The Beholden, Cassandra Rose Clarke (Erewhon 978-1-64566-025-5, $18.95, 523pp, tp) January 2022.
The De Malena sisters are desperate. Orphaned and destitute, they’ll do anything to save their estate and their titles – even bargain with the Lady of the Serpentine, the unpredictable Airiana goddess of the river.
In The Beholden, the latest novel by Cassandra Rose Clarke, the Lady grants the sisters their wish. Celestia, beautiful and delicate, meets and marries Lindon, a wealthy ex-adventurer, bringing in enough money to save their lands. The re-influx of wealth then allows sister Izara her dream: to study magic at the prestigious, exclusive Academy. However, everything has a price. The two sisters, as well as Ico, the reformed pirate who simply acted as a guide on the treacherous journey to see the Lady, are now indebted – marked as beholden – to the goddess for a future favor… to be called in at, well, any time in the future.
Five years pass, and the three beholden are doing well for themselves: Celestia and Lindon are excitedly expecting their first child, Izara is holding her own at the Academy, and Ico has become the trophy husband to a minor snow goddess, Xima. However, around them, the peace and safety of the realms is unraveling.
An alarming pandemic is spreading across the realms, one in which nothing can die. Fatally wounded people crawl the earth, plants bloom in the middle of winter – to say the least, everything is kicked out of balance.
There are whispers that the evil mage, Lord Kjari, has returned; the pandemic is exactly like the one he unleashed during the Great War, which nearly destroyed the world. Of course, the Great War was 500 years in the past. Not even a greatly powerful mage can live that long, or return from the dead. Or can they?
Both the Emperor and the Lady of the Serpentine believe they can. The Emperor pulls Lindon out of retirement to lead a party that will slay Lord Kjari, and the Lady calls in her debt to her beholden, demanding that the three find the mage first, and bring him safely to her. Even though it means danger to the pregnant Celestia (and working at cross-purposes to her husband), that Izara will be barred from future studies, and that Ico risks being found by an organized crime family calling for his head, they have no choice but to set out on an adventure that hits every square on the fantasy trope bingo card.
The beholden battle mythical creatures. They travel the river on a magical steamboat, and follow a magical map to a forgotten estate that may exist out of time. From the estate, they ride a magical train to a hidden city. They bargain with nature spirits until they wind up prisoners of the reclusive Emperor and escape with the help of another mythical creature. While that’s more than enough to call out for a winning board, Clarke continues through to the end, dusting off even more fantasy clichés, both hokey and beloved, before the end of the novel. Even the characters themselves are archetypical: the delicate, aristocratic Celestia; the brilliant Izara with little regard for social mores or anything feminine; gruff, uncouth Ico; the short-sighted, wealthy Lindon; and the fickle, flighty gods. However, the continual feed of old saws winds up having a brilliant cumulative effect. Taken individually or in small sections, the novel feels predictable, familiar. But Clarke has taken these ingredients and created a mash-up that, when taken in entirety, is surprising and completely satisfying.
The setting, built from countless familiar worlds, is singular in its variation. We follow the beholden from a jungle to a polar ice cap, and then to a desolate desert. The magic system, patchworked from several existing systems, has its own rules and dangers. Most of the characters have a complete arc. Their interactions between themselves and with their environment challenge them and they change – and because of this, they have a tangible roundness that is irresistible. There are one or two characters whose ends do not necessarily follow a logical progression, but that didn’t bother this reader.
The Beholden also shows Clarke’s astute eye for detail. Landscapes, the minutiae of the manners of gentry, and the operations of ships, for example, are described in languid but observant prose. The language is often gorgeous, and Clarke spaces these slow meditations between action scenes to great effect. The pacing is, for lack of a better word, humane, allowing readers to have a chance to catch their breath and reorient themselves after each battle or close call. It’s also a master class for writers who want to see authorial control of pace rendered seamlessly in a novel-length work, without sacrificing the momentum of a plot.
Overall, fans of classic fantasy will find much to love in The Beholden. The well-trod tropes eventually amass into something quite fresh, and most plot strands are neatly tied up in the end. The patience of pushing through is well-rewarded.
Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.
Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.
Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.
This review and more like it in the March 2022 issue of Locus.
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