There was a period of time, between the ages of about 11 and 14, when I read Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet dozens of time. I knew those books backwards and forwards, and their pleasure never waned upon rereading (although I certainly had least favorites in the series). Coming back to Pierce's books as an adult, I find there's more that makes me wince and wonder, but I'll never shake that sense that her characters *lived* for me at a particularly dramatic period of my life, underscoring the sense I had that my whole life was one of agonizing, awkward heroic possibility. Warrior possibility.
This feeling, this thrill of narrative possibility right in the pit of my stomach, is one I've never grown too cynical for, no matter how much time I spend reading Beckett nowadays. And I've spent the whole day in the grips of it after reading Moira J. Moore's brilliantly titled, atrociously covered Resenting the Hero. I took it to work with me and read it over lunch, hiding the very silly cover under a copy of Harold Pinter's collected works every time I heard footsteps outside my door. Then when people actually did come into my office, I couldn't stop myself from giddily pressing the book and its merits on them. When I finished the novel this morning, all I wanted was to pick up the next one. But I had ordered the hard copy, and it wouldn't be here 'til next week at the earliest. So I spent an hour painstakingly mowing another sixth of the yard. (I've been back since August and I've almost finished the damn thing.) The whole hour all I could think about was going inside to buy the sequel as an ebook, rather than spend a moment without these characters. "Pull yourself together, Sycorax," I kept muttering, grass flying around me, "There are other books in the sea. Several thousand in your own library, in fact." The muttering's been a constant mantra throughout the day. I don't know how I'm going to last until next week.*
What we have here is sprightly, absorbing, deftly characterized and affectionately rendered fantasy. It's rich and warm and friendly, but I don't find it to be, as many readers do, as fluffy as the rep this section of the genre has acquired. Instead it feels lightly like Terry Pratchett, like laughter shot through with thought.
So much of the pleasure of the book is in the warmth of its characters' interactions that I almost feel like a plot summary does it a disservice. But I'll succumb: Dunleavy Mallorough is finally emerging from a lifetime of training to be a Shield, a graduation that comes only if she is chosen at a formal ceremony that feels like nothing so much as a middle school dance. The Shields have been kept apart from their future partners, the Sources, for the entirety of their training, to ensure that the moment they match (forming an unbreakable bond that can only end in death) comes only after both Shield and Source have sufficient training to do right by one another. So she finds herself in a long line of Shields, breathlessly awaiting the much smaller number of Sources, who move slowly down their ranks, waiting for the bond to snap into place like a minor earthquake.
From that moment, the Shield will be charged with the protection of the rare and precious Source, who is the odd individual who can channel natural forces through his (or her) body and mind, averting potential natural disasters and preserving the precarious societies of their land. In order to channel these forces, the Sources must drop all defenses, and in these moments the Shields step in to extend their own and regulate their Sources' bodily function. It's an intimate act: it demands minute attention to the habits and physiology of the partner. And its compensations have a sensual edge: pairs are sensitive to each other's touch, finding it soothing even if they can't stand each other. In turn, the Source is supposed to protect the Shield from one key area of vulnerability: a profound emotional sensitivity to music, which renders all the Shield's vaunted self-control almost completely moot. Sources are eccentric, given to bits of Shakespearean oddity in everyday speech, so being a Shield comes with a host of other caretaking responsibilities: writing up reports about channeling activity, defusing social awkwardness caused by the unworldly Sources, making the practical arrangements of travel. It's almost like being a servant. Or, in a old-fashioned, elaborately gendered sense of the term, a wife.
