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It’s about power March 2, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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[Spoilers for Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series, in particular the third book, Traitors’ Gate.]

My heart broke twice while reading Traitors’ Gate, the third book in Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series. The first time was when Captain Anji finds out his wife Mai is dead, and he collapses and has to be held up by his men. The second time was when Mai returned to Anji seven months later, only to discover that he has remarried and that her son doesn’t recognise her, and calls Anji’s new wife ‘Mama’. The ending of this book (and of the series’ first trilogy*) is absolutely brutal.

It’s also one of the cleverest examinations of the nature of power I’ve read for quite a while. That theme is like catnip to me. I love books which look at who has power, why, and what that means, especially if they throw in a bonus exploration of different kinds of power, how they are valued relative to one another, and what that says about a particular society. That, in its essence, is what Crossroads is about, although that makes it sound very dry indeed. And the series would be dry, if not for its vibrant worldbuilding and engaging cast of characters.

When we left our characters at the end of the second book, our heroes were facing existential peril. The mercenary leader Captain Anji and his wife Mai had settled in the Hundred and had won the trust of the people among whom they lived mainly due to Mai’s talents as a merchant, diplomat and generally adaptable and accommodating person. Mai had given birth to a son, Atani, and the pair looked set to be building a new life in the Hundred, once they’d dealt with the pesky problem of an army led by tyrants slaughtering its way through the land, and the ever-menacing threat of the Sirniakan Empire hovering just off-screen. (Anji was a son of the former Sirniakan ruler, and it is a land where one claims the throne by murdering all rival claimants. Anji had been in exile since he was a child, but the threat remains.) But how wrong I was!

Well, up to a point. Our heroes do deal with these threats, and once they’re done, the Hundred is arguably a safer and more stable land. But as the book progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that not all of them are as heroic as previously imagined. I’m talking, of course, about Anji, and I’m kicking myself for not realising that there were little hints thrown in here and there in the previous books to show us that his intentions were not as pure as they seem, as seen through Mai’s adoring eyes.

What Mai – and the reader – thinks she and Anji are doing is settling down in a new homeland, adapting themselves to the customs and culture of that land, and giving back to that society according to their means and ability. As such, she puts down roots, forging connections through a combination of trade, friendship and the exchange of ideas, as well as doing her part to tie Anji’s Qin mercenaries more firmly to the land through marriages with local women. She is the consummate diplomat, able to keep her own feelings at some remove, a hard bargainer with a canny understanding of human nature who is able to persuade people to her cause without making them feel like they’ve been exploited (as, indeed, they have not).

Anji makes use of this, as his skills are more useful on the battlefield than in the marketplace. Theirs was an arranged marriage, and yet it appeared to be a happy one. Anji respected Mai’s mercantile abilities, and while the circumstances of their union were inherently a power imbalance (Anji and his mercenaries were in control of the trading town in which Mai lived, and when he asked to marry her, there was no way she could’ve refused), they were comfortable with each other and indeed felt something which I read as love.

This is what makes Anji’s actions such an utter betrayal, and Mai’s reactions so painful to read. It is not that he pretended to love her, and yet used her, but that he genuinely loved her and used her all the same.

For in fact what is really going on is that Anji, far from integrating and adapting into life in the Hundred, in fact views it as a land ripe for his rule. Exiled from his paternal inheritance of Sirniaka, and his maternal Qin relatives (and perhaps because of the fact that he cannot find power and acceptance among his kin), he sets about conquering another kingdom for himself. And he uses Mai – and her talents – to shield people from realising what is really going on. They see a saviour with a beautiful and charming wife and cute son, when what he actually is is an inflexible, jealous**, covetous ruler, better only in degree and not in kind from the tyrants he overthrows.

What Elliott is actually doing in this series is interrogating the hackneyed old epic fantasy plot of ‘dispossessed man saves world and is thus its rightful ruler’. In giving readers access to the lives of characters not often shown in this type of fantasy (farmers, artisans, merchants) she shows us why people would accept the rule of a leader like Anji (give up freedom, gain stability, crudely speaking). At the same time, through Mai, she tells us the stories that people tell themselves to avoid seeing the truth of the powers that control their lives. The myth of the chosen, rightful, just ruler is one such story with which people deceive themselves, and Elliott dismantles it with dexterity, pathos and emotional honesty.

____________________________
* There will be a stand-alone book featuring the characters from the first trilogy, and then another trilogy set some time after the events of the first, with (presumably) a new set of focal characters.
** The instant he slapped Mai’s face in anger at her going to the temple of Ushara (a place where people worship by sleeping with the temple acolytes – which Mai did not do, as she was only accompanying a friend), I knew that Anji was irredeemable. Yes, he loved Mai, but he loved her in a jealous, possessive ‘don’t touch my things’ kind of way.

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