out!
The next few pages are italicized, setting them off from the main text. I assume that they are what Our Assumed Heroine is reading. The story describes a trio of Vanyel (a Herald-Mage), his lifemate Stefen (apparently neither Herald nor Mage), and Vanyel’s sister (a Herald, but not a mage). The trio has discovered an advance force of hundreds of Dark Servants (mage-warriors), marching on a small, poorly-defended outpost. Vanyel decides to hold them off, sending Stefen, his sister, and her Companion back to warn the kingdom, while taking up a position at a Hot-Gates-like pass to defend the land from the Dark Servants with his own Companion. His sister doesn’t like the plan, as it involves matching one Herald-Mage alone against 100+ Dark Servant wizard-mages, and said Servants have killed every other Herald-Mage. Vanyel points out that he won’t be alone, as he will have his Companion with him, and that it really takes at least three orders of magnitude numerical advantage to make him start paying attention to the opposition. I like this guy, although I wouldn’t be first in line to offer him a life insurance policy. I also note that he is clearly a very clever wizard, as he makes sure to make his foes obligingly bunch up in a canyon that only permits three men to march astride. We call that Burst 1 Formation where I’m from; if he’s a Zone-heavy wizard, those Dark Servants are toast.
Stefan and sister flee atop of sister’s Companion. The Dark Servants hinder their escape by animating trees with dark magic; the trees do nothing other than lurch menacingly at them. Sister, lifemate, and Companion (which, based on the equine description, may the QHAT on the cover) escape as Vanyel presumably starts getting ready to start Daily-spamming, when Our Assumed Protagonist realizes that someone is calling her, and the italicized passage ends.
OAP (who we learn is named Talia) rapidly makes to attend to the call, as it comes from Keldar Firstwife. Keldar Firstwife is tall, thin, gets black clothing instead of brown, and disapproves of Talia reading but can’t outright prohibit it. She is apparently the head of the Steading. Interesting; I had assumed that the soceity was straight-patriarchal. So Talia gather up her effects, and goes to see what Keldar is nattering about (but, you know, politely).
Kelder is not fooled by well, you know, politely. She notes through subtle body language that Talia is shockingly not thrilled at the prospect of being summoned, fusses at Talia for entirely different body language that she noted (clever, this stops Talia from knowing how you’re reading her and correcting for it). She sends Talia on, musing that she’s still dragging her feet (both literally and metaphorically) and musing that oddly, beatings haven’t corrected this. She considers…
Talia was so unlike her birth-mother that Keldar was perforce reminded of the stories of changelings. And the child had been born on Midsummer’s Eve, a time long noted for arcane connections; she as little resembled the strong, tall, blond man who was her father as her plump, fair, deceased mother…But no. That was superstition, and superstition had no place in the lives of Holderkin. It was only that she had double the usual share of stubbornness. Even the most stubborn of saplings could be bent Or broken.
…Yeah. I know relatively little about the universe of Valdemar. However, I’ve heard the music, and I know that ignoring magic doesn’t make it go away in this universe. I predict…no, I hope that several members of this community become acquainted with Contract of Elements (Fire) 5, or else start coming down with Dr. Vanyel’s Exploding Horse Syndrome (there’s a magical horse, and then you explode), but that’s not exactly in-genre for Romantic Fantasy. And yes, I did just jump from D&D 4E comparisons to C:tL. This is my WIR, and I can do that. So nyar.
Kelder ushers Talia inside, to where the reason for her summons is waiting. Talia mentally compares herself to Kelder, noting how she is all poised and in control, and how Talia never seems to be, instead seeming “hoydenish and disheveled” (Ding! New vocab word in ‘hoydenish’! It means ‘like a hoyden’, if you didn’t know either.). As one would expect while dwelling on such thoughts while adolescent, Talia almost trips entering the house, causing Kelder to make disapproving noises at her. Again, point to Kelder for making it clear to Talia that her failures and shortcomings are being noted, categorized, and cross-referenced while not actually saying or doing anything overt; Kelder is well-versed in maintaining dominion over teenagers without letting them to stop and wonder “I’m a sprightly teenager and she’s an old woman in a pre-industrial society, why has she not ‘had a terrible accident’ yet?”
Talia stares down Firstwife and nonFirstwives, wondering what she’s done wrong. The only thing she’s done bad enough to warrant all of the wifely action going on is sneaking into her father’s library to read forbidden books, like religion and history. The results of being caught at that could be;
…a beating every day for a week and a month of “exile”: being locked in a closet at night, and isolated by day, with no one allowed to speak to her or acknowledge her presence in any way, except Keldar, who would assign her chores. That had happened twice already this year. Talia began to tremble. She wasn’t sure she could bear a third time.
