Shaftal has a ruler again, a woman with enough power to heal the war-torn land and expel the invading Sainnites from Shaftal. Or it would have a ruler if the earth witch Karis G’deon consented to rule. Instead, she lives in obscurity with the fractious family of elemental talents who gathered around her in Fire Logic. She is waiting for some sign, but no one, least of all Karis herself, knows what it is.
Then the Sainnite garrison at Watford is attacked by a troop of zealots claiming to speak for the Lost G’deon, and a mysterious and deadly plague attacks the land, killing both Sainnites and Shaftali. Karis must act or watch her beloved country fall into famine and chaos. And when Karis acts, the very stones of the earth sit up and take notice.
Let me tell you the ways in which these books are awesome:
- They are homonormative.
- They are egalitarian.
- They do not automatically make women’s bodies sexual objects.
- They alerted me to the idea that a very large, very muscular woman can be searing hot.
I now want a woman I have to climb like a tree just to kiss. Oh my god. I’m not even tall, that should be doable.
Earth Logic continues where Fire Logic left off: Karis, having finally broken her smoke addiction and come into her power as earth witch and Shaftal’s ruler, continues to be reluctant over assuming power–and for fairly good reasons, with the situation in her land continuing being as fraught as it is. She now lives with her “family” consisting of three couples and one daughter: she and her wife Zanja, Norina and her husband J’han, and Emil and his husband Medric.
You now see why I’ve continuously invoked Ursula le Guin to classify these books.
We are introduced to two new characters: Garland, a half-Sainnite cook formerly working for one of the garrisons and Clement, lieutenant-general of the Sainnite army. Now I will say that I continue to be very uneasy with the narrative that the Sainnites–who have invaded, brutalized, and attempted to conquer Shaftal–are to be sympathized with and understood. It’s a nice thought to be sure, that the way out of war is one where mutual understanding and healing are found, but as I’ve said before this doesn’t sit well if you consider ongoing real-world situations experienced by much of the world in the face of western imperialism and American hegemony.
But setting that aside: Clement, despite being (or given the narrative thrust, because she is) one of the invaders, is an exceptionally fine and nuanced character. She works under General Cadmar, a boorish, self-important man. Though not especially skilled in combat, Clement is an empathic, compassionate yet ruthless woman who isn’t into the idea of slaughtering and conquering Shaftali any more than Karis is into the idea of repelling the Sainnites by bloodshed. It’s a delicate balance of characterization; Clement does terrible things like kidnapping farmers’ children to raise as soldiers, contemplates torturing a Shaftali man, while at the same time working as a calming influence on the other soldiers: she’s tired of violence and though capable of committing it does not want any more. Her transformation from the woman who despite her reservations follows orders–and acts in the best interest of protecting her subordinates–to the woman who finds kindred spirit in Zanja and Karis is a true feat of authorial skill.
“I’ll take their children,” Clement said, “and raise them to be soldiers.” Gilly looked stunned.
But later, as they ate gummy gray porridge with Ellid, her lieutenants, and some of her captains, and Cadmar’s resilience began to display itself in energetic conversation, Gilly leaned over to Clement and said softly, “It’s brilliant! But if we start stealing children, you’ll put that courtesan of yours out of business.”
The Sainnite soldiers don’t breed: it’s a cultural taboo, since their original land Sainna is drowned in overpopulation–while Clement has to beat farmers up to abduct their children, in her land the commoners would have given her the kids and thanked her for it. This is given as the rationale for the invasion, and I’ll address more of it when I review the third book Water Logic. But, when reading the letter left behind for her by Harald, the previous G’deon, Karis comes to this part:
Alas, there are too many such people here lately, besotted with their own self-importance, strutting about in their fur cloaks and whispering with Mabin about war. Where have they all come from? Shaftal answers: they are the spawn of the Sainnites: not the children of their bodies, of course, but the people that are created each time the Sainnites commit one of their atrocities. Anger, pain, lust for revenge, shock and horror, that is what shapes these people. That is what shaped the Sainnites as well, in that land they escaped from. In turn they shape others to be like them, and soon our land will be a land, not of Shaftali, but of Shaftali whose desire to defeat the Sainnites has turned them into Sainnites.
How could I tell her that it’s better for my heir to remain a whore in Lalali than it is for her to be twisted by the angers and power struggles of this House?
Oh come the fuck on. I mean. Come the fuck on. Yes, the “Sainnites are turning Shaftali into copies of them” rhetoric is belabored on at some length throughout the book and for the most part I can sort of put up with it. But this? No. No. No. See, it’s not just that Karis was a prostitute in Lalali. It’s that, while there, she was forced to take the smoke drug and raped daily. It’s especially troubling because nobody challenges Harald; Karis herself forgives him, and his letter is passed off as a true, genuine and heartfelt thing rather than the manipulative sack of shit it so obviously is.
I’m sorry but no amount of being transformed into Sainnites by anger is worse than waking up every day with the knowledge that you’ll be raped. Repeatedly. For, I don’t know, however long it is that Karis’ owner started having her raped. Years, certainly.
