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Middle-class army October 28, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: , , , ,

You may recall that quite some time ago, I complained about the way fantasy writers tend to be very dismissive of, and even hostile towards, the middle class. If you’re reading a book set in a pre-industrial, medieval-Europe-inspired world, you’ll often find cowardly, money-grubbing merchants who reject their ‘rightful’ rulers – and, by extension, the heroism which these rulers represent – out of sheer avarice.

As I wrote,

[W]hy do these city-dwellers have to be presented as uniformly effete, grasping, power-hungry and degenerate? Why must all epic fantasy worlds be peopled with steadfast, humble, loyal peasants just waiting for their lost kings to return and save them from the Big Brewing Evil? It’s so juvenile, and it makes me want to fling things at the wall.

I’m pleased to report that in Kate Elliott’s latest series, the Crossroads trilogy, this convention has been somewhat turned on its head.

Spirit Gate

I’ve read the first two books, Spirit Gate and Shadow Gate, and while there are many wonderful things about these books (not least that they’re set in an alternative version of what appear to be China, Mongolia, India, the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia, rather than the usual vaguely medieval European mishmash you tend to find in much fantasy), what I’d like to applaud is their positive presentation of the middle class. At this point, I should let you know that there may be spoilers.

The books are, for the most part, set in ‘The Hundred’, a Chinese-inflected country which was once governed by supernatural, supposedly immortal ‘Guardians’. The Guardians’ justice was enforced by eagle-riding reeves, who are all that remains of the governing structure of the Hundred, since the Guardians have disappeared. The Hundred is undergoing a great deal of chaos and upheaval, as various factions seek to establish control, or at least access to trade routes and wealth. Into this chaos step Anji and Mai, who are fugitives from the neighboring Sirnarkian empire. Anji is one of many rival heirs to the Sirnarkian throne – a throne which is always won by slaughtering one’s rivals. He is also half-Qin. Despite what the name might suggest, the Qin are probably closest to nomadic Mongol culture, and are currently enjoying rule over several neighboring regions. Mai is Anji’s wife, and she comes from a wealthy merchant family from one of these Qin-controlled regions. The pair of them become inadvertently caught up in the struggles within the Hundred.

What is so fantastic is that although Anji and his Qin mercenaries play a major role in saving the forces of good in the Hundred, Mai plays an equally significant part. This is amazing, as Mai has been set up as a consummate merchant: she worked on her family’s fruit stall back home, and her combination of hard bargaining and an accurate understanding of human nature meant that she contributed greatly to her family’s wealth. Throughout the series, her negotiating skills mean that she, Anji and their followers constantly enjoy favourable conditions and, ultimately, a privileged position in the Hundred. But her merchant skills achieve far more than that: they actually save the Hundred on more than one occasion.

Shadow Gate

It’s so refreshing to see the medieval equivalent of the middle class presented in this way. It shows that Elliott really did her research – it reflects a more accurate understanding of how mercantile societies operated, and how such societies might’ve reacted to conflict and war. Mai is a fabulous character, principled yet pragmatic, outwardly restrained but gifted at speaking persuasively when the need arises. It’s been a long time since I’ve met a character in a fantasy novel who appealed to me so much, and it’s been an even longer time since I’ve read a fantasy novel where all elements of the imagined society rang so true. I cannot wait to read the final book in the series.


1. Catie - October 28, 2009

Sounds good! I remember thinking a similar thing about another of Kate Elliot’s series- it struck me as a more authentic medieval setting (this one was European) than most vaguely medieval fantasy settings. I don’t know what it was about it, maybe the complexity of the setting- and I think it was the monks, who were mixed bunch, not all evil and corrupt, not all good and pure of heart. But it’s been a while since I read them!

2. Jordan - October 29, 2009

Considering the power grasping of mercantile middle classes is more or less what gave us modern liberal democracies in place of feudal monarchies, they really do deserve a little more love.

I look forward to reading the series.

3. dolorosa12 - October 29, 2009

Yes, Catie, I remember liking the Crown of Stars series for precisely that reason. It’s a kind of attention to detail, a conscious effort on Elliott’s part to understand that even though her stories are set in ‘invented’ worlds, these worlds draw very heavily on historical periods of our own world and thus must ring true to those periods. Her characters behave like real people, too, which is a plus!

Jordan, that’s exactly my point. I hope you like the series, if you read it.

4. Alec - November 1, 2009

But, who would we make fun of? It’d be back to watching Little Britain and mocking the working-classes!

As for why, I have no doubt it’s influence by that Christian-heresy of Marxism which endorsed the idea of a Hegelian hero but saw the merchantile and bourgeoise classes as holding the honest sons of toil back from their rightful return to a pre-lapsarian (cf. Industrial Revolution) bliss.

Bit funny, considering that Marx was at London in 1848 for the Chartist rally on Kennington Common, and didn’t attend, preferring to glom off Engels and – like William Morris – to pursue his workers’ relations with the maids.

Then again, they were middle-class.

>> Despite what the name might suggest, the Qin are probably closest to nomadic Mongol culture,

Not so daft when you think of the Manchu’s being Tungusic.

5. Things don’t get no better, better than you and me « Geata Póeg na Déanainn - March 20, 2010

[…] I’ve written before about how much I love this series because it’s a fantasy series that makes middle-class talents and middle-class occupations heroic, which is a very rare thing. I also love it because of the central couple. Anji and Mai marry for diplomatic and economic reasons, but they share a mutual respect that eventually blossoms into a practical, adaptable, generous kind of love. It’s not an all-consuming, country-destroying passion, and sometimes, you know, it’s nice to recognise that love doesn’t have to be that way. […]

6. Get medieval « Geata Póeg na Déanainn - November 7, 2010

[…] I still haven’t had a chance to finish this series, as the Cambridge public library doesn’t have the third book (I’ll probably read it when I’m in Sydney over Christmas, as the Sydney public libraries are far superior to the Cambridge ones), but I can safely say this is my favourite medieval fantasy series EVER. Rather than being set in generic Ye Olde Europe, it’s set in alternative versions of China, Mongolia and (if I recall correctly) the Ottoman Empire. I adore this series for two reasons: it has fantastic female characters who are believable within a patriarchal medieval framework (ie, they’re active agents, and their skills – especially their ability to negotiate and make deals in an economic context – are highly valued, but they have to operate within a system where it is still quite difficult to be a woman without the protection of a man), and because the characters are so mercenary, and it’s portrayed as realistic rather than cowardly. Honour before reason heroism is rightly portrayed as ridiculous and dangerous. Diplomacy, bargaining and bartering are heroic, society-saving qualities in this universe, and that strikes me as both realistic to its medieval setting, and incredibly refreshing. I’ve already blogged about this series here. […]

7. Thou art all ice « Geata Póeg na Déanainn - June 10, 2011

[…] reviews trackback I thought I would like Kate Elliott’s novel Cold Magic because I’ve adored everything she’s written. I thought I would like it because it was steampunk alternate history where the Little Ice Age was […]

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