When the King Comes Home by Caroline Stevermer
I tend to trust book recommendations from authors I love; the glowing blurb from Michael Chabon made me finally decide to download Jon Armstrong’s Grey, for instance. After the fiasco of The Paladin, I decided to go with another recommendation from Jo Walton, the author of the fantastic Tooth and Claw. What initially drew me to When the King Comes Home was the setting–a fictional country in Europe during the Renaissance, as well as the Church having an active role in magic. I just wanted to see how it could be done. (Incidentally, the term for stories involving a fictional country in Europe is called a Ruritanian romance. You learn something new everyday!)
When the King Comes Home takes place in Aravis, the capital city of the Lidian Empire. In Lidia, there’s a saying akin to “God willing”–“when the king comes home”, referring to the ancient King Julian, who died in mysterious circumstances abroad. Hail Rosamer is a young painter’s apprentice whose idolization of the great artist Maspero borders on the fanatic. One day, running away from some potentially bad circumstances, Hail encounters a man on the riverbank–a man who looks exactly like King Julian. In little time, Hail and her companion are summoned by the Prince Bishop, the power behind the throne, and swept up into a power struggle with a dark, magical heart.
This is a beautifully written book. It deftly passes the challenge of making such imagery work with a narrator’s specific voice; as an artist, Hail would notice all of these things. Of particular note is the subdued climax, where Hail starts composing her masterpiece in her head. When the King Comes Home is written from the perspective of Hail as an old woman, reflecting back on this particular adventure. All of Hail’s youthful hope and exuberance is tempered by this, giving us not a page-turning romp but a thoughtful story about the absence of wonder and the role of art in the world. In the beginning, Hail laments what’s become of her beloved Empire, making the book more melancholy than it might have been. I hesitate to call it allegorical, but it’s a short novel with an overarching theme, so, despite its relative lightness, it feels deeper, although the ending shortchanges that a bit. (More on that in a moment.)
Hail is wonderfully characterized; an ambitious, fairly practical, and too clever girl trying to make her way in the world despite, for the most part, being in over her head. As When the King Comes Home is set firmly in the Renaissance, Hail watches carefully as people try to use her and her skills to their own ends. The older Hail is just as well-rendered, a woman who is old enough to be honest with herself and criticize her younger self. (Charmingly, she titles each chapter with a vague indication of what she does in each chapter.) The rest of the cast are very human, from Hail’s fellow apprentices to people in power to Ludovic, a friendly captain who is almost presented as a love interest for Hail. I have to be hypocritical here for a moment; I know I constantly call for novels with female heroines that don’t involve romance in any way, shape, or form, but I felt a bit cheated by what does happen to Hail and Ludovic. I really enjoyed their relationship and their banter.
As When the King Comes Home is a prequel to Stevermer’s A College of Magics, the more practical parts of worldbuilding are already taken care of; the geography of Lidia, for instance, which Hail occasionally contemplates. I’m almost interested in picking up A College of Magics just to see how this world evolves, especially the Church. There are two kinds of magic; the sort that Rigo, the Prince Bishop’s personal magician, does, and the sort that Dalet, a necromancer, can do. Hail does not elaborate, although we get to see two Church-approved rituals. It integrates well into the historical setting, especially the common base that both Rigo and Dalet can use to create their rituals–magic is a tool, nothing more. I quite liked that approach.
I’ve mentioned the light, almost fable-like nature to this story, despite its firm historical grounding. I think it stems from the overarching theme of a loss of wonder and art and from how Hail ultimately ends up. After spending a novel with an interesting, deftly rendered character, we’re informed that Hail settles down quietly and opens an atelier of her very own, taking in apprentices. It just feels so odd to me that Hail, a girl who, though knowing her boundaries, struggles to gain footing and a small semblance of power in this world, would do that, especially her distaste for travel after her adventure. (And, of course, Ludovic is nowhere to be found, but that’s just a personal thing.) It goes hand-in-hand with the theme of a loss of wonder, to have Hail beaten down by her adventure, but I feel that Hail would have adapted. While I’m not thrilled with the ending, I think it ultimately reflects well on Stevermer; she’s created a character I feel very strongly about and whose whole story, even for just a few pages, I want to know.
Bottom line: When the King Comes Home has such an interesting and deftly rendered heroine that some readers might feel a little put-out at her ultimate fate. It’s beautifully written, has a unique setting, and is firmly devoted to its overarching theme of a loss of wonder in the world. Worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.