Maledicte by Lane Robins
The world is always a complicated place. We hope it is all laid out in a conveniently foreseeable way with A Street parallel to B Street and the crosshatched roads sequentially numbered. All navigation would then be precisely cartesian, lacking only elevation to achieve absolute certainty, assuming we follow the plotting. Yet, more often than not, city planners have renovated rather than replaced, randomly naming streets that follow the cattle tracks of yesterday. So, walking down a winding road, thinking you are making progress, you can suddenly find you have turned back towards where you started.
Books are also like ancient cities. You walk down the streets designed by their authors, looking for names and signs of likely destinations. But part of the games authors play is to obscure directions and allow an element of surprise to creep into the journey. If they play the game well, we all enjoy the meandering through the pages of the plot. Play the game without skill, and the journey becomes less entertaining and potentially frustrating.
Blurring genders is alway a difficult art whether in real life or in fiction. Frances Clallin served as a Union artilleryman in the Civil War, while Billy Tipton played a mean jazz piano and lived with several women, even adopting three sons. Without the need to rely on the help of a god who may enable a glamour, a few women have contrived to invade the world of men. In Maledicte by Lane Robins, we have a young woman who contrives to pass as a man in a royal court where manners and etiquette limit physical touch. In a world where appearance is everything, perhaps people really do see only what they expect to see. But how should the author describe this transgender behaviour? Ignoring the practical details of a corset to restrict the breasts and carry the padding to fill out the waist, should a third-person description refer to the resulting body as male or female?
In some senses, this is a trivial issue. Why should it matter how an author uses pronouns? Well, in biological terms, sex is clearly determined by the absence or presence of external genitalia. Gender is a role constructed by the local culture, allowing or refusing different social abilities. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I prefer an author to stay true to the biological sex of the characters, no matter how they act or dress.
And this sense of confusion continues on to the question of divine possession. In this world of real gods who have, for now, withdrawn from routine interaction with the humans, it is possible to converse with them through dreams and to make bargains with them. Miranda/Maledicte has made a compact with Black-Winged Ani. This god is an embodiment of violent revenge who feasts on the emotions of those possessed like carrion crows feast on the dead (somewhat along the same lines as in The Crow where Eric Dravin, played by Brandon Lee, seeks revenge for his own death). Yet the detail of the compact with Ani and how it is supposed to work are left somewhat obscure. A part of the interest in this situation is understanding the working of the interaction between divine and human potential. How does a god give a mortal greater power, what price must be paid and how do they communicate with each other? Just as Joan of Arc claimed she had visions from God, we should see something similar in Miranda/Maledicte. Yet, for most of this novel, the workings of this contract remain obscure. All we learn early on is that, if the host does not act quickly to realise the desired revenge, more of Ani becomes invested in the human. This allows Ani to push aside the human’s conscious control and seek a revenge of her own devising.
Because of the early failure to give any kind of interior monologue showing what is happening inside Miranda/Maledicte’s mind, we are left with a semi-routine set of courtly intrigues. There is little new or different in these manipulations and manoeuvres. People fight for honour, status and wealth. They kill for inheritance and succession. Yet the first third of the book does manage to maintain a good pace and the hook of curiosity is well set. Unfortunately, it gets more pedestrian when Miranda is reunited with Janus, her lost love, the second third devolving into a more prosaic romantic drama with a love triangle complicated by the gender deception. Obviously, nobility are expected to marry and produce heirs. Homosexual dalliances are scandalous and those involved are expected to be discreet. In this, Robins handles the jealousy and emotional complications realistically.
Unfortunately, there is little or no real background to the political situation. Just as the background to the gods is hazy, there is little real information as to the alliances and disputes between the inevitably almost-warring states. The power in the heavens and the lands is only vaguely defined. Thinking about the length of the book, there is a case to be made for cutting back a little on the intrigue and giving more context for the action.
Although the more supernatural or magical effects of the possession do become more clear in the final third of the novel, I think this too little and too late. There is a balancing of love and hate, of revenge and forgiveness which produces a form of compromise between the god and the possessed. But the resolutions are slightly perfunctory, and I have the sense that it all relies rather too much on the cleverness of Janus whose name, as you will understand, is chosen to encourage us to doubt his love.
As a final thought, the language is that of high fantasy and, through most of the text, it is managed without being too intrusive. So, for example, the Prologue begins, “The horse-and-four racketed down the broken cobblestone street, shuddering and jolting on the uneven surface. Midmorning sunlight lanced off the blue-lacquered carriage, lighting it like a jewel in a tarnished crown.” There are inevitable lapses when modern usages intrude but, overall, this is a brave attempt at a difficult writing challenge. So, if you enjoy high fantasy with a slightly more romantic edge, Maledicte is for you. The sequel is called Kings and Assassins.