P.C. Hodgell’s (l)on(g)-going epic fantasy

P.C. Hodgell. Godstalk (Atheneum 1982).
P.C. Hodgell. Dark of the Moon (Atheneum 1985).
P.C. Hodgell. Seeker’s Mask (Meisha Merlin 2000).
P.C. Hodgell. To Ride a Rathorn (Meisha Merlin 2006).
P.C. Hodgell. Bound in Blood (Baen Books 2010).

I recently found the latest installment in P.C. Hodgell’s ongoing epic fantasy about the Kencyrath & their eons-long battle against Perimal Darkling, a shadow force ‘eating its way up the Chain of Creation from threshold world to world. Under it, the living and the dead, the past and the present become confused.’ Given that the first volume, Godstalk, was published nearly 3 decades ago, & that the time covered by the series has been a mere three years, Hodgell has clearly had lots of time between novels to deepen & increase her understanding of the secondary universe she first created back in the late 1970s. It contains a doubly complex history, both that of the Kencyrath & the many worlds they have defended against & lost to Perimal Darkling, & the possibly final world they will be granted as a battleground. The Kencyrath combine three races from 3 different threshold worlds that their Three-Faced God forged into one unified collective to fight against Perimal Darkling. They suffered their greatest defeat some 3000 years ago, when the then Highlord of the Kencyrath, Gerridon, Master of Knorth, ‘offered his soul and that of his followers to Perimal Darklong in exchange for immortality. He induced his sister and consort, Jamethiel Dream-weaver, to pervert the great dance used in the temple so that instead of channeling god-power, it would suck out the souls of all who witnessed it. Two-thirds of the Kencyr host fell. The rest fled into the next threshold world, Rathillien.’ They were led by the highlord’s brother, who remained Highlord, as did his descendants. But Rathillien has its own history, one the Kencyr have mostly ignored, a mistake, as the series slowly demonstrates.

Two of the things I have especially enjoyed about this slowly developing & expanding fantasy: the way it gradually opens up ever more aspects of the world (& the series of universes down which her Kencyr have fought their rearguard action) as Jame, Hodgell’s protagonist, moves with force (& often violence) through & across it; Jame herself, a strong willed, curious (often to destruction), & moral young woman much stronger & more dangerous than she appears.

I loved Godstalk when it first appeared; it set a lot of the terms for what was to follow, but it left much both unanswered & perhaps not yet conceived. Jame (whom we eventually learn was named after the despised Jamethiel Dream-weaver, which explains why she goes by the shortened form of her name) emerges from the Dark Lands (at the edges of the world where Perimal Darkling presses against its protective walls & influences some of its inhabitants) a wild & somewhat amnesiac young woman. She knows only that she is a Knorth, one of the Kencyr Highborn families, & that she had been thrown out by a father who hated her yet somehow survived, somewhere, until coming to the god-ridden city of Tai-Tastigon. An outsider from the start, with a habit of getting into trouble by trying to help others, she is taken in by some good people in a tavern, itself under attack from a criminal competitor. However, she doesn’t remember much of her upbringing nor where, exactly, it took place. In many ways, she does not want to remember, as there are traumas there she cannot yet face. so she comes to Tai-Tastigon as something of a cipher, & far more powerful than she realizes.

The story – of her apprenticeship in the thieves guild, her stalking & questioning the many gods of Rathillien worshipped there, her fights to help the people of the tavern where she resides, her confrontations with a cruel half-brother she meets there, etc – all makes for a highly entertaining (almost YA) adventure, but even though Jame appears to be in her mid-teens she struggles with adult problems & seems to understand people in adult ways. She is a powerful & dangerous figure, & her conflicts with honor (& the paradox of serving her god honorably) continue throughout the series. For, although she can’t remember much about her upbringing in the dark place she has fled, she has clearly been trained in the Senethar, an ancient martial art half fighting mode half erotic dance. The fighting forces of the Kencyr, often acting as mercenary troops for various factions among the indigenous people of Rathillien, use a modern form, but Jame manifests a frightening ability in its older forms.

