A little while ago, I wrote here about Phyllis Ann Karr’s 1986 novel At Amberleaf Fair. I thought it was well-written and inventive, quietly doing highly distinctive things with the fantasy genre without drawing attention to its own originality. I recently read another book by Karr, 1982’s Wildwraith’s Last Battle, and found it was different from Amberleaf Fair while also sharing many of its virtues: tight prose, clever plotting, a strong sense of character, and a tremendously well-constructed setting. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s well worth discussing here.
Set in the southern hemisphere of an unknown world, a group of iron-age nations have begun a complex three-sided war. Meanwhile, for reasons unrelated to the war, one woman loses everything and curses the god, Wildrava, that she believes is responsible. The result is that the god incarnates as a (more-or-less) human female named Wildraith and tries to seek out the woman who cursed her — but the woman, Ylsa, is finding her own way among the shifting sides of the ongoing war. Despite herself, Wildraith finds herself becoming a key player in the war as she strives to find Ylsa and break the curse.
The book is, to use recently-developed terminology, both grim and dark. Violence, including sexual violence and torture, is an element of the story’s reality and occasionally described in detail. There’s nothing ostentatious in the novel’s depiction of violence, though, nothing exploitative or false. It’s a part of the tone and world and feels earned without forcing the whole book into depressive bleakness. Ultimately, what makes the novel remarkable is its ability to fuse matter-of-fact description of day-to-day activities with the experience of war and also a distinctively fantastic sense of wonder: a feeling of the numinous that comes from gods involving themselves in the affairs of mortals.
As I read the book, thematically it’s about stories and the nature of power. The relation of mortal and god is questioned, but also, intensely, the relationship of ruler and ruled. Since the book’s set among cultures who are in the process of developing literacy and seem only recently to have undergone an agricultural revolution, we’re seeing chieftains shift into kings. We’re seeing how leaders of peoples rally their people to war, even wars that aren’t based on immediate needs for the population at large (and how small societies shifting to a war basis begets patriarchy, as the long-term management of populations and the raising of future generations for ‘reinforcements’ in the ongoing war becomes an issue). We see how these things become mythologised. So it’s a book that is, to me, about the stories we tell and how we come to believe them. How our stories define our sense of justice and right behaviour and the shape of the world. How our stories shape our lives or what we’re prepared to understand about our lives.
That starts with a well-realised social setting and a very precise sense of the technological level and complexity of institutions of the peoples of the story. Three main nations divide the area the story’s concerned with; another nation, speaking a different language, is mentioned as existing in mountains to the south. The interrelationship of these nations as the story goes on feels right — the way they trade with each other, the way their settlements are shaped and distributed, and the way individuals propelled by catastrophe drift from one place to another. One city, trying as the story begins to maintain a tenuous neutrality, mines and works iron. Maintaining a food supply is the primary concern of almost everyone. A primitive capitalism exists, to the extent that trade is possible, gold is valued, whores and taverns exist.
Written language is rare — one leader sends another a message written on tree bark, while a third at one point scribbles numbers in soil to work out a math problem. Travelling storytellers are on the whole more important, especially as the war drags on. The storytellers spread news and also often spy for the various leaders. Karr briefly but effectively sketches the pressures and contradictions of the wandering tellers, how they shape their stories for their audiences, how they maintain a loose guild-like structure, and how they must shift loyalties as needed. This is all important, because one of the important threads in the book is the way stories grow over time and how the storytellers develop and spread legends. That’s perfectly reflected in the book’s point of view, fairly objective third-person which occasionally coyly refuses to state exactly how certain things turned out, instead presenting different versions of the story or questioning the meaning of baldly-stated events.
Overall, the style’s terse but inventive. There’s a sparing but particularly deft use of foreshadowing to build a mythic significance to events without collapsing narrative tension. But in general, Karr’s writing here is simple, with a strong eye for meaningful detail. She finds a good balance between an almost chronicle-history style and the use of telling details that bring home the reality of life as it is lived in this place. Here’s an example, from a passage early on introducing one of the main characters (the overturned chessboard is the start of the ongoing war):
Ylsa Tender-face was born in Old Ironstead twelve years before Senerthan of the Long Forest overturned the chessboard into Dulanis Butter-hair’s lap. When Ylsa was fourteen, and it became obvious that the trouble between the hunters and herders to the south was no mere summer’s thundershower, half Ironstead entered a great effort to find any metal that might have been missed in former times and forge it into weapons for this new war; and Ylsa’s father, Horj the Black-arm, worked himself to death at furnace and anvil trying to get new iron from old earth. Ylsa’s mother, Ria the Lank-chest, grown careless after Black-arm’s death, was killed hunting a bear. One mate seldom outlived the other very long in Ironstead. All folk cherished their legends, but Ironsteaders even more tenaciously than most. Filled with the example of Arria and Rol, unaffected by the new breeding customs Dulanis, Senerthan, and Gilmar introduced among their neighbors, Old Ironstead clung to lifelong monogamy, with certain unsanctioned but deep-rooted variations.