You know, I’m sure that things are different for teenage girls, but when my peers tried to play the “Let’s all pretend we can’t see or hear Robert.” game when I was in elementary school, it rapidly turned into the “Oh shit, Robert’s just stole my backpack and ran off with it and the Rules of the Playground prevent me from acknowledging this fact, what do I do now?” game. (I liked the second game a lot more.) At this point I have to assume that Talia is trembling, not from fear, but from the effort of saying to herself “Can’t kill them all. Musn’t kill them all. All of the farming! Yes, I need them to…farm. And…do other things. But because I can’t do all of the farming by myself, I can’t kill them all. (Yet.)”
Joy! The Wives aren’t here to accuse Talia of unauthorized literacy! They are here to…wish her happy birthday? Well, in her culture ‘Happy Birthday! Just three more years to Sweet Sixteen!’ actually equates to a long lecture on filial duties while she looks downcast meekly, but Talia is used to ignoring those.
However, the Wives aren’t here just to wish her happy birthday.
“Yes, thirteen,” Keldar repeated significantly, “And that is time to think of Marriage.”
Talia blanched, feeling as if her heart had stopped. Marriage? Oh, sweet Goddess no!
Keldar seemingly paid no heed to Talia’s reaction; a flicker of her eyes betrayed that she’d seen it, but she went callously on with her planned speech. “You’re not ready for it, of course, but no girl is. Your courses have been regular for more than a year now, you’re healthy and strong. There’s no reason why you couldn’t be a mother before the year is out It’s more than time you were in a Household as a Wife. Your Honored Father is dowering you with three whole fields, so your portion is quite respectable.”
Come on, Talia! Hunter/gathering isn’t that bad! If you know what early pregnancy will do to your lifespan, you can even justify it as self-defense!
Keldar gets in a few more digs at Talia while she’s still considering whether or not to wait until Kelder wanders off alone or just torch the place now, but does compliment her domestic and child-care skills. Another wife even lets Talia know they’re giving her the choice of being an Underwife (which means joining an established household, but forefiting any claim to any kind of power) or a Firstwife (which means she will have authority over other Wives, but runs the risk of hardship and poverty if her husband isn’t up to snuff in the breadwinning department.) Oh, and she doesn’t actually have any say in her husband. That would imply she’s interacted with men and has preferences about them, which is completely unseemly for a girl her age.
Talia considers her choices. Since Keldar dominates the husband-choosing process, she’s sure to pick a prime husband (by her standards, must include being able to break stubborn saplings), no matter what Talia chooses. However, even if Keldar isn’t evil, being a wife of any sort will entail regularly bearing children and doing chores, and will leave her without any time to escape into tales. Talia might have considered hemming and hawing, and choosing an option simply to flee later, but her Wyrd rebels at such false-speaking, and instead she blurts out “I don’t want to be Married at all!” (Hmm. Random capitalization. I wonder if this will be a thing, or even a Thing, as the books continue.)
Apparently, in the Holds, the one alternative to marriage is joining the priesthood. For women, this means solitude, confinement, silence, and a lifetime of prayer and nothing else. Talia hastily disabuses the wives of the idea that this is what she’s after.
This does not please Keldar. She walks up, grabs Talia, and asks her what she wants, in the tones you’d imagine “So, you don’t want leaded gasoline or unleaded gasoline. What are you going to run your car on, smart guy?” Talia tries to say something reconcilitory, about not wanting anything to change. Fuck that for the lie it is, her Wyrd says. Speak truth. So, Talia does, proclaming her desire to be a Herald to all and sundry.
This has roughly the same effect on Keldar as a casual reply to the comparison question of “Baby blood. More expensive that just virgin, but you get better MPG.” would likely entail. The Wives immediately start blaming each other for Talia’s shocking statement. Keldar looks to start focusing this displeasure where it belongs, but Talia managed to sneak out in the moment of confusion her statement caused. Let that be a lesson to you, Keldar. Don’t play social games with anyone who might be fey-touched.
Talia flees to a hidden place only she knows of and prepared for previously. She is desperately afraid, and is crying as silently as she can to make sure she is not found. If she returns now, she will certainly be married to the most horrible man Keldar can find (and the Holds apparently have no shortage of horrible men, such as her brother, who previously threatened her with a hot poker.) She might be offered as a Temple Servant; this is even more restrictive than joining the clergy proper. And if she simply runs away, she will be at the mercy of the Borderlands, which are full of bandits and worse things, and Talia has neither weapons nor the skill to wield them to keep her safe. (Oddly, the thought of accepting a marriage, poisoning her husband, and making a run for it with whatever of her husband’s wealth she can carry doesn’t enter her mind. It’s probably that fey nature keeping her honest.)