I don’t think Laurie J. Marks is out to trivialize rape, far from it, but quite honestly she’s far too sold on her “to stop a war we must have understanding and forgiveness, not rage and vengeance” schtick that it permeates every single narrative thread. It’s too one-note and single-minded, to the point that it overtakes all other considerations and becomes the axis on which the series turns. And even if the idea itself is noble, it’s not a really good axis.
Moving on, the homonormativity of this book is beautiful:
#1 Clement herself felt no particular desire to do what men and women do with each other, but soldiers of both sexes would bless her if she could learn the Shaftali secret.
#2 Quite belatedly, Clement realized, as Marga came in to clear the table, that the stout woman was not Alrin’s housekeeper, but her wife.
#3 The man turned to face her then. He had looked terribly ill five months ago; now he looked half dead. “One of my husbands was in the garrison that night it was burned down,”
And if I’m not at all fond of Marks’ overarching point, there are finely observed moments like:
After the Battle of Lilterwess, Clement had assisted in the gruesome job of identifying the dead. The Sainnite corpses had been lined up on the hillside, while beyond them the soldiers methodically took the ancient building apart, stone by stone. It was the height of summer, and the flies swarmed, and the rooks noisily invited their friends and neighbors to the feast. Sometimes, Clement identified a soldier by clothing or gear, because the face was gone. Sometimes she stripped a corpse, seeking clues in flesh, in scars, in gender. Friends and lovers were thus revealed. There was great celebration, that day, and the Sainnites called themselves conquerors. Twenty years later, Clement knelt in a cold, stinking room and searched the bodies of parentless children, and knew herself a fool in an army of fools.
Later she finds love in the arms of a Shaftali cowherd named Mariseth. I don’t really think Clement’s excuse–that she’s following orders and protecting her own–is enough to wash her clean, but the way she makes her way to where she arrives later is so well-written and deftly characterized that I’m more than a little in awe. I may disagree with what Marks wants to do, but how she do it is simply so exceptional that I can’t help but be touched.
Alrin said in some surprise, “Is he your brother?”
Clement felt rather blank. But surely it should have been a simple question? She finally answered, “Gilly is what I have.”
There’s the importance, too, of having a family, a support network: and Clement, indeed, has only Gilly, Cadmar’s “Lucky Man” and charm against misfortune.
The plan concocted by Emil, Zanja and the rest to move history is more than a little daft–but it works because it’s consistent with the way fire logic operates: by intuition, by trial and error, by trusting to instinct and half-glimpsed insights. But it’s still daft in that this plan hinges on Zanja’s death, which results in Emil killing her in ritual. Fortunately Norina has put in some safeguards that means only part of Zanja’s spirit separates from her, leaving her body and an alien part of her that becomes the storyteller, who is instrumental to Clement’s reaching this–
She offered her bare hand. Clement clasped it, and felt like she had grabbed hold of a piece of hot iron. “The war is over,” Karis said.
The stones heaved underfoot. The soldiers were shouting Clement’s name. “The war is over,” Clement affirmed, as definitely as she could manage to say such a preposterous thing.
But that isn’t enough, of course. Karis may represent the forgiveness of Shaftal, but Zanja has lost her entire people; she is Shaftal’s anger–
Suddenly, she did not seem terrible at all. She said, “The valley of my people is populated by nothing but bones. The memories of their deaths will haunt me until the day of my own death. But your sorrow—like my sorrow—is not enough.”
“Then nothing can be enough.”
The katrim looked at her. “If that is true, then lasting peace is impossible. Nothing has been gained today.”
Dread replaced the last remains of Clement’s relief as she realized how truly Zanja na’Tarwein had spoken. So many people had been wronged, over so many years! Somehow, reparations must be made, or the peace of words would never become a peace of fact. Yet Clement had nothing to offer Shaftal. Nothing. Surely seven thousand Sainnite soldiers was not nothing! As sometimes happens in extreme exhaustion, Clement felt a hallucinatory clarity. She understood exactly what must be done. She said, “If my people become Shaftali, would that be enough?”
Oh, my. It’s only at this point that I could more or less come to grips with Marks’ ideas: that it’s not only forgiveness and understanding that must be sought, but the invaders’ willingness to assimilate. That is what makes it acceptable, not that Shaftali have to open their arms and accept the Sainnites that they are, but that the Sainnites must become Shaftali–take on their language, their ways, their cultures.
The answer is not simply that the invaders must be forgiven, but that the invaders must remake themselves in the image of those they have attempted to conquer. They must give up their identity. And that comes very, very close to being enough.
I still have niggling problems with the dynamics of this, but overall it’s so incredible a story–so astonishing a cast of characters–that I can overlook almost everything, including repetitious writing quirks. So, yeah, I don’t know, spam Small Beer Press and clamor for this to be reprinted faster. I know I will be. HELLO SMALL BEER PRESS TAKE MY MONEY.