Arria and Rol were the wife-and-husband pair who founded Ironstead; Dulanis, Senerthan, and Gilmar the rulers trying to change their societies to get more warriors. The point of the last three sentences is that the legends of Arria and Rol shaped the life of the community. The observation that “All folk cherished their legends” also resonates with the main themes of the book, I think, and the subject of monogamy helps set up what follows: more about Ylsa’s life. She marries a man named Forn because she wants children. “Though a woman of some property, she had had no success previously in finding a mate as Ironsteaders called it a bad omen for both parents to be dead before their child’s wedding; and then, too, Ylsa was very pretty and Ironsteaders preferred plain partners in marriage.” So she marries Forn, but he cheats on her with “Dob Tanner’s son.” She doesn’t care, as she’s looking for a child, and “made so many demands on her mate” that eventually her “body began at last to swell, and she allowed her husband some rest.” Unfortunately for Form, his former lover had taken up with a woman named Iama, then broken up with her, and was now convincing another woman to marry him. Forn catches a chill after some late-night drinking and dies:
Unlike so many Ironsteaders, Ylsa refused to give up all interest in life. She had what she had wanted all along — a son, Horj of the Brown Eyes. She yielded to custom far enough to put on a show of grief, discussing all of Forn’s good traits whenever the subject arose. Sometimes she even brought it up herself. In time she came to believe that he had in fact been a good and loving mate, and to look back tenderly on their few years together, but the life she led alone with her child suited her. Like Iama the Impartial, she kept her other relationships quiet and brief, and she bore no more children.
In general, I’m struck here by the way Karr uses a slightly elevated, slightly archaic fantasy style to evoke the lives of everyday men and women. More specifically, what we get in a little more than a page, less than six-hundred words, is a description of four characters, one of whom dies, and a number of asides that build up the sense of their distinctive society without knocking us out of the tale. Two of the characters are incidental to the rest of the book, but help to round out our sense of how their town works. And Ylsa, who is absolutely central, has her entire background given to us, what she wants and how far she’s prepared to go to get it; she seems to have in essence maritally raped Forn, out of her desire for a son. So we know how valuable the boy is to her, setting us up for what happens next.
The first quote does point up, I think, one of the potential weaknesses of Karr’s approach. The style she’s using is very heavy on proper names and sometimes that can seem slightly ponderous. The early pages of the book are occasionally difficult to follow, as a number of names are thrown at the reader in a very short space. The descriptive second name of the character, the ‘trait-name,’ is helpful but then also feels a little like a fantasy cliché. Another potential weakness, of course, is the tendency for this kind of prose to verge on infodump. I think overall Karr makes the style work, maintaining an obvious narrative thread through all the exposition, the more so as the book goes on and the narrative acquires more momentum.
What the style really does, though, is get across a sense of how real life becomes myth. Karr describes everyday emotions and actions, albeit set in a foreign, somewhat archetypal, agricultural culture. The style seems to fit those actions into a kind of formal pattern. It dignifies them, if you like, or in a sense elevates them — it gives them the sense of significance that formal patterns, done well, can evoke in a work of art: the sense that the individual subject is expressive of universal truth. It is, I think, a classic technique of prose fantasy, visible in Morris and Dunsany and Tolkien. Here, the story about the blurred line between myth and everyday life is a story of everyday life told in a way that evokes myth. So the actions of the characters are described dispassionately, briefly, and we see how they relate to the things they believe and what they feel to be right. We see how the (to us) hardscrabble nature of their lives is blended with myth and gods.
The structure of the plot helps bring this out. We follow Ylsa to the point where she utters her curse, then we follow the god who incarnates as Wildraith — up to a point. The book returns to Ylsa for a long stretch, during which Wildraith becomes almost a background element: she’s an outlaw in a war-torn land, told of by storytellers. She gathers a band around her, fighting to protect everyday people from the warring armies: a god in disguise who intercedes for commoners against the schemes of rulers. It’s almost impossible not to think of George R.R. Martin’s Brotherhood Without Banners in reading of Wildraith’s outlaws; and in fact Wildraith’s Last Battle sometimes reads like A Song of Ice and Fire written on a smaller scale.
At any rate, the plot structure’s not only terrifically effective as a storytelling device, setting up the two characters and the way they orbit each other through the setting, it also reflects the divide between mortals and gods. Ylsa leads one life. Wildraith leads a very different one. Wildraith’s perspective, the way she thinks, is inhuman and unlike any other character: she has no difficulty thinking of molecules and atoms, a casual understanding of the nature of the universe that is profoundly weird in the best way. She is alienated from herself, not a pure god but a god incarnate, struggling to understand the mortals around her. Oddly, she’s also intensely relateable, perhaps because her desire to find Ylsa has the purity and arbitrariness of myth. Why did this one curse call her into the world? Because, perhaps, the seemingly everyday has within it an emotional power that can compel even gods.
The book ends strongly, with a personal confrontation that’s followed by an overview of the collective resolution of the war. Which is one of the strengths of the book: its balance of the individual story and the societal epic. But its greatest strength, I feel, is the way it shows us myth emerging out of everyday life, out of practicalities and inevitabilities and the domestic tragedies and triumphs that common folk live. That’s something as true, I think, in the contemporary world as in the iron age. Wildraith’s Last Battle is a strong reminder of this necessary knowledge.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.