Talia desperately wishes that this was a tale, and then there is a cut to italics. In italics, someone calls to Talia, who answers. Joy! It’s a Herald, come seeking Talia to make her one of them, and grant her a Companion of her very own! Keldar and Talia’s Father (yes, Father. The Capitalization is apparently an official Thing.) Others from the Hold join them, and
the Hold servants cheered, her sibs stared in sullen respect, and Keldar and her Father stared at her in plain fear, obviously thinking of all the punishments they’d meted out to HER and expecting the same now that she was the one in power-
The sound of hoofbeats on the Road broke into her desperate daydream.
Ouch. That was harsh. I had been kind of hoping that Talia would unveil her hidden fey powers and start casting Exploding Horse and the like early, but apparently she’s going to have to work for her power. I predict that she will eventually decide to run away, knowing how dangerous it is, Very Bad things will almost happen, and then magic, horse, or both will manifest to save the day.
So, in response to the hoofbeats, Talia…huh.
For one panicked moment she thought it was another searcher, but then she realized that her Father’s horses sounded nothing like this. These hoofbeats had a chime like bells on the hard surface. As the sound drew nearer, it was joined by another; the sound of real bells, of bridle bells. Only one kind of horse wore bridle bells every day, and not just on Festival Days the magical steed of legend, a Herald’s Companion.
Talia had never seen a real Herald, though she’d daydreamed about them constantly. The realization that she was Finally going to see one of her dreams in actual fact startled her out of her fantasy and her tears completely. The distraction was too tempting to resist. For just this one moment she would forget her troubles, her hopeless position, and snatch a tiny bit of magic for herself, to treasure all her days. She leaned out of her cave, stretching as far out as she could, thinking of nothing except to catch a glimpse and leaned out too far. She lost her balance, and her flailing hands caught nothing but air. She tumbled end over end down the bluff, banging painfully into roots and rocks. The wind was knocked out of her before she was halfway down, and nothing she collided with seemed to slow her descent any. She was locally unable to stop her headlong tumble until she landed on the hard surface of the Road itself, with a force that set sparks to dancing in front of her eyes and left her half-stunned.
OK, if I were a patriarch in a society that recognized that knowledge is power, I would make a point of knowing things like this. I would make a point of knowing that everyone associates random bridle bells with Herald’s Companions. I do know when someone is messing with my library. And if my Wives were to come to me saying “Uh, your daughter said she wanted to be a Herald than ran off and we can’t find her.”, I’d want to have something I knew could lure her back, something I knew my wayward daughter wouldn’t be able to resist investigating. I think this is about to turn somewhere between Bad (if it’s her father) or Very Bad, In The Official Romantic Fantasy Sense (if it’s a prospective husband).
When the grayness cleared away from her vision and she could get a breath again, she found herself sprawled face downward on the Road. Her hands were scraped, her sides bruised, her knees full of gravel, and her eyes full of dirt. When she turned her head to the side, blinking tears away, she found she was gazing at four silver hooves.
She gave a strangled gasp and scrambled painfully to her feet. Regarding her with a gentle curiosity was a-well, a Herald’s Companion was hardly what one would call a “horse.” They transcended horses in the way that panthers transcend alleycats, or angels transcend men. Talia had read and heard plenty of descriptions of the Companions before, but she was still totally unprepared for the close-hand reality.
…I did not predict that. OK, that’s good. In fact, that’s better than I was hoping! Go, Talia! Claim your epic mount and start grinding XP so you can learn Exploding Horse!
The riderless Companion was in full formal array, his trappings silver and sky-blue, his reins hung with silver bridle bells. No horse in Talia’s experience had that slender, yet muscular grace or could match the way he seemed to fly without taking a single step. He was white-Companions were always white-but nothing on earth could possibly match that glowing, living, radiant white. And his eyes-When Talia finally had the courage to look into those sapphire eyes, she lost track of the world. She was lost in blue more vast than a sea and darker than sky and full of welcome so heart-filling it left no room for doubt.
So, the Companions defy conventional three-dimensional space by looking both thick and thin, and seem to move while standing still. And he has hypno-eyes. There’s a joke about white horses actually being grey, but as Companions transcend horses apparently the exact way Hounds of Tindolas transcend bloodhounds, I’ll let it pass for now.
The Companion projects into Talia’s mind, telling her that he chooses her, that they are each other’s, and that never again will there be loneliness. This is accompanied with intense emotional reactions of joy and pain, of freedom and binding, and of deep and perfect love and acceptance, the last two of which Talia returns.
