The Rose Throne
Mette Ivie Harrison
2013 • 400 pages • Egmont
The Rose Throne sold itself to me by simply including two princesses as its leads. (Itself, I say, as if there isn’t a marketing team at Egmont who did their job well. Although it does say something positive about the young adult market that they thought promoting two princesses who interact with each other meaningfully was the way to young readers’ hearts…) The cover copy, which I surreptitiously flipped through while I worked at the book store, promised two princesses pitted against each other by court politics in a way that did not make me fear that they would hate each other at first sight because they didn’t get along with other girls or some equally noxious and boring narrative excuse. I dreamed of two princesses finding an alternative solution to whatever court intrigue was at hand. What I got… was almost that in a peculiarly frustrating way.
Said princesses are Ailsbet, the princess of Rurik, and Issa, the princess of Weirland. Magic, in their world, runs along gender lines: women have neweyr, the magic of life, and men have taweyr, the magic of death. Of course, that binary, like all binaries, is total bunk. There are those without any magic, the unweyr, and then there who those have the “wrong” magic for their gender—the reviled ekhono. When Ailsbet’s father, the vicious and ruthless King Haikor, sends an envoy to Weirland to secure Issa’s hand for his heir, Prince Edik, Issa comes to the Rurinese court and finds a world less of intrigue and more of pure tyranny. Ailsbet herself is struggling to keep herself out of her father’s eye, especially having discovered that she herself is ekhono. But their secrets—Issa’s love for someone other than the thirteen year old prince and Ailsbet’s “wrong” magic—can’t stay hidden forever…
There are some fairly straightforward problems with The Rose Throne. The romance between Issa and Duke Kellin, the Rurik envoy to Weirland, comes out of nowhere and is simply taken as writ once she arrives in Rurik, despite her previously having been totally cool with marrying Edik. Its stutter-stop pacing means that entire months and, often, lives slip away without much impact, such as when Lord Umber, Ailsbet’s only love interest, dies suddenly. And the ending, especially, is weak and awkward. But the novel’s largest problem is how it utterly wastes one of the most simple and inspired conceits to express the gender binary and its lies that I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing more frustrating than wasted potential.
This magical system could have been an incredibly rich metaphor for the gender binary. Men and women are expected to know nothing of each other’s magic; only those with taweyr can sense taweyr and those with neweyr can sense neweyr. Excess magic is traditionally drained by men and women competing amongst themselves. The ekhono are viewed with suspicion and hatred because they are capable of transgressing gender roles in such a concrete way. Women with taweyr are seen as power-hungry, murderous shrews, while men with neweyr are seen as cowardly and effeminate. In Weirland, the prejudice is, at least, not institutional, so Issa has the perspective of someone who wasn’t taught to hate and fear them. It’s not an exact metaphor, but it’s a useful one.
Or could have been, at least. When Ailsbet discovers that she is ekhono, there’s no processing as she comes to terms with being ekhono. (Par for the course, she has apparently absorbed absolutely none of the social conditioning that we’re told she’s practically drowning in. Yeesh.) In fact, she begins to harbor a brief hope that she, as a woman with taweyr, may rule as queen. (There’s a vague Elizabeth I vibe to Ailsbet, with King Haikor as Henry and her younger brother Edik as Edward VI.) This is despite her father’s violent, bloody, and very public executions of ekhono. Some boundaries are weakly pushed at—Ailsbet finds that music helps her control her taweyr, while Issa discovers that violence and destruction can be inflicted with newyr—but largely, nothing is actually done with this conceit.
Plus, there’s no real logic behind it. We’re told that the ekhono were once revered for their ability to cross gendered boundaries and are later told that their persecution was begun by King Haikor, whose reign can only be thirty years old at the most. There’s precedent for very conservative times following very liberal times—the 1950s were a reaction to the 1940s and 1930s—but we’re not given any reason for why there’s been such a vicious backlash in so short a time. Religious reasons would be the easiest, but religion is never touched on in The Rose Throne, despite a respectable body count. And Haikor’s devotion to the gender binary is certainly skewed; he hunts ekhono, but he also forbids women from practicing neweyr, despite despairing that Ailsbet has none. I would understand gender segregation, which would have heightened the comparison of the magic to concepts of gendered spheres of influence, but forbidding it entirely seems like a very odd choice for someone fanatically obsessed with policing gender roles. What Harrison seems to be going for is a man who values “male” power above all else, but the execution does not follow the conceit that’s been set up.
After all that, the promised connection that drew me in is ultimately a thin, wasted little thing. (I briefly entertained hopes that Ailsbet and Issa would fall in love with each other, per a prophecy that states that the taweyr and neweyr will be joined together, but alas.) They do interact and they do talk, but they never forge a meaningful connection. There’s potential in The Rose Throne, but it’s more or less wasted.
I rented this book from the public library.