Dark of the Moon, the 2nd book, set one year after the beginning of Godstalk, came out 3 years later. In it, Jame, her Kendar friend Marc, & the blind ounce, Jorin, leave the somewhat damaged city & travel through some of the world to a meeting with her people & her twin brother, Torison, strangely almost twice her age & now the Highlord of the Kencyr. Among many other adventures, they meet an Arrin-ken, one of the huge cat-like judges of the Kencyrath, who have been hiding for 2000 years trying to resolve the question of how a fallen people can honor & serve their god. He sees Jame’s potential for destruction but declares her not yet fallen, a judgment she takes seriously & tries to consider in every later action, not always wholly successfully. This will affect every thing she does. She is trying to bring him the re-forged Kinslayer, sword of the Highlord, long lost in the Dark (& how she has it & other lost relics only emerges as she begins to remember her past, slowly, & with some horror). Eventually she finds him on a battlefield, fighting her way to him in a place no Highborn woman should be (& that aspect of her culture begins to weigh heavy in Jame’s life as she cannot, given her training in the Dark, behave as her people think she should). Given Jame’s ability to attract trouble, this, like all the novels, traverses a highly complex plot full of dark analepses & uncanny prolepses.

It speaks volumes about her commitment to this epic tale that in the 25 years she has taken to write the 5 volumes so far, Hodgell has only moved Jame’s story (& that of her brother & her people) forward a few years. Yet much has happened & changed. Some of the changes have to do with the rules her people live by, many of them an attempt to control Highborn women. Seeker’s Mask, for example, begins in the women’s college at Gothregor, one of the forts along the northern Riverland that one of the older countries of the world gave to the Kencyr, since they were difficult to keep up & defend. There’s a kind of terrible comedy to Jame’s failure to learn to be a lady, although she does begin to unravel some of the secrets of the Highborn Women’s World, which is far more powerful than their men realize. Still, after an assassination attempt, she leaves to try to save a young man she has accidently bound, & she gets herself & some young cadets of her family into & out of a lot of trouble with the Highborn lord who is torturing him. Like many of the Highborn, Jame is Shanir, with various mystic powers, not all of which she knows. Yet. Given that Jame’s brother, Torison, learned to fear & hate the Shanir, it doesn’t help that she appears to be a very powerful one; nor from Jame’s perspective that many of the Highborn lords no longer really believe in Perimal Darkling. One of these would like to establish himself as Highlord & therefore hates & fears both Jame (whom he tries to kidnap) & her brother. So Jame suddenly finds herself mixed up with a lot of dirty politics; & she can’t tell her brother because he keeps himself aloof from her &, especially, doesn’t want to know what happened to her in the years they were apart. No more does she really want to tell people that she seems to have been brought up in a castle in Shadow.

In To Ride a Rathorn, Torison has found a way to give Jame a place while keeping her away from him: he makes her his heir, the Knorth lordan, & sends her to Tentir, the Randir College, where military officers are trained. Of course, it’s a scandal that a Highborn Lady is attending, but Jame survives both her mistakes & the attempts on her life, & fails to be failed. She also meets ‘the Knorth bastard,’ a healer & more than just her cousin, as she eventually discovers, given her insistence on seeking answers no matter what the cost. The title refers to both a powerful indigenous animal & the necessary result of an act of mercy Jame performed in The Dark of the Moon. Let’s just say that Hodgell has constructed such a multiplex continuing narrative that no review can mention every aspect of it.

In both To Ride a Rathorn & Bound in Blood, Jame fights for a place at the college among the Randon & encounters more aspects of this strange world where her people are still strangers after 3000 years. She is forced to understand that the Kencyrath must stop being exiles & learn, somehow, to become fully grounded citizens of Rathillien. In Bound in Blood, she also discovers that many dead can stay around, affecting the living, especially any whose blood still stains their ‘death banners’ or any clothing that remains. One of her ancestors proves especially horrible & powerful, another enemy she must fight alone, or almost. The ways in which she learns these hard lessons provide more than enough suspense in both books.

I’m not sure Hodgell originally planned it so but the world on which the Kencyr find themselves has become more & more important as the living context of their long battle against Perimal Darkling. As Frank Herbert did with Dune, she has slowly revealed more & more layers to Rathilien, a world far more complicated in its history & sacred ecology than it appeared to be in Godstalk. The Kencyr, then, partly through Jame’s actions, are being forced to come to some kind of terms with the indigenes & their gods/powers. If the Three-Faced God intends to eventually manifest through 3 avatars of his chosen people, Rathilien’s gods already manifest through four god-like figures, &, as Jame begins to discover in the 3 most recent novels, the Kencyr will need to collaborate with these powers if they are to flourish & truly fight the darkness here. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the larger tale of the Kencyr as a whole, as well as of Jame’s growing sense of her place & destiny. Meanwhile her various adventures in each book also provide great suspenseful entertainment. I look forward to Honor’s Paradox, due out soon.

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One Response to P.C. Hodgell’s (l)on(g)-going epic fantasy

  1. P.C.Hodgell says:

    What a nice review. Thanks!

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