The King’s Peace
2002, originally 2000 • 544 pages • Tor Fantasy
Now this was how I wanted to kick off my 2016 reading—with a gloriously chunky fantasy novel by an author that I both trust and trust to treat me like a human being. And, specifically, I wanted to start with this book, this specific mass market paperback edition copy of this book.
This was one of the last books I bought from the used bookstore in my hometown before it closed—not because of poor sales (another one, albeit part of a local chain, popped up instantly across town), but because the lady who ran it retired. The immediate response, from both myself and a friend who grew up the town over, was “Damn, I still had used book credit there!” But it still felt odd to drive past the floral shop in its place when I was picking up baguettes for Christmas dinner. I find something very odd and poetic about the fact that I have managed to, through no fault of my own, lose both of the two-story bookstores that played major roles in my life. (The other one, at least, is still standing, just a bit closer to the ground.)
The fact that this copy also passed through my favorite used bookstore in college, which is happily very still open and, I assume, still trying to get the cursed cardboard standee of the Tenth Doctor I sold to them last month off their hands, just completes the circle. With the fiercely curated remains of my library finally coming to join me sometime soon, my literary universe feels much more immediate and contained.
The King’s Peace just seemed like a very fitting way to kiss the contours of what my literary universe used to be like goodbye.
Anyway, right—the book in question, which, thrillingly, opens with what I am going to assume is a reference to a The Lord of the Rings-inspired poem about Théodwyn. The King’s Peace is Jo Walton’s riff on Arthurian myth, that great drained well of modern fantasy. Or nearly drained, anyway, because The King’s Peace is very good reading. Instead of following Arthur (Urdo), Merlin (Raul), or Guinevere (Elenn), we follow a regular, if ultimately very decorated, soldier in Urdo’s army—Sulien ap Gwien, a fiercely loyal woman dedicated heart and soul to Urdo and his efforts to unify the varied kingdoms of the island of Tir Tanagiri.
The riff is quite loose, and all the better for it. The general outline is more or less followed (I wonder if this kiddo named Morthu might be a troublesome sort?), but this frees up Walton, in her first novel, to focus on the life of Sulien as a soldier. There’s exactly the right amount of detail for you to submerge yourself in as a reader, even if you, like myself, have no head for visualizing military maneuvers. I found myself dangerously close to missing my subway stop a few times while reading this.
It’s so rich and dense, in fact, that it took a while for it to dawn on me the extent of Walton’s alternate history here. While Sulien is an exceptional woman, she’s hardly the only woman serving under Urdo—female “extras” appear regularly and Sulien often talks with Marchel, the other woman who shares her high rank. About a third of the way through the novel, it’s revealed that women, in this universe, have much more control over their bodies. They have to actively choose, on some level, to conceive a child, and can’t even conceive until they marry and have a certain ritual performed, except in very rare cases. And that very subtle difference makes all the difference, explaining why Tir Tanagiri’s culture has a much broader view of women than the myth and history it’s inspired by.
It’s very heartening to read a sixteen year old fantasy novel (I personally know children younger than this book who can have conversations with me!) that deftly shows the value of reproductive rights with its worldbuilding. Jo Walton, you treasure.
That said, it’s a fair warning to tell you that the novel opens with young Sulien attacked, raped, and left for dead by Jarnish invaders. As the novel progresses, Sulien realizes that she has no desire for romance or sex. It’s refreshing to see a novel that features a determinedly asexual and aromantic heroine, but it does feel a little troubling that the reason for her being that way is blamed on her sexual assault. (Other characters outright say this to her face; Sulien, for her part, struggles against that idea, but seems to be without the vocabulary to do anything more than deny it.) And later, when her rapist reappears in her life, it is compelling to see how Sulien must square this with her devotion to Urdo’s laws—but I find it troubling that he grows to be a character thought affectionately of by other characters. This makes him sound like a more important character than he is, but I’m not saying that to downplay this troublesome thread.
Ultimately, I think The King’s Peace would be fascinating in conversation with Kushiel’s Dart—both are dense alternate histories of Europe from the very early aughts that deal with religion, invading Norsemen, and court intrigue, with two very different heroines at the center. I wonder if anyone’s written about the pair of them together?
I bought this book from a used bookstore.
I work for a division of Macmillan.