Elegy by Vale Aida
Published September 28, 2016
Sometimes you come across books that feel like they were written for you. They include tropes or plot points you love, characters who are definitely your “type”, and prose so rich that it that fills you with jealousy. That was my experience with Vale Aida’s debut novel Elegy when I read it last year. The conclusion to her Magpie Ballads duology, Swansong, was released a few months ago, and although my print copy seems to be stuck in Canada Post Hell (seven weeks and counting since I ordered from Book Depository) I can’t wait to see how it all ends! Re-reading Elegy, I was pleased to find that my admiration and delight for this queer fantasy novel remain intact. It’s a lushly-written book with multi-faceted, unique characters and an abundance of political machinations. In other words, it’s exactly the type of book I love to read.
Set in the realm of Cassarah, where peace rests on the edge of a knife, Elegy opens with the death and funeral of the beloved Governor Kedris. All signs point towards foul play by an old enemy, Queen Marguerit of Sarei. With the Council in chaos, the burden of revenge falls on the Governor’s son, trickster actor- turned-soldier Savonn Silvertongue. However, Savonn harbours secrets from a mischievous past, and his one-time lover and current adversary, known only as The Empath, threatens to bring them to light. Meanwhile, Savonn’s closest friend Iyone Safin wages a dangerous battle of wits in order to stop a string of unexplained incidents, protect the woman she’s falling in love with, and save Cassarah from the Saraians.
The character work in this novel is exceptional. It’s hard to feel apathetic about any of these multi-faceted, flawed characters. There are characters I dislike, characters I adore, but there’s no Matthias situation here – no major character that I feel meh about.
Savonn Silvertongue belongs to that category of sharp-tongued, mutable, and intensely capable protagonist comprised of Francis Crawford of Lymond and successor Laurent of Vere. He’s every bit as frustrating as he is intriguing, and his motives at any given time can be difficult to ascertain. A fellow Lymond Chronicles fan, author Vale Aida employs the Dorothy Dunnett method of primarily showing us her protagonist through the eyes of other characters, most of whom don’t have the full story.
This viewpoint character is most commonly Savonn’s squire, Emaris. A precious cinnamon roll of a character, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to love Emaris. Not yet eighteen, blond, and a soldier prone to accidently forgetting his sword, he’s also kind and fiercely loyal. The not-so-merry band of soldiers is rounded out by Hiraen, a close friend of Savonn’s since childhood and keeper of some of his darkest secrets. Although they often disagree, their regard for one another is clear and Savonn and Hiraen have the kind of brotherly bond that means they would do anything to protect the other.
The female characters are just as well-written, as they engage in a game of wits. Calm and inquisitive Iyone might just be my favourite, but I also loved Shandei, the impulsive daughter of a soldier who has more skill with weaponry than most, including her little brother Emaris. Josit, mistress to the murdered Governor and chessmaster extraordinaire is also fascinating to watch. My one criticism is that The Empath remains an ambiguous, though dangerous, figure who we know little about, and I would have liked to see more of his dynamic with Savonn. However, I’m certain there will be more of him in the second volume.
The relationships in this book too are beautifully depicted. There’s the beginning of a slow-burn connection between Iyone and Shandei, depicted subtly as Iyone sentimentally keeps a flower the other girl gives her, and seeks to return the favour by protecting the brave young woman. There is the deep bond of friendship between Savonn and Hiraen, the kind that make your heart hurt when they are at odds. There are parent-child relationships, mentor-mentee relationships, and adversarial relationships. All are messy, complicated, and ring true. The LGBT representation is also wonderful to see, as sexual orientation never hinders or results in discrimination, and Vale Aida clearly lays the groundwork for same-sex relationships.
My personal preference is definitely towards political-intrigue fantasy (see Seth Dickinson’s fabulous The Traitor Baru Cormorant, C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, Katherine Addison’s standalone The Goblin Emperor, and Lois Mcmaster Bujold’s space opera The Vorkosigan Saga for some great examples) and Elegy delivers. The game of wits between Josit and Iyone is rich in twists and turns, and the author maintains tension by revealing information with subtlety. I’d love to see more complex world-building, but Elegy lays a solid foundation, particularly in its depiction of Cassarah, with its many bridges.
The wit and complexity of the writing style is also impressive, especially considering this is the author’s debut novel! Dorothy Dunnett’s influence is keenly felt, and I feel confident in saying that if you loved Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and/or C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince saga, you will undoubtedly enjoy this duology as well. Certainly Dunnett’s influence is a major part of why I fell in love with this book, so I don’t expect every reader will be quite as enthused as I am, but Elegy is a firm 4 or 4+ star book that should definitely be added to your TBR if you enjoy snarky intelligent characters, witty and evocative prose, and a plot that twist in delighted and unexpected ways.