Harvesting as Heroic: Magic and the Natural World in David Mealing’s Ascension Cycle

As we read in K.P.’s post, crops and harvest were inescapable concerns of life in ancient civilizations. Today, unless we’re farmers of some sort, we think about the harvest less, but it’s no less important. However essential it is to human life, it’s not exactly the stuff of heroic sagas. Unless they’re writing about a farming family or community who might be devastated by a bad harvest, authors tend to stay away from this theme. Usually, the closest fantasy comes to mentioning it is by making the protagonist an idealistic farm boy who’s somehow the long-lost son of the king and therefore is “the chosen one.”

soul of the worldAll of that is to explain why this month, I had to get a little creative when it came to keeping with the theme. I’m going to look at Soul of the World, the first book in the Ascension Cycle, an epic fantasy series by David Mealing. The world is inspired by the European settlement of North America. On the coastline are the colonies of Sarresant, including the capital city of New Sarresant, whose culture is reminiscent of France. To the south are the colonies of Gand, reminiscent of England. To the west of the colonies is the Great Barrier, which separates them from tribes indigenous to the land, among them the Sinari, from which one of the protagonist hails.

Crop harvests are certainly of concern to characters in the story. In fact, the New Sarresant colonies are experiencing food shortages, which help foment the growing revolution against the monarch in Sarresant proper. Although this is an important aspect of the world-building, I’m focusing instead on the harvesting of magic. The book deals with multiple systems of magic instead of the standard single system. The main system I want to look at is one wielded by Erris, one of the three main protagonists.

 

Erris is a binder, which means she has the ability to “bind” different energies found along leylines to either herself or others. Here’s an excerpt from her perspective: “Beneath the camp she saw the familiar network of leylines, a crosshatch of energy pulsing with colors and forms. Three she recognized: the green pods of Life, the red motes of Body, and the inky clouds of Death. All the others were gray haze, indiscernible from one another and useless if she tried to bind them. There were six known leyline energies: Body, Shelter, Life, Death, Mind, and Entropy.” [1] And each binding offers specific gifts. Of the bindings Erris can use, Life enhances her senses and heals wounds, Body enhances her strength and speed, and Death enables her to sever enemy bindings, thus rendering them ineffective. [2] The more energies a binder has access to, the more powerful and sought-after they are.

 

soul of the world map
Map of the Ascension Cycle world

There are a finite number of energies, and binders can use only what they find in the natural world. There’s no creating bindings, but it is possible to discover them, and that’s part of what the colonies of Sarresant and Gand are fighting over. “Conquest and colonies brought the great powers gold and trade, but more important, discoveries of new bindings. The academics argued larger claims of territory led to a stronger leyline grid, able to retain a broader spectrum of energies and bolster the gifts of those who could tether them. It had proven true, though, even in her lifetime. The Thellan War, five years before, had resulted in a select few of Sarresant’s binders gaining access to Entropy.” [3] Part of Erris’s challenge is that the Gand commander has found a new energy, which Erris refers to as Need or Hope. When Erris realizes she, too, is one of the rare binders who can access it, she has to learn to control it on her own with no one and nothing to guide her.

What I think is interesting about this magic system is exactly why I chose to write about it for this theme. In many fantasy books, the causes and conduits of magic are relatively intangible—incantations, mysterious power only certain people or races can tap into, abilities given by the gods. But here, Mealing uses the natural world to influence this magic system. Body is plentiful where there are mass crowds of people, Entropy is caused by decay and chaos within the natural world, and Life is found near men and beasts. The energies don’t simply exist in nature; they arise from within the environment itself, which means binders like Erris basically harvest what nature offers to them. Only in this case, instead of crops, it’s energy.

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In a different storyline concerning a different magic system, we learn that these energies aren’t the only things that can be harvested. A Sinari woman named Llanara gains the companionship of a kaas, a dragon-like animal who has access to magic based on a color system. For lack of a world-specific term (at least in book one), I’m calling it “color magic.” Toward the end of the book, during an attack on a neighboring tribe, she finds out about a new color. When the women of the village retaliate against her attack, Llanara’s kaas, Vekis, subdues them with merely a thought.

“What was that?” [Llanara] whispered to her companion. “What did you do to stop her?”
Black.
“Black,” she murmured to herself. A new gift. “It takes away the magic of others?”
Silence.
“Vekis, I would know more. You harvest it from killing our enemies?”
More silence. A maddening trait. It meant she was close, so close to understanding. [4]

Vekis and the other kaas are reluctant to reveal their secrets, but if Llanara is correct, his black power doesn’t come from nature. Rather, it comes from draining the magic of others. Vekis’s color magic and Erris’s power to bind are similar in their operation—in that the user needs sources of energy to draw upon—and yet vastly different in their targets. In this respect, they form a dichotomy—if not of good and evil, then at least of neutrality and evil. When Erris and other binders draw upon energy within the environment, they’re using the available natural resources, which can replenish over time. When Vekis and other kaas use their power, though, we infer that it’s less than natural and, consequently, negative. Through the use of both, Mealing creates an interesting shorthand for readers and makes it clear that the heroes are ones who ally with the natural world instead of abusing it.