But not in any way that allows us to accept a genial stereotype of housewifery. Dunleavy (she prefers "Lee" with her friends, which is to say not with her Source) takes cranky pride in her duty, finding in the labor of a Source a sense of accomplishment and paradoxical self-sufficiency. Where the source can be flippant and thoughtless, the Shield must be serious, vigilant, practical, strong. Lee patrols the borders of her duties ferociously, and when she finds, to her dismay, that her bond snaps into place not with a sensible, earnest sort of person like her, but with a grinning, flirting hero like Lord Shintaro Karish, she's not convinced she will ever be able to trust the too pretty nobleman to do his duty by her. The more he tries to charm her (plain, fiercely accomplished old her), the less she likes him. The less she likes him, the less charming he becomes. And so we get a series of sparrings: screwball fantasy at its best.
The fact that it is so much fun shouldn't take away from the fact that it deals slowly and carefully with uncomfortable issues. The position of Source is lauded and privileged; the Shields, by contrast, are largely forgotten. They are enablers, always giving the necessary assist, never getting the glory. The entire legal and procedural structure of their jobs gives the Source power over the Shield. The Source determines their course, but isn't responsible for any of its practical execution. In fact, the Source's only responsibility is to restrain the Shield's excessive sensuality during encounters with music. Touch of the Cullen there.
So you can see that the relationship (in which, I hasten to note, either party can be any gender and sexuality is quite fluid) reads as both gendered and classed. Karish (who spends much of the novel trying to get Lee to call him Taro, since he despises his family name) is defined by privilege, both masculine and aristocratic, and the mercantile Lee has to work through the uncomfortable sense that she is endlessly vulnerable to exploitation, should he ever choose to exercise his power over her. In fact, the central conflict of the novel is generated by a villain who does a very convincing reading of the Source/Shield relationship as one of exploitation and oppression. If something goes wrong between a Source and a Shield, there is no possibility of divorce: the Shield in particular has no legal recourse in cases of negligence and abuse. The sinister nature of the mouthpiece doesn't mean that the critique of the system is any less valid; in fact, the political appeal of his argument (however cravenly he uses it to manipulate) is what makes him such a uneasy, Miltonian villain. (One of my rare complaints about the novel is how swiftly this plot line is resolved, and the extent to which the resolution occurs offstage, so to speak.)
So the real pleasure of the novel is in the rockiness of Lee and Taro's start, the slow and organic quality of their growing friendship (they truly have nothing in common besides mutual talent), and the way it is shot through with disruptive mistrust. Lee feels a wonderful ambivalence about the intimacy of the Shield/Source relationship, and the heroic charm of Taro specifically:
He looked at me, frowning. And then the frown turned into a smile that I didn't trust at all.
"You're staring," I pointed out tartly.
His response was to sweep up my free hand and kiss the back of it. In an instant every ache I'd been feeling was gone, so swift and so complete that the lack itself was almost painful.
I jerked my hand away, and the discomfort flooded back. (34)
This bit of affect(at)ion is a gesture that we respond to as readers, even as we see that it's something he does with many, many women he encounters. Lee doesn't know what makes her more uncomfortable: the idea that she could fall prey to Taro's indiscriminate charms (and be a romance stereotype rather than an individual worthy of his, and her own, respect), or the idea that she's been forced into a fated bond whose intimacies are beyond her control (another sort of romance stereotype, another sort of wiping away of individuality and free will). So her experience is a double ache: the pain of separation posed against the loss of selfhood that attends their pain-obliterating intimacy. An absence of pain that is itself an ache. A lack.
So... it's good. Perfect, engrossing thrill. But not mindless fun: as the title declares, it's going to take up a lot of conventions of the form, wring them by the neck a bit, embrace them, and send them on their merry way. And if you're wondering where I am at any point in the next week, I'm probably lying in wait by the mail-box, hopping up and down with nervous energy and trying not to reach for the Nook.
*The only thing bolstering my resolve is the revelation that, six books into the series, the publisher has abruptly dropped it. As if it weren't traumatizing enough that a series I love would end (NO!!!), now I hear that it's embattled. But Moore, who sounds like one of the most generous authors ever to walk the earth, has said she'll finish it and distribute it herself. Greater love hath no author. But knowing it is coming to an end, and that that final installment won't be available 'til next year, is helping me moderate my book gluttony.