Then the Companion wipes her memory. No, seriously. He tells her to forget, and Talia is now standing on the side of the road by the Companion, not sure exactly what just happened.
OK, I can handle this. We’ve established that the Companions are…otherworldly, let’s say, and that Talia might not have all that much SAN left. So, he’s going to explain to her what happened slowly and gently, and-
But for now there was a soft nose nudging Talia’s chest, and the Companion was whickering gently at her.
It was as though someone were putting loving arms about her, and urging her to cry all her unhappiness out. She flung both her arms around his neck and wept unrestrainedly into his silky mane. The feeling of being held and comforted intensified as soon as she touched him, and she lost herself in the unfamiliar but welcome sensation. Unlike her lone crying in her cave, this session of tears brought peace in its wake, and before too long she was able to dry her eyes on a corner of her tunic and take heed of her surroundings again.
OK, the eldritch QHAT is manipulating her emotions. It’s not giving her any indication that it’s doing this. At this point, I’m thinking…well, I reread the passage describing the choosing, and it reads a lot like Talia just married a horse. A psychic horse, with possible inclination towards BDSM and power exchange, although given the reins and bridle that last bit is probably expected. I get that the Companion loves Talia and is doing this to help her, but doing it without a “Hey, do you mind if I do this?”, “Hey, I’m doing this, FYI”, or even “Hey, did you know I can do this?” is less loving and more creepy, at least to me.
Talia notes the Companion’s empty saddle, and desperately wishes she could claim him and ride away on him. But Companions can only belong to Heralds, and Talia isn’t a Herald, so she needs to bring the Companion back to whatever Herald it ran away from. Wait, what does she mean, ‘belong to’? Isn’t the horse supposed to be sentient? *makes a tally in the Evidence Of Creepy BDSM Horse column* And for that matter, didn’t Talia just literally take a third option from the only things she supposed to do? Maybe the Heralds aren’t all the tales say. Maybe this horse fled willingly, and seeks to choose someone other than a Herald. Why do you think it has to be the way it is in your stories, Talia? (Well, aside from fey blood. That seems to explain a lot about her.)
A new thought occurred to her, and for the first time that afternoon, hope brightened her for a moment as she saw a way out of her dilemma. “Maybe…maybe they’ll be grateful. Maybe they’ll let me work for them. They must need someone to do their cooking and sewing and things. I’d do anything for Heralds ” The soft blue eyes seemed to agree that this was a good idea. “They’re bound to be nicer than Keldar. They’re so kind and wise in all the tales. I bet they’d let me read when I wasn’t working. I’d get to see Heralds all the time.” Tears lumped her throat again. “Maybe they’d let me see you, once in a while.”
The Companion only whickered again, and stretching his neck out, nudged her with his velvet nose toward his saddle, maneuvering for her to mount.
What. I don’t…what…OK. What the fuck, horse? Why the fuck are you drawing this out? Why the fuck are you /encouraging/ this?
You like this, don’t you? You’re not a Lovecraftian monster, you’re one of the thrice-damned Fair Folk! I bet Talia’s emotional rollercoaster is like sweet, sweet candy to you, you sick horse-thing! What the frigging hell is keeping you from saying, telepathing, or drawing on the ground with your goddamed silvered hooves (of course you’re shod in silver and not iron, it should have been obvious from the start) actual words? Your emotional reassurances don’t look like they’re making Talia any more stable, do they? You say you love her? Well, love means more than doing what you think is best. It means respecting the one you love! It means treating them like an equal! For fuck’s sake, Talia isn’t just a ball of emotions for you to manipulate! She has a mind, one she nurtured in the face of extreme adversity! She fucking thinks about things! Fucking give her information and let her think about it, you fucking horse!
….Sorry, that kind of got away from me. Emotional manipulation, especially emotional manipulation “for your own good” and in place of careful thought and rational analysis sets me off at times. Anyway, back to the story.
Talia resists the Companion’s suggestion that she mount him (…you know what, not going to touch that one for now), but relents, due to a combination of empathic feedback and the realization that it’s probably going to be a long walk to return the Companion. She mounts the companion and rides him, noting that he rides much more smoothly than (…No! Not going there!) any of the other horses she’s ridden before. She exults in the freedom that is a galloping steed, leaving behind her old life both physically and metaphorically. The chapter ends on a rather creepy note that if this is a daydream, Talia would prefer to die in the middle of it than wake and have to face the world without her new Companion.
– – –
So, this was Chapter 1. I like it! WIR-license-exaggeration aside, the Companions are still creepy, but I like Talia. She risks terrible punishment to read, and I respect that, and while she does experience pain and fear, she can push them aside and take action when she needs to. Now, if she can just somehow trade the horse for a phoenix…