Back Among the Kencyrath: “The Gates of Tagmeth” by PC Hodgell

Back Among the Kencyrath: “The Gates of Tagmeth” by PC Hodgell

One of the earliest reviews I wrote for Blackgate was of P.C. Hodgell’s 1982 sword & sorcery classic, God Stalk. It’s the story of Jame, a relative innocent at large in the very Lankhmarian city Tai-Tastigon on the world of Rathilien. She’s a High Born, the ruling race of a tripartite race called the Kencyrath (the other two are the Kendar — warriors and artisans — and the Arrin-ken — the lion-like judges of the three races).  She’s also a Shanir, a subset of her people gifted — or cursed as most have come to believe — with strange abilities. In her case, it’s retractable claws on her fingers.

The Kencyrath have been consecrated by their Three-Faced God to battle Perimal Darkness, a great evil that’s been devouring one world after another in a chain of parallel worlds for millennia. Every time, they’ve failed at their duty, having to retreat to one world or another. As of God Stalk, they’ve been on Rathilien for three thousand years. They escaped there following the Fall, a moment when the High Lord betrayed the Kencyrath and two-thirds were killed, their souls offered up to Perimal Darkness.

After a year in Tai-Tastigon Jame set off into the West in search of her twin brother Torisen and the Kencyrath homeland — well, at least the homeland they took possession of three thousand years ago. Over the following six books, Jame, forever a square peg in a round hole, emerges as a wild card in the political games between the various Kencyrath houses. Unwilling to adopt the cloistered and regulated life of most High Born women, Jame eventually finds herself a candidate in the Kencyrath military officer’s school. Along the way, she learns she is more than likely the prophesied incarnation of the destructive aspect of the Three-Faced God. She also discovers more of the supernatural underpinnings of Rathilien, how the Kencyrath’s arrival disrupted it, and that the final reckoning with Perimal Darkness is near.

For a series that’s been running for forty years, there are surprisingly few books, only ten as of this year. If I recall correctly, Hodgell, now a retired English professor, took a break after the second book, Dark of the Moon (1984) to earn her doctorate. The next book, Seeker’s Mask, took ten years to appear. It and its immediate sequel, To Ride a Rathorn (2006), were both put out by small presses that collapsed almost as soon as the books appeared. Finally, Baen picked up the series with the fifth book, Bound in Blood (2010). Sure, the covers have been bearable at best, but the Kencyrath series had finally found a permanent home.

When I stopped my weekly column at Black Gate in 2018, I pretty much walked away from reading fantasy. When I started my monthly column, my focus was on older works I’d either read in my distant youth or never at all. I was walking past my bookshelf a couple of weeks ago and realized I had two unread Hodgell books with a third I’d never even bought. I was overcome with a sudden urge to finally dig into them, which brings me here today.

The Gates of Tagmeth (2017) is an interim book, and the first one in the series that feels the series is spinning its wheels a little. And, nonetheless, I was smitten with it at once. I’m on record as saying Hodgell has written some of the best fantasy of the last thirty years — forty now — and that still holds. Rathilien remains one of the most complex and complicated settings. Every book reveals and explains a little more at the same time as new questions are raised. Too many series feel like they’re just drawn out to get another fifteen bucks out of my wallet, but it never feels like Hodgell’s stringing things along.

Jame remains one of the best and most enchanting characters out there. She’s a perfectly realized character to explore Hodgell’s vast fictional setting; an outsider in practically every setting and smart enough and driven to ask the questions the reader wants the answers to. As Jame explained in an earlier book, she’s someone who seldom knows what she’s doing, but it’s her job to throw herself into the middle of whatever chaotic lunacy is transpiring at the moment.

After two years of military training, Jame is dispatched by her brother to reclaim Tagmeth, an abandoned and ruined fortress in the northernmost reaches of the Kencyrath lands. As with everything Jame’s involved in her mission isn’t as simple as it sounds. From the harshness of the environment, the true nature of her brother’s motives in sending her, to claims by the villainous Lord Caldane of House Caineron on Tagmeth, it’s bound to be an arduous task.

“You are the Highlord’s heir,” he said, “therefore more is asked of you than of other lordan. This is what I have decided. You will take your new one-hundred command and reclaim one of Riverland’s abandoned keeps. There are six of them, three more or less intact. Chantrie is closest, just across the river. Don’t look to me for help. Survive on your own for your third year as a cadet and no one will ever question your skills as a leader again.”

Jame sat back, momentarily speechless. Life would be hard enough in the major keeps over the coming winter. How could she hope to provide for her people? It would be like her failure tonight to fee her ten-command, only a hundred times worse, quite literally a matter of life or death. Was he setting her up for failure again?

