“Your name in my heart.”
Having mentioned recently that I’d like to do a post about the awesomeness that is Jo Walton I thought I’d better reread some of her books that I remember less clearly, as well as catch up on her most recent book Lent, which I have yet to read. So, with every intention of picking up her Small Change trilogy, naturally I started reading The Prize in the Game instead. A companion book to her The King’s Peace and The King’s Name, The Prize in the Game is a prequel for a handful of lesser characters from those first two books. I love Sulien’s world* so, so much (and blathered on about it here if you’d care to take a look), but I had forgotten just how much heartache this particular book gave me. It’s the kind of heart hurt that is beyond crying.
This is Walton’s retelling of the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. The King books take place in Walton’s alternate Britain of Tir Tinagiri, so Prize is set in her Ireland of Tir Isarnagiri, which is similar to its neighbour in that it is divided into a number of smaller kingdoms whose kings spend a lot of time raiding one another and fostering each other’s children to keep everything from getting too out of hand. The gods, visitations and dreams, and small everyday magics are all par for the course in this world, and men and women are equals in all things. It’s a world you can smell it’s so beautifully written and without any heavy-handedness Walton shows how it all works – how the land and the kings and the lawgivers and the poets and the oracle-priests and the champions and the farmers all play their parts in making this world go round. I really can’t do justice to the effectiveness of Walton’s writing in bringing this world into being.
Structurally the story is told from four third-person points of view in a strict rotation, those of Conal, Elenn, Emer and Ferdia. The first three all then go on to appear in the King books, along with the characters Darag (Black Darag by the time we meet him again), Atha and Inis. We meet Darag, Ferdia, Conal, Elenn, Emer, Leary and Nid as teenagers doing what teenagers do best: pushing blindly towards adulthood. In this world that means taking up arms and so everyone, bar Elenn, go hunting and encounter a god, the Beastmother Rhianna, (who moves in and out of the story at significant points throughout), and come home adults in name and with a whole heap of learning still to do. The book then follows their various exploits on the road to the events in Tir Tinagiri. Prize could easily be read as a stand-alone novel, just as the King books can be read without Prize, but there is an added *snapping fingers for the word* something reading this book and knowing where these characters will eventually end up.
Thematically the story is all about choices and parents. Just as in the King books this world is just one of many alternate worlds in which some things always play out the same, while many other things differ. Oracle-priests like Inis can see across these worlds at the expense of their sanity and can sometimes predict or guide events. Darag (our renamed Cú Cuchlainn) feels most the hand of fate, or doom, in his life. He is a hero whether he would be one or not,
“It’s as if nothing of my life belongs to me and all of it is tied to something else. It’s as if I don’t have any choices. Everything I do is ringed around with strangeness.”
And his story unfolds with an inevitability that even the reader starts to feel. Yet of all of them he is perhaps the best able to cope with this sense of doom. When asked what he want from life for himself his reply is that he wants to survive whatever his doom will be so that he can go on to be a champion and a father and to have friends. They’re not unreasonable goals. Other characters struggle with their potential futures far more. Elenn and Emer in particular are used as pawns in their abusive mother’s constant manoeuvrings for more power and influence. Neither woman can completely escape Maga’s machinations or choose their own course and their individual plights, while very different, are both utterly heartrending. Elenn is a fascinating Guinevere in the Sulien story, but Prize really deepens the readers’ empathy for her. While Emer fights her mother openly (and gets nowhere), Elenn learns to always turn a placid face outward, to smile and appear open and biddable. Her relief when she finally escapes from Maga is palpable.
Conal is the other character who suffers real parent damage. As one of the three possible choices to be the next king of Oriel, he suffers not only from always being in second place to Darag, but from being such an obvious disappointment to his mother and father. He, like Elenn, has learned to wear a mask, a sardonic one in his case, against the petty slights of his parents, but he works so hard to change the course of fate that the reader can’t help but feel for him. Conal has convinced himself that nothing but the kingship of Oriel will do and seems destined for disappointment.
And then there is the romance. I love the Sulien books for avoiding any real mention of romance (and particularly for avoiding that blasted Lancelot-Guinevere thing that I really do not like at all). Similarly, I love this book for Ferdia and Darag. Sure, Conal and Emer’s romance is lovely, but Ferdia’s unrequited love for his foster-brother is just the most beautiful, soul-destroying and tragic thing. More so, I think, because Darag does love Ferdia, just not in that way. They are the closest of friends and Ferdia keeps it all inside himself, and yet, on that last night when he sleeps in the same bed with Darag and his wife Atha it is almost as though he is being shown another way that things could be. Ferdia’s chapters are possibly my favourite part of the whole story and that his last chapter closes the book is both perfect and utterly, utterly heart-breaking.
If you feel the need for a book in which the gods move through the world, in which characters become caught up in the underlying patterns that span the multiverse, in which fate plays a hand and yet you still root desperately for each character to be able to choose something for themselves, then this is the book for you. If you feel the need for your heart to be twisted about in your chest and to be denied the relief of having a good cry at the end, pick this up. While I don’t usually enjoy being made to feel too much by the books I read (because a person can only cry so much and I’ve definitely done more than my fair share already), I loved every second I spent rereading this. Dagnabbit.
* I mentioned in my post about The King’s Peace and The King’s Name that I’d have liked a map of Sulien’s Britain so that I could better picture where things were happening. I have since stumbled across such a map on Jo Walton’s website and you can find it here if such a thing would please you also. (Love a good map, me).