[1] Mealing, David. Soul of the World. Orbit, 2017. Loc. 3089.

[2] Ibid. Loc. 672.

[3] Ibid. Loc. 294.

[4] Ibid. Loc. 6824

Perspective and Perception: The Evolution of Attolia in The Queen’s Thief Series

by Carrie Gessner

Perspective is one of the most powerful tools available to writers. It defines the reader’s entry point into the story and shapes their view of the characters. One of my favorite examples of this can be seen in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. The series, which is currently made up of five books with a sixth planned, was inspired by ancient Greece. In Turner’s world, three small countries occupy a peninsula off of the main continent—Sounis in the west, Attolia in the south, and Eddis plunked between the two.unbound 02.jpg

The first book in the series, simply titled The Thief, is told in first-person from Eugenides’s perspective. He’s a teenaged thief whose only chance at getting out of the Sounis prison is to try to steal a mythical stone that is said to confer on the holder the throne of Eddis. Although Eugenides, known as Gen, is the main character of this book, it’s a tertiary female character who makes only a minor appearance toward the end—the queen of Attolia. Her given name is Irene, but in Turner’s world, leaders take on the name of their country. Gen is in prison—again—when he finally meets Attolia, whom he describes as follows:

unbound 0.jpg“Standing in the light, surrounded by the dark beyond the lanterns, she seemed lit by the aura of the gods. Her hair was black and held away from her face by an imitation of the woven gold band of Hephestia. Her robe was draped like a peplos, made from embroidered red velvet. She was as tall as the magus, and she was more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen. Everything about her brought to mind the old religion, and I knew that the resemblance was deliberate, intended to remind her subjects that as Hephestia ruled uncontested among the gods, this woman ruled Attolia.” [1]

This seems like a lot to unpack, especially if you’re not familiar with the series. Our brief glimpse of Attolia tells us two important things—she’s beautiful, and she’s powerful. However, as Gen points out just a page later, though Attolia is beautiful, she is less than kind—to the point of ruthlessness. There are even stories of how she poisoned her husband on their wedding day in order to claim the throne.

Through Turner’s deft use of Gen’s first-person point of view, readers are exposed to the tension among these three countries as well as his strong and poor opinion of the queen of Attolia. Consequently, it’s easy to side with him and dislike her. So imagine the reader’s surprise when Turner gives Attolia a point of view in book two, The Queen of Attolia, titled after the character in question. If she is ruthless, it is because she has had to be. “I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh,” she says. “I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I’ve fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I’ve seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine.” [2] Perhaps Gen is right when he says she’s not kind, unbound 03but perhaps she was never given the chance to be.

By using Attolia’s point of view, Turner makes it clear that Gen’s initial assessment, though not wrong, isn’t the whole picture. Through her point of view, we get passages such as this: “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.” [3] We find that the true Attolia is a far cry from the stony-faced queen she presents to others.

Although Turner’s series offers a fully realized fantasy world as well as twisting plotlines, its biggest strength lies in the characters. I can give only a brief glimpse of Attolia’s development, especially because each installment comes with its own revelations and surprises, but I hope it’s enough to illustrate how our perception as readers is directly influenced by the perspective(s) a writer chooses. I don’t think anyone relishes being proven wrong, but in this particular case, the journey Turner takes us on in order to prove us wrong about Attolia is more rewarding than being right.


[1] Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. Puffin Books, 1998.

[2] Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia. Harper Collins, 2000.

[3] Ibid.

Motherhood as Power: The Importance of Children to Viking Age Queens

by Carrie Gessner

Sshadowhadow on the Crown is the first book in Patricia Bracewell’s trilogy about the real-life Emma of Normandy, who was queen of England twice over. Emma was married off to King Æthelred of England in 1002 by her brother Richard, the duke of Normandy, to form an alliance they hope will keep the Danes away from their shores. Although Æthelred’s first wife was only a consort, Richard makes Emma’s crowning a requirement of the treaty.

In the context of the novel, men view women as having one purpose—to bear children. Kings, especially are in need of heirs. Before the news of her marriage, Emma overhears her brother speaking with Swein Forkbeard, the king of the Danes. She’s surprised that their conversation moves “from the breeding of horses to the breeding of children” so easily. [1]

Because men need women in order to further their own lines, in a way, childbirth is also where women’s power originates. Æthelred disrespects Emma and resents that her brother made crowning her part of the treaty. The one thing that would solidify her place as queen would be to give birth to a son. Before she sails for England, her mother tells her, “Never forget that your first and most important task is to bear a son. It is your son who will be your treasure and your protector, even while he is yet a babe. It is your son who will give you power, who will bind the king to you in a way that he can be bound to no other living woman.” [1]

In “Medieval Mothers Had to Marry and Murder to Get Their Way,” Carolyn Harris writes, “Queens were supposed to value their roles as both wives and mothers, but when forced to pick between the two, the children always came first.” [2] Like with Emma, there is a breaking point where queens who are both wives and mothers must choose to honor and elevate their husband or their children. Many choose their children because motherhood imparts greater power than mere wifehood.

