Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC, Gay MC with OCD, M/M
This debut work of sociological science fiction follows a deadly battle for succession, where brother is pitted against brother in a singular chance to win power and influence for their family.
The cavern city of Pelismara has stood for a thousand years. The Great Families of the nobility cling to the myths of their golden age while the city's technology wanes.
When a fever strikes, and the Eminence dies, seventeen-year-old Tagaret is pushed to represent his Family in the competition for Heir to the Throne. To win would give him the power to rescue his mother from his abusive father, and marry the girl he loves.
But the struggle for power distorts everything in this highly stratified society, and the fever is still loose among the inbred, susceptible nobles. Tagaret's sociopathic younger brother, Nekantor, is obsessed with their family's success. Nekantor is willing to exploit Tagaret, his mother, and her new servant Aloran to defeat their opponents.
Can he be stopped? Should he be stopped? And will they recognize themselves after the struggle has changed them?
~do not trust the pretty glowy floaty things
~the sky is a myth
~gloves will save your life
~“My heart is as deep as the heavens. No word uttered in confidence will escape it.”
~cavern-cities are safe from everything except other people
Reader, I have a new favourite series.
Like so many other books I’ve fallen in love with, I discovered Wade’s Broken Trust series via KA Doores’ annual list of queer SFF – 2021’s list included book two of the series, Transgressions of Power, and it sounded interesting, so I picked up book one to give it a try.
And was hooked pretty much instantly.
VARIN IS A PLACE WHERE HUMANS HAVE ALWAYS LIVED ON AN ALIEN WORLD.
IT IS ALSO YOUR HOME.
The world Wade has created is phenomenal – detailed, intricate, believable, and other – by which I mean, the society and culture (cultures, really) of Varin are not drawn from any real-world culture; the characters are very human, but the society they live in is just alien enough to make it really feel like we’re not in Kansas anymore. Too often, I see fictional worlds which really don’t capture that sense of being separate from ours; settings that don’t feel like they developed organically on another planet or in some other dimension, uninfluenced by our world’s history and religions and conflicts and everything else. But the world of Mazes absolutely feels like that – as though Wade isn’t writing fiction, but is instead giving us a look into a real place, populated by real people; a parallel universe, maybe, where humans evolved on some other planet entirely and thus turned out very differently.
Does that make sense?
Mazes is set in the capital city Pelismara – which exists entirely underground; of all the characters we meet in this book, only two have ever seen the open sky. The people of Pelismara – actually, all the people of Varin, the world in which Mazes is set – are divided into castes, with each caste having its own role in the function of society; Arissen are guards and police officers; Imbati serve; and the Grobal…well, the Grobal rule. Or the men do, at least; unlike the other castes we see, the Grobal are very patriarchal. Grobal women are meant to be decorative, good helpmeets, and, most of all, fertile – Grobal birthrates are very low, Grobal children tend to be pretty sickly, and Kinders fever, while occasionally dangerous to members of other castes, is pretty much a death-sentence for any Grobal who contracts it. Grobal are very much obsessed with the Failure of the Race and their Duty to the Race (aka, the low birthrate and the duty to procreate) and all in all, I suspect Wade deliberately gave the Grobal caste the only caste-name that sounds unpleasant (‘grobal’ is simply not a very pretty word) because there’s not much about the Grobal to like. They’re misogynistic, classist, insular, arrogant, queerphobic, and go all-in on demonising rape victims and sex work and marrying young women off to much older men. They’re a fairly clear stand-in for white supremacists in way too many ways.
Although there are definitely Grobal individuals who are pretty great, like Tagaret, a young Grobal man whose love of music is greater than his fear of Kinders fever, as we see when he risks attending a concert despite a potential outbreak, and his mother Tamelera, who takes refuge from her horrific marriage in designing exquisite clothing. Then there’s Nekantor, Tageret’s younger brother and Tamelera’s son, who is definitely not someone I’d want to be friends with – he’s manipulative, abusive, and doesn’t recognise most people as being actual people – but who is still incredibly interesting, and whom I felt real sympathy for even when he was transitioning into villain territory.
