The Beholden, Cassandra Rose Clarke (Erewhon 978-1645660255, trade paperback, 544pp, $19.95) January 2022.
Cassandra Rose Clarke’s fine new fantasy is a superior standalone (with mild climactic hints towards a possible sequel) that hybridizes three or four subgenres to create a uniquely tasty bit of fantastika. First, there’re flavorings of mannerpunk, insofar as the protagonists hail from a society of landed gentry on vast estates, whose members circulate among the manors in a highly formal social dance. Second, there’re fairytale elements involving gifts from supernatural mentors and the hidden strings therewith. Third, there’s a bit of Dunsanyian allegory in terms of the universal forces at play, and what the balance of existence involves. Fourth, there’s a little sampling of grimdark, in the doings of a piratical character and also in some battlefield events. And lastly there’s the domestic, familial aspect, as two disparate sisters support each other while still clashing and following each her own nature. If that all sounds like too much matter to be stuffed into a relatively small-scale narrative, please rest assured that Clarke’s story-telling intuitions and prose prowess result in a very harmonious and organic-feeling saga.
The first chapter is a rouser, and a bit of a necessary prelude, a setting-up of future action, since we will, immediately afterwards, fast-forward five years to the era when all the rest of the tale occurs. A boat-for-hire on the river Seraphine is carrying two well-born women to a secret supernatural assignation. The women are the sisters Celestia and Izara De Malena. Heirs to one of those fancy estates, they are nonetheless impoverished, and Celestia is seeking a rich (and preferably kind and handsome) husband to bail out her fortunes. (Izara is also concerned with the family property, but has other preoccupations, as we shall see.) Rather than use conventional mating methods, however, the sisters are going to conjure up the goddess of the River, also called Seraphine, one of the Airianas, the many demiurges that undergird this world, and get her to magically contrive such a conjunction.
Reaching the magically suitable spot, they go onto the land, taking with them a crewmember named Ico for help. Ico is the ex-pirate I alluded to, and he will become an integral part of the future doings.
To shorten this introduction, the trio find Seraphine, get their wish, but are imbued with a compulsive geas to perform a future favor for Seraphine when demanded.
We jump ahead. Celestia is pregnant, companioned with a jolly, affectionate husband named Lindon, once something of a rogue adventurer, but now a settled homebody at the Cross Winds demesne. Izara, meanwhile, is away at sorcerer school, her true calling. Elsewhere, Ico is happily living with one of the other goddesses who’s taken a fancy to him, a literal ice queen named Xima, having put the sisters out of mind.
The reappearance of Seraphine undoes all this happy complacency. She invokes her privileges and tasks the trio with finding a legendary evil immortal wizard named Kjari, who once plunged the whole world into war five centuries ago. Meanwhile, the Emperor of the land has tapped Lindon for the same quest. Lindon sets out ahead of his wife and company, not realizing they are all on parallel paths. (Their reunions will prove heartbreakingly unsatisfactory, as they find their methods and goals now divergent.) Celestia, Izara and Ico hit the road, and move gradually from some fairly civilized, albeit dangerous, locales to a city hidden from the world, then several wild wilderness venues, ultimately arriving at Kjari’s secret sanctum. They pick up one additional important player along the way, a female warrior named Omaira, who was once one of Kjari’s own soldiers.
What the heroes and heroines discover at the end, after many daunting obstacles, is something of an inversion of all they previously believed, and the only way to salvage their quest involves great sacrifices all around.
Aside from the very compelling and unpredictable catalog of suspenseful incidents that propel the adventure, Clarke offers a host of other delights.
Her world of great estates and cities, while not as deeply (obsessively?) constructed as some secondary worlds, hangs together comfortably and attractively. The secret city of Bloodvine, hidden away by spells, offers a nice Opar riff. Likewise, the logical and unshowy magical systems are not over dominant, but invoked with restraint when needed. The gods and goddesses come off as highly believable, and potent. Here is a description of Seraphine.
Her skin was dark like river water, and water streamed out of her hair, running in shiny streams over her naked form. Ico looked at her for half a second and his eyes burned and he ripped his gaze away, down to the forest floor, where his vision crackled and sputtered…. He was reminded of his mother, chastising him in a garden. He stood, shakily. Peered up at the woman again. The water flowed and flowed over the lines of her body. She was dazzling. Too dazzling for someone like him. He looked away.
The dynamics between the sisters resonate deeply (I was reminded a bit of the similar motif in Alastair Reynolds’s recent Revenger series), as in fact do all the interpersonal dealings in the book. Having a pregnant heroine whose pregnancy itself proves a pivotal factor is a very nice touch. But the best character, I have to say, is Ico, who steals every scene, an unrepentant scoundrel with a nevertheless altruistic and caring side.
With its charming and multiplex nature, The Beholden will manage to satisfy any fans of Tanith Lee, Ellen Kushner or Robert Jackson Bennett—or really, any reader who delights in tales of realistic bravery and hyper-real magic.
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