Jo Walton, The King's Peace (Tor Books, 2000)
Jo Walton's first published novel, The King's Peace, helped earn her the 2002 John W. Campbell award for best new writer. This alternate mythology novel, the first half of a duology, is not as compelling as it could be, but is indeed worthy of acclaim.
Rather than creating yet another retelling of the Arthurian myth itself, Ms. Walton borrows the source material to weave her own story. She does not craft an imitation, but a tribute, and best of all, a thinking tribute. The idea is best summed up in the character's own words: "My story has no drama; a land defended, vows unbroken, faith upheld. That is not the stuff of legend." Indeed, the Arthurian legends themselves focus not on the triumphs of the knights, but on the failures; Lancelot's love for Guinevere, Merlin's seduction and downfall, the manipulations of Mordred and Morgan. Similar events and similar characters do appear in The King's Peace, but the story focuses on the triumphs, on divine aid and mundane hard work, on the building and maintaining of a peace, and on efforts to build, and rebuild, the heart of a family. They are not tedious; at times, these triumphs are full of drama and passion. Unspoken, but certainly present, is the implication that the creation of the peace -- and the concept of peace itself -- and not its shattering, should be the part of the story the people treasure and re-tell.
The story is told as the memoirs of Sulien Ap Gwien, a warrior of great courage and skill. When she is caught defenseless by six Jarnish raiders, it takes all six to subdue her. In the wake of her own rape and the destruction of her home, she travels reluctantly to seek the High King's help. She knows the country is too large for any central force, however strong or well intentioned, to get aid to an outer province before the raiders can escape, and no distant King, she believes, will care to put forth funds to rebuild a small and distant province.
However, King Urdo is nothing like what she expects. He is a strategist, who has devised a new style of cavalry: efficient and fast moving. He is also a diplomat, able to bring diverse people together, aware that all his people have something to contribute, however remote they are or how different their religion. And he is one of the few people in the country who really understands the concept of peace that he strives for. Sulien herself does not understand peace, but even so, she recognizes Urdo as a worthy King, and one whose ideals she is proud to follow.
The setting is one of the best things about this novel. Tir Tanagiri is a country abandoned by the empire which once protected it, and beset by Jarnish and Isarnagan raiders from over the sea. It is a world complete and consistent in all its details, from the different terrains to the ways of life of the people in town, in monastery, and in battle camp. There is no doubt that the author did extensive research, and has lived in the land itself; the writing captures the feel of the era, and has a firm sense of place. Excerpts from poems and histories used to open the chapters also give a hint of the wider world, and add more veracity to the already rich setting.
There are some obvious cultural differences between this world and anything truly historical. The first is, of course, the presence of gods and spirits who respond in obvious ways, removing any doubt as to their existence, and the presence of useful and practical magics. Magic is not a mystery in this world, or a secret; it is a skill learned by some and not by others, much like swordplay, requiring only strength of faith instead of strength of arm. The gods are characters in the story, fighting their own battles, sometimes even defeated, but always glorious. While some spells have the feeling of mundanity, the spells where the gods manifest are delightfully otherworldly.
The other difference is the equality of gender; with the exception of the Jarnish culture, women are the equal of men in all things. If more women stay at home than men overall, there is no stigma attached to a woman who fights, or a man who stays home to tend the children. It is questionable whether such a culture could really have arisen in our world -- but with the addition of healing chants that work and the presence of gods who can, and usually do, prevent children from being born out of wedlock, the cultural change becomes quite feasible. It's a fascinating look at a might have been; not a world where women prove themselves, but a world where they don't have to.
The prose itself is like the magic; often workmanlike, and occasionally dazzling. Sometimes more could have been done with individual scenes, but usually this is due to the limitations of Sulien herself; the character is not a poet but a pragmatist; blunt-spoken and impatient, firmly biased and occasionally unreliable. It seems as though the author chose to hold true to that voice even when it meant words had to remain unpolished. This brings more power to the story she tells even as it weakens the prose -- this is Sulien's voice, and even the author would not tamper with what the character has to say.
Unfortunately, Ms. Walton betrays herself with a few weaknesses.
The first is character. The story in The King's Peace spans ten years and crosses vast stretches of country. Sulien works with different troops over time, reunites with old friends, revisits her family. There are dozens of supporting characters, most of them referred to both by first name and by patronymics, some of them reappearing pages later with inadequate reminders of who they are. And other than Sulien and Urdo, there are only a handful of other characters who even seem properly fleshed out. For instance, Sulien's mother, Veniva, is a powerful character, but the rest of her family are quick sketches, and the in-laws are mostly less than that. Arvlid, a young woman in the monastery, is vivid, but many of the other monastic figures are caricatures. Members of the various troops Sulien works with suffer even more; all too often, the subordinates seem like carboard cut-outs, even with identical speech patterns.
The different parts of the country and their ethnicity are likewise essential to the story, and likewise disappear and reappear chapters later. The details of the countryside do stand out -- better than many of the subordinate characters -- when Sulien visits them herself, but there are locations that are referred to but never seen directly, and these sometimes become muddled. I am hesitant to suggest that an author resort to a map, because the story should be able to stand without external props, yet in this case, a proper map would have been a very reasonable extra.
A lesser weakness of the story is the ending. While the events at the end of the book are credible, they cut off all too abruptly, with a major change in Sulien's life on the very last page, and a blatant "To be continued." This is not necessarily a sin -- many duologies and trilogies were planned as a single book and cut apart for publication purposes -- but The King's Peace did not give any obvious hint in the hardcover package that it was the first of two books, so the cut-off may seem jarring to the unprepared.
Still, this novel is a worthwhile read, and whets the palate for the second half of the story.
Jo Walton's home page is here, including maps, essays and commentary on Sulien's world.