Can you tell I really like P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath series? Not once have I followed up a review of an author’s book with a review of her next one. And in three weeks I’ll review the next one as well. In between there’ll be a short story roundup and then, provided the Canadian mail runs well, Chris Carlsen’s Shadow of the Wolf.
Last week, I wrote that Bound in Blood (2010) was essentially a story where just a bunch of stuff happens to Hodgell’s cat-clawed heroine, Jame. That’s pretty much the feel in Honor’s Paradox (2011) as well, but this time there’s more apparent purpose. The story is told in Hodgell’s usual mix of the funny, the tragic, and the sublime. One final time, the setting is the Kencyrath military school, the randon academy.
Again, the setup:
Thirty thousand years ago, Perimal Darkling began to devour the series of parallel universes called the Chain of Creation. To fight against it, the Three-Faced God forged three separate races into one: feline-like Arrin-Ken to serve as judges; heavily-muscled Kendar to serve as soldiers and craftsmen; fine-featured humanoid Highborn to rule them. For 27,000 years, the Kencyrath fought a losing battle, one universe after another falling to the darkness. Three thousand years ago, the High Lord Gerridon, fearful of death, betrayed his people to Perimal Darkling in exchange for immortality. Fleeing yet again, the Kencyrath landed on the world of Rathilien. Since then, they haven’t heard from their god and Perimal Darkling has seemed satisfied to lurk at the edges of their new home. Monotheists trapped on an alien world with many gods, the Kencyrath have had to struggle to make a life on Rathilien.
Now, the power of the Three-Faced God seems to be reappearing. The Kencyrath believe that only the Tyr-ridan, three Highborn reflecting the three aspects of their god — destroyer, preserver, and creator — will be able to defeat Perimal Darkling. Jame, raised in the heart of Perimal Darkling, is fated to be the Regonereth, That-Which-Destroys.
For the Kencyrath, honor is the paramount virtue. It defines them, remaining with them when everything else is lost. Where does honor lie, though — “in obedience to one’s lord, or to one’s self?” This question has challenged the Kencyrath forever. When Gerridon betrayed his people his followers were faced with that question. Some broke their oaths to him but others could not, and followed him into damnation and Perimal Darkling.
In Seeker’s Mask, Jame exclaimed, in reference to parts of Kencyrath society, “some things need to be broken.” In Paradox, she has settled in to her role as the person who will upend the status quo. Too many Highborn and Kendar officers have answered that their honor lies only in obedience, not in their own actions. Patently dishonorable things can be done, if so ordered, without a shred of guilt. Much of the tension in the second half of the book comes from Jame’s fear she might be expelled. The school’s Commandant has been ordered by his lord, one of her brother’s great enemies, to ensure she doesn’t finish. Her only real hope is to perform well enough to justify her place in the academy, and thereby convince him that true honor compels him to pass her.
Jame begins to dissolve some of the bonds between several important Highborn and their Houses. By becoming their friends, she exposes the rot and deep dysfunction that keeps them tied to their families. One exists almost cowering in the shadow of his nearly sanctified dead father, not knowing he was a terrible traitor driven by jealousy. Another comes from a House whose lord is constantly setting one potential heir against another, sowing havoc and death among them. These and others are are slowly transformed by their exposure to Jame and by her regular displays of self-sacrifice. One of the goals of the randon school, often subverted by the power games of the Great Houses, is to forge unity between the Kencyrath officers. Finally, even if only a little bit, that cohesion is starting to grow, even across enemy Houses.
Torisen, Highlord and Jame’s brother, makes more of an impression in Paradox than in the last book. With each secret or crime he uncovers about the various Houses, he is getting a greater grip on Kencyrath politics. His fear of the Shanir, Kencyrath with magical abilities or features (like Jame and her claws), is finally lessening.
Jame and Torisen’s cousin, Kindrie, also makes more than a token appearance for the first time in several books. Seemingly destined to become the preserver part of the Tyr-ridan, he is, like Jame, becoming acclimated to that potentiality. His past, when he was tortured at the hands of one of Torisen’s enemies, comes back to haunt him, and sets the stage for an attempt on the Highlord’s life.
Jame, though, remains the primary protagonist of the series. It is she who uncovers the growing relationship between Rathilien, its elemental deities, and the Kencyrath. For most of the three thousand years the Kencyrath have lived on Rathilien, much of the land was closed or actively hostile to them. Now, starting with Jame’s not-quite friendship with the earth deity, the Earth Wife, there has a been a softening toward, even a tolerance for, her people.
The most stunning example of this new relationship occurs when the native barbarian tribe, the Merikits, offer the water deity, the Eaten One, a virgin girl. This is done every year to ensure a good rainfall and protection from floods. When a girl is rejected for no apparent reason, it turns out the deity had someone else in mind: one of Jame’s fellow cadets.
As if in response, a vast head reared up and slammed down thunderously on the rock. Its eyes were the size of ships’ wheels; its bristling whiskers, spars. The cavernous oval of its mouth gaped. Something like a pallid tongue flopped out to scrabble with overgrown nails on stone. The Eaten One existed only from the thighs up, the rest of her stuck down the catfish’s gigantic maw. Her skin glimmered pale green; her hair draped like seaweed on a low-tide shore. But the face that she turned upward was of transcendental beauty, even with its lambent eyes and needle teeth bared in a smile.
Drie broke loose and threw his arms around her as hers closed around him.
“GLUP,” went the catfish, and swallowed them both.
Even with all the personal growth and mystery-solving going on, Hodgell doesn’t stint on the action. Jame continues to find herself thrown into fights, rarely of her own choosing, but from which she’ll never run away. At various times she finds herself facing lone enemies of her House, bands of vicious barbarians, and even eight cadets on horseback. Of course, poor horsewoman that she is, Jame instead brings her ivory-plated rathorn colt:
Death’s-head snorted. Enough. He laid back his ears and charged, nearly leaving Jame astride thin air.
One of the horses, a piebald, turned and bolted with a squeal, the rathorn roaring on his heels. Confronted with the rail, he vaulted over it into the packed ranks of cadets, there shedding his rider. Then, confused, he plunged into the Caineron barracks. Cadets who had lined the windows to watch jumped out of them. Crashes and shouts came from within.
One of the major mysteries Jame has tried to figure out is who hired assassins to kill all her House’s Highborn women. Over the last four books, dribs and drabs of clues have pointed her toward a certain person. Motive and proof, though, eluded her. This great crime, long unsolved and never repaid, finally comes into focus for Jame in Paradox. As she hones in on the answer, the criminal’s eye is turned toward her as well.
Where does the Commandant’s true honor lie? Does Jame graduate? These and other questions are answered in Honor’s Paradox. Have I written before that I really can’t recommend this series enough? Well, I’ll write it again — because I can’t. In P.C. Hodgell’s books, you will find none of the worn out characters and creatures of generic pseudo-Medieval fantasies nor crushing cynicism. What you’ll find is excitement, fascinating and believable world-building, and one of fantasy’s most enthralling heroines.
You can read reviews of the previous books in the series here:
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog when his muse hits him.