Air Logic, Laurie J. Marks (Small Beer Press 978-1-61873-160-9, $17.00, 400pp, pb) June 2019. Cover by Kathleen Jennings.
You might not believe me, but this is the truth: Laurie J. Marks’s Elemental Logic books are as good as Elena Ferrante’s monumental Neapolitan Quartet. They achieve the same depth, the same spellbinding quality, and the same sense of falling entire into a world on the page, tethered to real life by the sure hand of a master writer. They expose a talent as mighty as Le Guin’s for building intricate moral dilemmas inside fantasy universes, for creating characters the reader will remember for decades, and for presenting solutions that amount to much more than throwing soldiers or magic at the problem. These books are a profound achievement in fantasy literature, and I am completely perplexed that people do not revere them suitably.
Perhaps that will change with the release of Air Logic, the fourth and final book in the Elemental Logic series. It follows Fire Logic (2002), Earth Logic (2004), and Water Logic (2007), all of which have been re-released by Small Beer Press, with new, beautifully matched covers by three-time World Fantasy Award nominee Kathleen Jennings.
It’s been more than ten years since Marks visited Shaftal and its people, but the book picks up where Water Logic left off. After two decades of turmoil and instability, Karis, the powerful leader of Shaftal, is still trying to unite the warlike Sainnites with the peaceful Shaftalese. Her companions are attempting to uncover a conspiracy to dethrone and murder Karis. Nearly all of the characters we picked up along the way – Garland, an efficient and kind chef; Clement, a Sainnite general and extraordinary leader; and Leeba, the energetic young daughter of Karis’s household – return. We also gather up Chaen, a remarkably complex character struggling against herself and her unfortunate beliefs; Tashar, a spoiled rich kid with bad judgment; and Maxew, Chaen’s son, a sociopathic air witch.
Although it’s been made clear through Norina, the last survivor of the Order of Truthkens, that air logic connects with truth-telling and acute interpretation based on observation (think Sherlock Holmes), Air Logic clarifies air talents with far greater detail. One of the most delightful aspects of the novel is the chapters regarding the “air children,” young air witches who have gathered to study with Norina. They have no social graces at all and must practice making ordinary conversation, a task they find tedious and meritless. Thus, they are very funny and sweet. For example, one says he plans to study a member of his household because “He likes people. I want to know how that works.”
As it turns out, air witches can completely control the behavior of others, whether that means forcing them to tell the truth at a trial (a lawful use of their power) or forcing them to forget portions of their lives (an unethical use). Air magic can do formidable damage when wielded immorally, and it’s a rogue air witch that Karis and the other powerful people in Shaftal are seeking in Air Logic. That’s the main story, although it manifests in travel, dividing and re-forming Karis’s entourage, and a great deal of peril. The plot of this book isn’t as robust as the other three, resorting to kidnapping and amnesia to incite drama, but that doesn’t mean the book is less enjoyable. Marks knows that she has created such an extraordinary fantasy realm, and built these characters into such fascinating figures, that stirring them around for 350 pages is plenty to make the book work. Further, she is not afraid to (temporarily) break the reader’s heart. Code Name Verity this is not, thank God, but my heart caught in my throat a few times in fear of what had truly happened to Zanja or Emil.
Along with her superb characterization, Marks’s writing is unusually complex. I have learned to read the next few scenes before believing I will understand the first one. The most marvelous quality of the Elemental Logic books, though, is their workable pacifism. Karis has limitless destructive power, but she uses it to bring down divisive walls and heal her enemies. Zanja could kill everyone in a given room before they hit the floor, but the highest expression of her abilities is a form of dance. Norina could force her opponents to see it her way, but instead, in a memorable scene that resembles a cult intervention, she reasons her opponent into agreement. The Karis entourage uses careful rhetoric to talk Chaen out of her extremism, in a long and wearying process that yields great rewards. It’s much harder to convince people than it is to kill them, and this is the central axis of Marks’s series. The tension derives from how her inimitable characters implement these convictions without losing their lives or their minds.
Further, there’s something irreplaceably valuable about a book series with more queer relationships than heterosexual ones, that unabashedly embraces a communal family structure instead of a nuclear one. This is a series that runs the gamut from tenderness and eroticism to full-on wartime logistics, books complex enough to be studied, and idea-driven enough to seize a huge variety of minds.
I’ve tried to communicate how good this series is as a whole, not because Air Logic can’t stand on its own (it can, I think), but because it’s such a satisfying conclusion to the series. It would be a great shame, as a reader, not to revel in that satisfaction as fully as possible, not to feel the desperation and danger of the near-misses these characters undergo after we’ve traveled with them for three detailed books. Also, the series ends where it began, in more ways than one, and the significance of that circularity is lost a bit without remembering where we started, in the very first chapter of Fire Logic.
These books are a treasure, triumphant and awe-inspiring. Dig them up and get started.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the July 2019 issue of Locus.
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