Then there’s Aloran, who is Imbati, and becomes Tamelera’s in less-than-ideal circumstances. There’s no missing noun in the previous sentence, by the way; Imbati who bind themselves into a Grobal’s service have no family names and are simply referred to as ‘Tamelera’s Aloran’, very much as if the Imbati are possessions rather than people. But the relationship between Grobal and Imbati is far more complex than it might look at first; an Imbati is servant, butler, dresser, confidante, aide, and bodyguard all in one to their Grobal, and to the Imbati this service is a kind of holy calling. It’s an incredibly fascinating dynamic, made more so because the main Grobal/Imbati relationship we see – Tamelera and Aloran – is unconventional from the beginning. Aloran also serves as a kind of relief to the reader; seeing his horror and outrage at how the Grobal live – and how Grobal women are treated, in particular – both reassures us that Wade is fully aware of what she’s doing re writing the Grobal as utterly terrible people and tells us that this is not how the other castes live at all.
(Alas that we don’t get to see much of how other castes live in this book. Having finished book two, I can promise you that we see much more of the other castes later, and what we see is so much better than I could ever have hoped for.)
to be the man Mother wanted everyone to see, he had to stand gracefully, making the high mosaic vaults his portrait frames, and the crystal chandeliers his spotlights.
The story itself is as deliciously intricate as the worldbuilding; when the current Eminence dies, the Twelve Grobal Families (that’s right, TWELVE – they’re infertile and sickly because they’re inbred as hell) go into a frenzy as Selection begins, a political ritual that sees each Family put forward a candidate to become the new Heir. Selection is a time of infighting, backstabbing, blackmail, and outright assassination, and is further complicated for our main characters because despite his father’s insistence, Tagaret has less than zero interest in being his family’s candidate. Whereas Nekantor goes full-on megalomaniac, a process that starts to wrack up a body-count – metaphorical and literal – pretty quickly, and is further complicated by his OCD in a society that demonises neurodivergence and any kind of disability. And both brothers – Nekantor and Tagaret – have to navigate queer relationships that must be kept utterly secret, since the Grobal are as appalled by queerness as they are by neurodiversity.
Did I mention I don’t like the Grobal??? At all??? Because I don’t. I really, really don’t.
I never got the sense that I was supposed to, though; as I said above, Mazes of Power very much feels like Wade knows what she’s doing and is in control of it – the Grobal are not a group to admire, but one that needs to be dismantled, and the quiet subplot of certain characters developing stronger and stronger feelings re social reform was probably my favourite of the various plotlines. Most of all, though, I was absolutely in love with how detailed and unique the worldbuilding was, and with Wade’s prose; I mean, this has got to be right up there on the list of all-time best first lines–
Tagaret believed in music the same way he believed in the sky.
I mean. !!! What an intro to both the concept of the cavern-cities and Tagaret’s love of music!
It’s a little hard for me to rate Mazes of Power now that I’ve already read and loved the sequel, Transgressions of Power – Transgressions was definitely more to my taste, being much more queer with a story that was much more direct about the need for social change, so I suspect my feelings for Transgressions are colouring my memories of Mazes, at least a little. For sure, this is not a nice book. The Grobal are queerphobic, disgusted by neurodiversity and disability, and misogynistic. You could argue that the Grobal/Imbati relationship is slavery. There is marital rape and domestic violence. I know readers who weren’t at all happy with the portrayal of queerness, or how those queer relationships are resolved (as a queer person myself, I had no problems with those aspects), and others who were upset by the treatment of Nekantor’s OCD (although again, as a nuerodivergent person, I thought it was made pretty clear that it wasn’t his OCD that was the problem, but his society’s view of it, and what he does to overcome that prejudice/win the ‘game’ his caste plays with politics). Even the characters we’re supposed to like carry the prejudices of their society, and do some things we’d consider despicable because of it. I think it’s an amazing book packed full of flawed people and deliberately fucked-up worldbuilding, and I would absolutely ask that anyone who has mixed feelings about Mazes push through to get to the next book, because it’s so, so worth it. But I would equally understand anyone who decides that this isn’t the right book for them.
I know that I did love Mazes even before I got to Transgressions; not as much, maybe, but still a hell of a lot. Enough that I bought book two before I was finished with book one, and preordered book three once I did finish book one! Enough that Juliette Wade has gone straight onto my auto-buy list of authors – I’ll read anything she decides to write.
Although I hope what she decides to write for the next little while is set in Varin, because I’m not even slightly ready to leave this world and these characters!