[personal profile] snarp
These books are part of a seven-book series called Crown of Stars. This series is very good, and very smart, but it's also very hard to read.

To prevent exhaustion due to sustained levels of gloom, I've found it necessary to stop regularly to read manga involving busybody matchmaking princesses. I mean, I like basically all the characters, and one of my favorites just died, and a bunch of the others have severe PTSD, and I am confident that half of them will be dead by the end of the series. While the unbelievably horrible guy is looking to be one of those unbelievably horrible guys who never goes away.

It's easier to describe the protagonists than the plot, which is extremely complicated. Liath is a young woman who, when her deeply-indebted father is killed by some mysterious force that comes in the night, is sold into slavery to Hugh, a priest who covets a strange book of her father's. Liath, brilliant and highly-educated, is determined to be the one who deciphers the book. Alain is a deeply innocent young man who, promised to the Church, sees an apparition of a Saint or Goddess called the Lady of Battles, who asks him to serve her on the battlefield. The monastery to which he has been sent is destroyed by the Eika, non-human invaders made partly of stone and metal, freeing him to do so.

Fifth Son is an unusually small and weak Eika imprisoned by humans, whom Alain befriends, attempts to convert, and frees when he learns he will be killed. Fifth Son, the scorned child of the most powerful Eika chieftan, considers Alain a friend, but if conquering humanity is what it takes for him to gain power, then that is just what he intends to do. His mirror in the human world, Sanglant, is the half-Elven bastard son of King Henry, whom the King loves more than either of his legitimate daughters wants to make his heir. Sanglant, however, does not want the throne. What he wants is Liath.

I'm calling these people the protagonists because their POV sections tend to be the ones that advance the plot the most - there are a half-dozen others who could be nominated for the position. (Though Liath and Alain are fairly solid, both being The Chosen One in one way or another.) Though there are characters who are fairly straightforwardly evil, much of the conflict is driven by people like King Henry and his oldest daughter Sapientia, who are not really bad, but who make decisions that hurt people out of ignorance, bigotry, or pain, unable to see the damage they're doing. There's constantly a sense that the problem is not the person, but the role that they've been put in - that the people who are causing so much suffering could be doing good, if they weren't in a position designed to bring out the worst in them.

And that's what makes this series so hard to read. Everyone ends up in exactly the situation designed to bring out the worst in them. Lois McMaster Bujold says that she likes to think of the worst possible thing to do to a character, and then do it. But you know what? The woman lies. She cannot even touch Kate Elliott.

Elliott's prose style reminds me a lot of Teresa Edgerton, in that they both have a very matter-of-fact way of dealing with primitive societies. For instance, they're both pretty well aware of how absolutely horrific medicine was in the eras they write about - and this shows through in the way they arrange things - but their characters have no idea how poor their understanding of science is, and never act otherwise. Nobody here is metagaming.

Edgerton, however, in many ways is not really a feminist writer. Like, she does not think that women should be in positions of political power, unless maybe they have husbands in positions of greater power. And then only if they promise to be really good. Her attitude about rape seems to be that it is very bad, when it happens to virgins, who are saving themselves for their wedding night.

Elliott is a little different. She's never explicitly didactic, but it's notable that, in a series with no shortage of actual monsters, the sequences with most visceral sense of horror are the ones dealing with sexual violence. There are several scenes in which Liath is insulted for not being submissive enough to her owner, and Liath can't come up with any objection to what's being said to her - the world she lives in doesn't have the words she needs. Though Liath herself doesn't know how to fight back, these scenes dense with outrage.

Liath's narrative is completely immersed in her own sense of right and wrong, and she has never been taught that what's happening to her is wrong. In this way, her relationship with Hugh could be any abusive relationship. Fantasy, sci-fi, and historical novels often depict unkind societies purely for cathartic purposes - there is something soothing in reviling the cruelty of a culture that is not one's own. (One could argue that Anne McCaffrey made a career of it! Well, that and soulbonded dragon sex.) But that's not what Elliott's doing here. She did not write this thinking in the back of her mind, "It's a good thing that doesn't happen here."

Date: 2010-09-02 03:40 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] coffeeandink
\o/ More people reading Kate Elliott!

I don't remember her other series as being this grim, fwiw -- I mean, there is Serious Stuff happening, but I don't remember as much abuse and sexual terror.

Date: 2010-09-02 07:10 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] alas
Oh man! This series! The world building, particularly on the gender issues is indeed interesting, but I wanted to throw up every time someone described Hugh as "Beautiful Hugh". It not only happens so often I feel like I'm reading a greek classic, pretty much every single POV character (Even people who know what he does to Liath! Even the scholarly nun! ) rhapsodizes about his beauty (and usually about his competency, intelligence, and how he pets the dog as well to boot) for at least a paragraph on sight of him. ......I'm not quite sure what Elliott was up to there - perhaps that abusers can be charming and good-looking as easily as anyone else - but usually when I see descriptions of that sort pop in books that often, it's a pretty good indicator that the author likes that character a lot. Couldn't one person at least find him not particularly attractive pls? Tastes do vary.

I sincerely hope that he gets pinged as the villain should, but wasn't compelled enough to keep on reading to the end.

Date: 2010-09-05 08:29 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] alas
Yes, I also thought it highly unlikely that there was actual affection - other indicators weren't being displayed. It's one thing to have people swayed though (more than being the ideal 'nice guy'), and another to dwell so lovingly on his looks >_<.

Er, I probably shouldn't dwell so much on this point also, but it killed a lot of my interest just because of the sheer ARGH NO loathing it inspired in conjunction with his abusive behaviour - despite agreeing that, as you've posted, the series does have many interesting points.

Date: 2010-09-02 03:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] darkelf105.livejournal.com
I've only read the first two books in this series, but bought the rest, and I feel, like you, that you have to take a break. But man, this series, it is so well done! I think I have to re-read the first two before moving onto the third, because I remember liking Liath and Alain alot, liked Sanglant but feared he'd turn awful, and for whatever reason, I think I liked Sapienta. But beyond vague feelings of like/like more, I don't remember much, especially the plot, which was huge and complex.

But really, the one I liked the best was the nun who was writing the history book? Or am I making crap up again because it was so long ago?

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