Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: The Moonbane Mage by Laurie J. Marks

The Moonbane Mage by Laurie J. Marks is a weird and wonderful fantasy novel set in another world, featuring a race of winged hermaphrodites. It is a story of prejudice, acceptance and belonging, as very different races struggle to co-exist, and one young Aeyrie comes of age. It is the second book in the 'Children of the Triad' trilogy. Three connected races live in an uneasy truce, bound together by the settlement Triad. A powerful and bitter mage, Raulyn, has a personal grudge, and a fierce hatred of Triad, and stirs up a Separatist movement to try and attack and destroy the peace. Laril, from an isolated eyrie, is dragged into this secret and deeply personal war.

 Published in 1990, it is the sequel to  Delan the Mislaid  , which follows the heroic and historical events that shape this book, and includes many of the same characters. However, it can be read on its own, simply leaving you with a strong desire to go back and read the first book in order to learn more about the captivating characters. I mention that because, it being an old, out of print, novel, you may have trouble finding the series in order (though currently, you can pick up secondhand paperbacks on Amazon quite readily).  The settlement of Triad was established in Delan the Mislaid and the characters there play an important part in the second half of The Moonbane Mage

Set in a fantasy world made entirely of a hard, brightly coloured glass, it is a world of sentient species (I believe all the six species mentioned are herbivorous, so you can rest easy on that case): the winged, furred and batlike Aeyrie; the human-like Walkers; the semi-humanoid, seal-like Mer; the huge, six-legged, bear-centaurish Orchths; the tiny flying winged-monkey Onfrit, and the not-quite-sentient six-legged beast of burdens called Draf.

Laril of the Aeyrie and an Onfrit on the left, an  Orchths, Onfirt and Walker on the right.Cover art by Yvonne Gilbert
The first three, the Walkers, Aeyrie and Mer, all evolved from a common ancestry. Only the Aeyrie are genderless (and have a rather selfcentred origin myth about how the first Aeyrie refused to split in half and give up all their intellect and highmindedness for the sake of reproduction, and was later helped by their companion species, the onfrits). All of them apparently lay eggs, but they also lactate (in the first book, an Aeyrie's egg was mixed up with a communal Walker nest, leading to the events of the story). The Aeyrie are fat, wingless children until they reach eighteen and their wingbuds develop, after which they have a year of freedom and lovemaking and learning away from their parent(s), before deciding what they wish to become. Laril is still in this year when the events begin.

Laril is the headstrong, heedless only child and heir of the taiseoch (chieftain) of ids home community. Unfortunately id goes too far, pushed along by a troublemaking 'friend', and cripples another Aeyrie. This ultimately results in exile (partly ids own fault for refusing to back down), and from there id falls into disaster and then an apparent haven - the peaceful prison of Raulyn's tower. Laril falls passionately in love with the glorious mage, and transforms into a meek, adoring partner, but eventually starts to realise that Raulyn is using id. Laril connects with the prickly, enspelled Bet, a female Walker that Raulyn keeps as a servant, and the two of them attempt to escape and overthrow Raulyn's plans. Unfortunately Raulyn is a formidable opponent, especially for two such broken and naive younglings. So their escape is not very successful.

 Laril is a giddy, selfish teenager, wings newly formed, who brings ids own disasters on ids head - but is not a bad person, and is being manipulated by secrets and betrayal id doesn't truly understand until the end. Laril grows astonishingly, often afraid, desperate, or refusing to pay attention to things that trouble id, once id understands, id cannot simply accept evil - though id is easily cowed or bent by flattery, at least at the start. It's as much a book about Laril's coming of age as it is about fantasy and politics.

Bet is a lonely, bitter, trapped young woman who has spent nearly half her life a prisoner and has managed to hide her courage and ferocity and anger from her arrogant master. She ends up doing a lot of the work, including rescuing Laril, acting in secret as the obedient servant, while the attention is on Laril.

