Tuesday, February 28, 2012

100 Books #19 - MeiLin Miranda's SON IN SORROW

Available soon at meilinmiranda.com and other fine bookselling  type places!
MeiLin Miranda likes to use an amusing tagline for her fiction, announcing that she writes "fantasy with all the good parts left in," and it's quite apropos. The book for which she is perhaps best known to date (how I discovered her, at any rate) is the first set in this "Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom", Lovers and Beloveds, had lots and lots and lots of "good parts" in its two entertwined storylines, an arousing and disturbing and graceful read if ever there was one. And yes, I'm talking about sex, which is treated both frankly and delicately and in some detail in this series.

But what she could equally call it is "the feminine side of fantasy," for while these stories are set in a more or less typical epic fantasy world* -- gods are real as is magic, big burly men wear shiny armor and fight with swords, feudalism is in full effect -- but Ms. Miranda is more interested in the lives of the women who are kept in keeps and castles until they're useful to cement alliances or birth babies or look good on a nobleman's arm, even as these books seem primarily concerned with the life and education of a young man, Prince Temmin, heir to a vast kingdom (his education as we see it is focused on teaching him the stereotypically "feminine" qualities of empathy, compassion, attention to small detail, and oh, yes, good sex, which in Ms. Miranda's world does not happen without those other qualities. Let's hear it for MeiLin!).

Above all, we are prompted to consider the consequences of sex, and how women bear the worst of them in pretty much every society, even a fantasy one in which great goddesses actually walk among their worshippers through taking over willing "Embodiments" -- the many roles of woman, of lover, mother, teacher and healer may be sacred, but the actual women playing these roles still get treated pretty badly.

In Lovers and Beloveds, we were pulled into the story of Prince Temmin as a young man, as he fell for and doggedly pursued the woman who served as one of the Embodiments of the Lovers, twin deities, male and female, who preside over love and sexuality -- meaning, he was after a woman who is off limits -- right into her Temple, where he decided against his father's most strident wishes to enter as a Supplicant, a sort of high level lay priest (there was apparently a prophecy that if the Heir ever joined the Lovers' Temple, the monarchy would end in revolution and revolt, something no aristocracy wants to happen). As he decided to buck his father and the rest of society's expectations, he was magically immersed in the sad-yet-lovely story of some distant ancestors, a dethroned king and a cruelly enchanted princess whose love ultimately triumphed and whose experiences helped guide Temmin into deciding to go for it.

Alas, no decision made by one in his position is without consequences, and so he becomes the titular Son in Sorrow of this second volume (that title guides the reader's thoughts down a melancholy path as the story takes hold, and this is no accident), close to the Embodiment yet never further away even when he gets to sleep with her, enduring the icy disapproval of his father, and mostly out of contact with his mother and sisters, whose own anguished affairs threaten at times to dominate his tale -- even when a man is center stage in this Intimate History, he is defined by his relationships to women, even when he rides out to battle, as evidenced in the ancestral story Temmin is immersed this time around, this one a royal bastard whose mother bounced from kingdom to kingdom until the grieving ruler of one of Tremont's enemies married her and made her troubles even worse.

These works are often compared to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and for good reason, but I find the comparison sells these Intimate Histories short: I find them to be superior works in many respects. Miranda may not write battle scenes as well as Martin, though she is no slouch in that department, but her understanding of and compassion for her characters is far greater, her magical and theological conceits better thought out and more thematically and aesthetically consistent, her insights into the human psyche keener. Male readers may dislike how her male characters are circumscribed by her females, but then, that is the whole point, for the whole nature of these books is to tell the "unknown" stories of royal mistresses and jilted lovers and illegitimate children even as they detail the coming of age of a Crown Prince whose very existence is owed just as much to the suffering -- and triumphs -- of these women as to the mighty kings and princes (and bastard sons) who make up his male lineage.

I didn't want this book to end but found myself racing to the finish nonetheless and now I find myself grateful indeed that Miranda releases her fiction in serialized doses on her website before formally publishing it. I first encountered her Intimate History this way, but then held off for the second novel until this volume saw formal publication**. I'm pretty sure I'll just be haunting her website again for more, though. Patience was never really one of my virtues.

*A lot of readers have compared this world to Victorian England, but I kept thinking of Austria. The Antremonts (the royal family of this series) made me think more of a polytheist Hapsburg clan than of the early Windsors. Let's say, the Hapsburgs had they and their empire been colonized an an early date by the Goa'uld, for that is what this setting's polytheism most reminds me of.

**Not that I totally had to wait; Miranda is a personal friend and gave me an advanced review copy of this book when I wheedled her into it. She's nice like that. Try that with George R.R. Martin, kiddies!

1 comment:

  1. "Male readers may dislike how her male characters are circumscribed by her females"

    I'm not sure you're being entirely fair here, both to MeiLin Miranda and to potential male readers of her excellent works. FWIW I recall more comments from lesbians than men about a perceived injustice in the treatment of their respective peer group in Miranda's works, but that's really beside the point.

    Which is that given her impeccable world building and her great compassion for her characters, I feel unable to fault her for her portrayal of members of just about any human subgroup, simply because within the world she has set up, the behaviour of her characters, despicable and loathsome as it may be in some cases, makes perfect sense. And that, I should hasten to add, is by no means to imply that their behaviour *only* makes sense in the world she has set up. Far from it, I find Miranda's Intimate History a great and very accessible look at what it means to be human, both male and female but with special attention given to the latter.

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