Genres: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Representation: Brown MC
PoV: Third Person, Past Tense, Multiple PoVs
The Kingdom of Wendar is in turmoil. King Henry still holds the crown, but his reign has long been contested by his sister Sabella, and there are many eager to flock to her banner. Internal conflict weakens Wendar's defences, drawing raiders, human and inhuman, across its borders. Terrifying portents abound and dark spirits walk the land in broad daylight.
Suddenly two innocents are thrust into the midst of the conflict. Alain, a young man granted a vision by the Lady of Battles, and Liath, a young woman with the power to change the course of history. Both must discover the truth about themselves before they can accept their fates. For in a war where sorcery, not swords, may determine the final outcome, the price of failure may be more than their own lives.
~a literal Book of Secrets
~circle > cross
~be very afraid of the dogs
Sometimes a story – and storyteller – doesn’t have to create something wholly new to be groundbreaking. Sometimes you can create something truly special by leaning in to the conventions and cliches and breathing new life into the tried-and-true(-and-tired).
And that’s exactly what Kate Elliott did in her seven-volume Crown of Stars series (completed in 2006, averaging at about 650 pages per book). It may look like the most cliched of old-school fantasy – a Medieval Europe-esque setting, with castles and kings and a Christianity stand-in – but that’s just Elliott tricking you into letting your guard down.
So if the idea of the traditional and expected bores you…don’t turn away just yet. King’s Dragon might be camouflaged to blend in with the other epic fantasies of the 90s, but I promise: it is a very different animal!
I think that was intentional. I think Kate Elliott decided, deliberately, to take on the traditions of the genre and beat the all-male superstars at their own game.
And I think she’s succeeded.
Let’s start with the setting. King’s Dragon is set in an analogue of Medieval Europe which, at first glance, looks exactly how we expect Epic Fantasy to look – see aforementioned kings, castles, and Christianity. If anything, it’s more accurately Medieval than most books, because it’s clear Elliott has done a ton of research into every possible detail, from etiquette to clothing to food to the level of technology and scholarship – and all of it has been worked beautifully into the intricate story. But it all looks reasonably familiar.
Until suddenly, it really, really doesn’t.
Remember that Christianity-analogue I mentioned? The religion of Wendar and Varre (conjoined kingdoms under the rule of a single king, and not completely happy about it) is that of the Unities, which has priests and bishops (‘biscops’) and a holy saviour who preached the Word and was raised to Heaven (‘the Chamber of Light’). Younger children of noble families are given to the Church, as are freeborn children whose families can’t provide for them. There are saints, martyrs, even a pope (here called the ‘skopos’). The language of the Church is Dariyan, aka Latin, the language of the largest empire ever extant in the known world. There is a great deal of talk of submitting to the hierarchy of society, because God is the one who put that in place; of submitting to God and God’s will; the divine right of the monarchy; of holy virtues, sacrilege, and sin.
In Christianity, God is not actually male, but beyond the confines of gender. Go back to the Hebrew Torah, and in some instances the word for God is actually the plural form. I can only presume that Elliott knows this too, because she took the idea and ran with it: the word ‘God’, in the world of King’s Dragon, is a plural. So instead of saying ‘God has blessed you’, a person instead says ‘God have blessed you’, because here, God is both Lord and Lady.
That might not immediately strike you as a big deal. In another book, in the hands of a lesser writer, maybe it wouldn’t be. Here, it changes everything. Here, the fact that the Lady rules the hearth has been interpreted to mean that it is women who own property, learn the trades of their mothers, and rule the home or estate. Men marry into their wife’s family and, since the Lord wields the sword, those from noble or richer families train for war – and that’s kind of it. Women are considered the stronger sex, revered for their ability to give birth (there is nonbinary rep later in the series, but it’s quite a few books away from King’s Dragon), and considered better suited to all things intellectual. So Wendar and Varre share a society that definitely skews to the matriarchal end of the spectrum – although it’s a fair bit more complicated than that, as any real-life society would be. Men are certainly not oppressed to the point that women were in our world’s history, for example, nor in the same kind of ways. Wendar and Varre are ruled by a king, and we meet plenty of men who hold a great deal of wealth, political power, or both.
…Though granted, now I think about it, they’re mostly men without wives.
Anyway HI, I AM COMPLETELY IN LOVE WITH ALL THIS WORLDBUILDING!
To say nothing of all the kinds of Easter eggs scattered throughout the text for armchair Classical scholars; for instance, the word ‘skopos’ is Greek, but ‘biscop’ comes from Old English. Whereas in our world Virgil wrote the Aeneid, in Elliot’s world Virgilia instead penned the Heleniad – which personally I would love to read.