The rebellion/war seems awfully dramatic to our two captives when they're trapped in the middle, but ends up being quite localised and fairly ineffectual, with the town of Triad mostly ignoring them. This ends up being a partial mistake, because Raulyn is bitter and desperate enough not to be underestimated and pushes much further into scary bad mage territory than his opponents expect. But it does end up being a very small, local drama.

There are a multitude of fanciful words in the Aeyrie language (mostly) throughout the book, but there's a good glossary at the back, and there's usually an in-text clarification. The words are generally pronounceable and distinct enough not to confuse with each other. Some of the words that aren't explained (but are in the glossary) aren't really vital to the story, as we get the sense of them anyway. However, it is frequent enough, and intrusive enough, that if you have trouble staying immersed in stories with rampant made up words, you won't appreciate the colourful additions.

The Hermaphodite Element
All of the pronouns in respect to Aeyrie are replaced with Id, Ids and Idre (it, it's and them/they). On the one hand, hurrah, consistent gender-neutral pronouns. On the other hand, the ongoing mental translation does get in the way a little. But that's been a consistent problem with all the various attempts to get around gendered pronouns (from 'zie' to 'dey'), and it's a fairly straightforward substitution.

While reading, for much of the first half of the book, it is easy to slip into 'androgynous = male', as not only is Western society used to the universal 'he' to mean 'he/she', there's nothing initially to differentiate from a purely homosexual society. There are only four real Aeyrie characters that we ever see in the first half (the reckless troublemaker Wand, the protagonist Laril, Laril's stern and sad parent Ishta, and the powerful and enthralling mage Raulyn). Laril is the only one they interact with, as well, which means they are cast in specific roles. The first two are reckless teens, the latter are father/ruler (traditionally male in Western Society) and handsome elder lover (also likely to be male). However, it's just as easy to read them all the other way, as female, and with a bit of mental practice, as hovering in the sphere of genderlessness. Essentially, they are neutral, and it really depends on your cultural baggage.

Given that many people will be reading this with said baggage, you'll be glad to hear that they don't stay 'male' throughout the book (up to that point, they could easily be simply a freely homosexual society). Once male Walkers become part of the story, the distinction becomes a bit more obvious than it was when we only had female Bet to compare the Aeyrie to, and we increasingly meet Aeyrie who are described as slender, graceful and beautiful - words that sound more typically feminine. This helps push them firmly into the middle of the gender territory, and finally, we discover that both parents lactate and nurse the young (by them actually carrying on with this throughout several scenes, not just because we're told it happens), while simultaneously carrying on with their lives, and true hermaphroditism shines through.

There's also the cultural sexism issue that reading someone as 'not quite male' tends to equate to 'female', so it's a little hard to describe exactly where they fall at certain points in the story. I had managed to slip into reading Laril as more female than male, by the time id and Bet became lovers, which was nice. We don't get details of their genitalia, if you wondered, only that they have nipples, and don't generally wear much in the way of clothing. So the sex scenes aren't particularly explicit!

It's a very enjoyable book, and strikes a balance between making any prominent character perfect, or entirely monstrous. The last part of the story is a strong message of acceptance and understanding between the different races, each of whom have their own flaws, but none of which are evil. While I did talk a great deal about the hermaphrodism aspect in my review, it really isn't a big deal as far as the characters are concerned (though it's hard to miss). Whether you want to read about a genderless protagonist, would rather read it as a lesbian novel (it could also be possible to argue that the Aeyrie are female and have discovered some form of parthenogenesis), or are looking for a fun and fantastic story in a strange world, I would recommend The Moonbane Mage. I'm definitely going to look for the first and last books in the trilogy.

You can find the three books in the Children of the Triad series very cheaply second hand on and
  1. Delan the Mislaid []
  2. The Moonbane Mage  []
  3. Ara's Field  []

Laurie J. Marks is also the author of the Elemental Logic series, a fantasy featuring lesbian protagonists, two of which have won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for "Best Novel".

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