If murder of edward by elfridabearing children confers power on women in general and on queens in particular, it’s a power that isn’t absolute. Æthelred’s first wife dies in childbirth, and Bracewell mentions that Emma’s own mother had lost three children in addition to giving birth to eight surviving ones. Emma’s rival for the king’s affections, Elgiva, knows that if Emma has a child, it will reinforce her standing as queen. When Emma becomes pregnant, Elgiva has her waiting woman slip poison into Emma’s wine to cause her to miscarry. There is no easily available source for Emma experiencing a miscarriage, so it’s safe to say this is a fictional part of historical fiction. However, the point stands. Forcing Emma to miscarry is a way for Elgiva to take Emma’s power away and to assert her own.

Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, allows authors more leeway with how they represent traditional relationships. While historical fiction should adhere to facts as thoroughly as possible, fantasy, though often based on history, has no obligation to history. In Shadow on the Crown, although Emma is a queen, her power is limited. In Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins presents a medieval-Norse-inspired fantasy world where women can take the throne and rule. Women are seen as more than simply vessels for bearing children, but that doesn’t mean they can always escape the importance of motherhood.

The book follows five sisters who are daughters of the king of Thyrsland. A few years prior, Rose, the second daughter, was married off to a neighboring king, Wengest, in order to promote peace. Her central conflict is tied to her motherhood. She’s given birth to a daughter, Rowan, but Rowan’s true father is Wengest’s nephew. The king himself seems to be barren, though he doesn’t yet suspect. Unlike her historical counterparts, Rose feels a lack of power in her situation. She wrestles with her duties as a mother and a queen as well as her desires as a woman. Ultimately, much like as the historical queenly mothers Harris writes about, Rose realizes that “[s]he was a mother before she was a lover.” [3] Her identity as a mother, particularly the mother of a future ruler, outweighs all else.daughters of the storm

The importance of family line comes into play with Bluebell’s story, too, even though she doesn’t have any children and expresses no desire to have any in the future. The oldest and already trained as a warrior, she’s the natural choice for her father’s heir. Wylm, the sisters’ stepbrother, is goaded by his mother into wanting his ailing stepfather’s crown. Consequently, he must come up with a plan to best Bluebell, who is said to be unkillable.

Through a misunderstanding, Wylm comes to the mistaken belief that Bluebell has a child she’s kept secret. Wylm is able to persuade the boy, Eni, to accompany him and uses him as a hostage when he confronts Bluebell for the crown. When he finally sees his stepsister, he cries out, “Is he important to you, Bluebell? Do you love him? I find it hard to believe that there’s a heart inside you.” [3] His opinion of Bluebell is so low that even though he believes Eni to be her son, he seems to doubt she’d give up the crown to keep Eni safe.

Wylm believes Bluebell cannot be a mother figure as well as a warrior or ruler. He believes she must choose. Consequently, when Wylm tries to push Bluebell into the role of mother and use that seemingly compromised state to his advantage, she’s able to resist that push. She’s compassionate enough to give herself up so Eni will be safe, but she’s also strong and determined enough to best her stepbrother anyway. In this, Bluebell has managed to sidestep the usual expectations that women, especially women who would be queens, marry and bear children to further the royal lines.

The common thread in Shadow on the Crown and Daughters of the Storm is that the prospect of bearing children often imparts a certain amount of power upon women. While not universally true, women like Emma of Normandy who were able to seize and use one of tEmmaNormanskáhe few forms of power available to them can be inspiring to read about.

At one point in Daughters of the Storm, one of the sisters advises a dying woman afraid of leaving her son alone to tell herself “that, in him, you will live still. And in his children, and in their children.” [3] This doesn’t have to be limited to literal children, but rather legacies of any sort. Emma of Normandy lived a thousand years ago, and yet her legacy lived on through her children, and it lives on today through the stories we tell of her. So, you see, immortality is already within our reach.


Featured image: The Ordeal of Queen Emma, William Blake.

[1] Bracewell, Patricia. Shadow on the Crown. Harper, 2014.

[2] Harris, Carolyn. “Medieval Mothers Had to Marry and Murder to Get Their Way.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 May 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/medieval-mothers-had-marry-and-murder-get-their-way-180963282/.

[3] Wilkins, Kim. Daughters of the Storm. Del Rey, 2018.