I’m sure there’s plenty more I didn’t pick up on, but the ones I did absolutely delighted me.
It’s actually quite difficult to try and sum up the plot of King’s Dragon, because there are so many threads. In the simplest possible terms, the book is more or less split between Liath – a dark-skinned young woman whose father has given her some little training in forbidden sorcery – and Alain, a young man promised to the Church even though all he wants is to travel and have adventures. There are several more POV characters (the book is written in third person) but I suppose you could call Liath and Alain the main ones. Liath’s father is murdered by sorcery and she is made slave to the horrific (and horrifically beautiful) Father Hugh, while Alain is kept from taking the vows of the Church by no less than an apparition of the Lady of Battles, who makes it clear that she has her own plans for him. This all takes place alongside an invasion by the Eika, terrible dragon-humanoid creatures who are more complicated than they at first seem (no ravening orc hordes here, however much they appear to be mindless monsters at first), and a battle for succession between the two legitimate daughters of King Henry. The eldest daughter is a spoilt brat with no head for ruling, but the younger is cold and not well-liked – and all are aware that their father favours their illegitimate older brother over both of them.
Even though Sanglant, the illegitimate prince in question, has no interest in ruling anything but the King’s Dragons, the elite cavalry force of the kingdom.
Complicated? You have no idea. The succession laws of the kingdom state that no prince or princess can inherit until they have had their year’s Progress, during which they must either fall pregnant or sire a healthy child to prove their fertility. This is one of the few areas where I feel that the worldbuilding is skewed in men’s favour, since it’s obviously harder to become pregnant than impregnate someone else, meaning men have a better chance of succeeding in their Progress than women do. Which is plot-relevant: King Henry’s elder sister Sabella failed to become pregnant during her Progress, whereas Henry sired Sanglant – but Sabella has had children since, proving that she’s fertile and therefore, by some arguments, the rightful Queen. And Sabella is intent on claiming the throne – which would mean civil war.
Then there’s the complication of Sanglant himself. In the prologue of King’s Dragon, we learn that not only was Sanglant’s mother Aoi – think of them as elves who live in a realm not accessible to humans, although in later books it becomes apparent that they are in fact AZTEC-INSPIRED elves, which is so many levels of awesome I cannot even – anyway, not only was Sanglant’s mother Aoi, but confusingly, she considered his conception and birth a chore, and is eager to be gone the moment his infant self can survive without her. This probably has something to do with the casual prophecy – or maybe declaration – that she makes about him; that no disease or creature male or female will be able to kill him.
There is foreshadowing for sure, but King’s Dragon – in fact, the first few books of the series – is more High Fantasy (concerned with the fate of kingdoms) than Epic Fantasy (concerned with the fate of the world). Corrupt biscops are working dark magic, unearthly creatures are hunting for Liath and her father’s book, a goddess of war is watching over Alain, but the reasons behind these things are, as yet, unexplained. The much more immediate issues of civil war and the invasion of the Eika take centre stage, and I admit, sometimes that made me impatient – I wanted the bigger picture, the Epic story rather than the High one. But a) Elliott’s prose is dense and rich and easy to get happily lost in, and b) it does make the whole story feel more believable, more real, more human, to focus in on the small picture first. Perhaps the Epic plotlines – which in fairness are being seeded already in this book – wouldn’t have as much impact if we didn’t have the background context, if we didn’t know all the players before we came to that part of the game. And it does put a very particular kind of twist in the reader’s stomach; knowing you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, but you have enough to be worried – especially since the characters themselves are completely unaware of what’s coming down the pipe. Sometimes it gets a little hard to breathe, seeing them all go about their lives unaware of the guillotine hanging over them.
As one final point about the plot, I do feel the need to mention that Liath is sold as a slave during this book, and forced to sleep with the man who bought her in order to survive. It’s not graphic, it happens off-page, but it is still incredibly hard to read, and the emotional, psychological repercussions do not end with King’s Dragon. It’s one plot-thread that always makes me feel sick – as I’m sure it’s supposed to.
All in All
This is a game-changing Epic (High?) Fantasy that not enough people seem to know about, with incredible worldbuilding, characters who feel so real they practically leap off the page, and truly delicious subversions of so many traditional tropes and cliches. I am not sorry to be in love with the fact that most of the characters are women, or the fact that I adore this matriarchal take on Medieval Europe. Seven 600-page volumes seems like it just might be enough to cover all of the awesome Elliott has poured into this world – but somehow, I suspect I’m still going to be left wanting more.
If subversive, matriarchal Epic Fantasy sounds like your thing? Then this is the book (and series!) you need to read.