Much of the first half of The Gates of Tagmeth is just about the journey to the old fort. As with every other event in the series, it can just be a “just.” Old friends and less-than-friends make appearances along the road. Some of the meetings are welcome, or at least informative, others less so. Lyra, one of Caldane’s daughters is totally smitten with Jame sneaks her way into the party, setting the stage for later trouble. Outside the Priest’s School, Jame learns the monstrous Rawneth, the Matriarch of House Randir appears to be going mad. The Caineron’s make it known they’ve already set out to claim Tagmeth for their own. Only Jame’s increasingly intimate knowledge of Rathilien’s supernatural byways lets her lap them. The journey is the usual mix of danger and low comedy that characterize the majority of Jame’s adventures. Still, reaching Tagmeth was only the start.

In a world as rife with supernatural elements as Rathilien, even the logistics of restoring Tagmeth. There are refugees, complicated relations with the local tribal people, a baby being born, a siege by the Caineron. Even the local fish are a problem.

Jame regarded the sinuous loop crackling in the flames and seeming, stealthily, to writhe.

“That’s not a lamprey,” she said. “It’s a blackhead.”

The little cook blinked at her. “A what?”

“They come from the lake that’s the source of the Silver, under the shadow of Perimal Darkling. When they bite their prey, they lay eggs in its flesh. These hatch and compel their host to migrate downstream, even while they devour its flesh from the inside out. Finally it explodes, releasing them to a new stretch of the river. I’ve seen them infest a man who ate an infected host. It wasn’t pretty.”

As the cook stared at her, aghast, Marc reached over his shoulder and slid the creature off the spit, into the devouring flames.

“There, there,” he said, patting the little man kindly on the back. “Why don’t you teach me how to make a nice parsnip pottage instead?”

Then there are the titular gates. They’re part of a network of passageways to distant and unknown parts of Rathilien. While they do provide part of the solution to Tagmeth’s food crisis, letting them ward off a Caineron siege, their real importance is they provide an answer to one of the great questions Jame’s been asking from the earliest pages of the series; who were the people who always preceded the Kencyrath during their long retreat, building their temples?

I wrote that Hodgell seemed to be spinning her wheels in The Gates of Tagmeth, but that’s wrong. What it doesn’t have is a single overarching story. Instead, it has the resolution to numerous mysteries and the culmination, well, partial anyway, of a major plot element going back at least to Dark of the Moon. It’s that this book is so packed with bits and pieces and odds and ends of this lengthy series it feels a little jumbled at times. Not in a bad way, but jumbled nonetheless.

Now, the next book, By Demons Possessed sends Jame back to her Tai-tastigon, something fans have been begging for and Hodgell’s been promising for years. I’m already halfway in and it’s a blast. After that, it’s straight on to the most recent book, Deathless Gods (2022).

Recommending the eighth book in a lengthy series packed with intricate political machinations, insane magical events, and madcap adventures is impossible. Little in it would make sense to anyone not familiar with the previous books. I guess that means I’m telling you to go out and start at the beginning. Seriously, go buy Baen’s omnibus edition of God Stalk and Dark of the Moon called The God Stalker Chronicles and start reading.

Note: the maps, as always, are by P.C. Hodgell

Here are the links to my previous reviews

God Stalk (1982)
Dark of the Moon (1985)
Seeker’s Mask (1994)
To Ride a Rathorn (2006)
Bound in Blood (2010)
Honor’s Paradox (2011)
The Sea of Time (2014)

Fletcher Vredenburgh writes a column each first Friday of the month at Black Gate, mostly about older books he hasn’t read before. He also posts at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him.

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This series is so good. The story and world is a little loose and chaotic but on purpose and in the best way. Really wish these books would get some love while she’s writing them, but they will be discovered someday. So good!

Joe H.

Yeah, I’m so happy that this series finally found a forever home at Baen, even despite the covers.

John E. Boyle

I’ve been a fan of P.C. Hodgell since Godstalk first came out and I think she is one of the best writers of fantasy of the past fifty years. If you haven’t read her work yet, take Mr. Vredenburgh’s advice and start this series from the beginning. You won’t regret it.


As someone who has already read every Kencyrath book, do you have any reccs for something else that flies under the radar that is good?

Charles Dooley

I have loved these books for over 40 years. I hope Hodgell goes for another 40!

Sarah Avery

I read God Stalk when it was new, the world was young, and I was 13. It was an absolutely foundational book for me. I keep trying to pick the series back up, but every time I feel compelled to start at the beginning because it’s just so good, and then I lose momentum before I pick up To Ride a Rathorn.

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