Middle-class army October 28, 2009Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: books, crossroads trilogy, fantasy novels, kate elliott, reviews
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.
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.
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.