Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Elemental Logic Series by Laurie J. Marks

The Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks is an interesting, fun and thoughtful fantasy series set in the wartorn country of Shaftal, following a lesbian main character.

She is an engaging and intelligent writer, with descriptive text that never gets over-word, well created characters and a fast moving storyline. While there is some very real torture, death and suffering, genocide, awful injuries, amputations, betrayal and a great many implied atrocities, much of the violence occurs 'off screen', and the war, and characters, strike a fine balance between realism and idealism.

I've just finished the first book in the series (and skimmed the rest), realised there was too much to talk about in one review for all of them, and too much in common to constantly repeat details, so this will serve as a general background to the common elements and later reviews will refer back to this post for the general background stuff (e.g. country, sexuality, magic).

Interestingly, Laurie J. Marks seems to have a common theme of conflicting societies finding peace, and non-heteronormative families, in her books.

The Books (individual reviews to follow):

The Setting: Country and Peoples

Shaftal is a peaceful agricultural society, that contains rolling farmland, places of learning, and cities of assorted typical flavours. Set in a pre-industrial era, books were treasured, and common enough that printing presses may exist. Mostly, the mechanics weren't delved into, and didn't really seem necessary. It is ruled, or guided, by a Council, which supported and protected the G'deon, an Earth witch vested with the power of Shaftal. Guns exist in the story, but it seems that the guns came with the Sainnites. The Shaftal only had hand to hand weapons, and the Paladins acted as the military and police force. There are assorted bordering countries and tribes, though we see little of these, except for Zanja's reclusive hunter-gatherer tribe, which were famous for their weaving and had no real contact with outsiders.

The Sainnites are a refugee population of mercenary soldiers, adrift in Shaftal and guided by a rigid honour structure and other social customs that depends on there being a specific part of society (for example, Sainnite soldiers do not have children, leading to increasing desperation and an unbalanced population). Their response to arriving in peaceful, hospitable Shaftal is to invade and attempt to take over. Shaftal responds, over many years, by turning into a nation at war, secretly supporting official guerrilla troops, while the Sainnites raze, destroy and tax the civilian population. The first book, Fire Logic, covers the initial attack (about a generation after the Sainnites first arrive), and the fifteen years that follow as they take over Shaftal. The main storyline of the books picks up fifteen years later. They come from the poor of an overpopulated land, and children are treated as a commodity, bought and sold, and the overreaction of the Shaftalese to losing children bewilders the Sainnites.

Smoke is an incredibly addictive drug that was introduced by the Sainnites as a method of control and sabotage. There is no known cure. Users must take smoke regularly (increasingly often, in most cases), becoming passive, zombie-like and utterly obedient when under its influence, and suffering weakness, convulsions, agony and death if they cannot take more in time. It obviously lends itself to dreadful abuses of the victims, and by the main time of the story, most of Shaftal has its population of shambling, hopeless addicts. There appears to be no other form of drug or alcohol abuse, by the way, so smoke has taken the social role of all of these, wound up into one incurable and deadly addiction.

The Elementals: Air, Earth, Fire, Water

While most of the population is ordinary,  occasionally someone is born an elemental - born with a certain elemental ability and personality. Fire appears to be the commonest, and Water the rarest, but none are particularly common and the different peoples can produce different types. The degree and manifestation of elemental power varies, from simply having a certain outlook on life and sensitivity to certain things, to being able to see the future or summon weather.

'Fire Logic' (and the other Logics) is a descriptive term in common usage, a short hand way of describing how elementals look at the world, and actually is quite practical in context (rather than a waffly descriptive title).
Earth witches are healers, who communicate and understand through touch, and have an affinity with the earth. The G'deon, the traditional leader of Shaftal, is an Earth witch invested with the power of Shaftal, which is passed on each generation. Karis is an Earth witch.

Fire elementals are intuitive, border crossers, passionate to a fault, and possibly psychic (from minor prescience to rare Seers). Three of our central characters are Fire elementals, Zanja, Emil, and Medric.

Air elementals - Truthken - are inflexible, terrifying people, who see right through social courtesies to truth and lies (make them uncomfortable conversational partners). They tend to be executioners and judges, and have a prescribed role in Shaftal society (Zanja's people tend not to produce Air elementals). Norina is a perfect example.

Water elementals are extremely rare and poorly understood, having powers to do with time and weather. Our characters meet one, who gives Karis time in the form of water, and summons fog, but they are never really sure what he can or can't do.

Sex and Relationships (and Lesbians)

The sexual and relationship aspects are dealt with very matter of factly, for the most part - if you pay attention, it becomes obvious, but if you assume that you are reading about a heternormative culture, you'll probably miss most of the subtleties. By the end of the book, however, our nucleus of protagonists and main supporting characters consists of two male characters madly in love with each other, two female characters in an increasingly less doomed love affair, and a heterosexual pairing with a meek husband and a very scary wife.

While the societies of each of the four peoples we see are very different, the family structures tend to be the same. There are no gender distinctions, and women are just as common as men in military and important roles; polygamy appears to be the norm, with at least two husbands and wives raising their children and living communally (except in the cities which use the more typical one man and one woman form, and are actually sneered at for their lack of tradition, and not being a 'real' husband and wife, at one point!). Wives and husbands appeared to have no official ceremony, rather just gradually becoming more official over time. Essentially, families are as large as they wish, with all adults being mothers and fathers to any children, and the internal sleeping arrangements being their own business.

One character casually considers an abortion, so there appears to be no stigma against that (which is consistent with freedom of sexual relations), and the Shaftalese are competent with contraception. The Sainnites are not as sexually advanced, though they have no stigma against same-sex relationships, with the only contraception available to soldiers being same sex encounters or abstinence.

There were no distinctions made between lesbian, gay and straight characters - all existed, or at least, characters that only appeared interested in specific sexes existed, but I'm unsure whether that was simply accepted matter of factly or if the society defaulted to 'everyone is bisexual'. Either way, women flirted quite readily with our main character and there were few sexual hang ups.

The only major relationship issues were matters of  culture clash or personality. For example, between Zanja and her casual lover Annis, when Zanja was shocked at how casually Annis took their encounter (and implied continual relationship), when one of the Shaftal main characters slept with 'the enemy' (both male), personal dysfunction between the gentle J'nal and his lover, Karis' rigid guardian, A., and of course, the impossible love story between Karis and Zanja.

And of course, for much of the book, Karis is functionally asexual, being robbed of 'both agency and desire' - all physical sensations and sexual interest - by the fatally addictive drug, smoke. This places her and Zanja in an interestingly painful position, Zanja knowing it is hopeless, Karis emotionally committed to Zanja, but unable to give her what she wants.


Our three 'main' characters are Emil, Zanja and Karis, who continue throughout the series.

Zanja is the Speaker for the peaceful and tiny tribe of Ashawala'i ... - her role is to 'cross the boundaries', wandering Shaftal, trading her people's goods and bringing back news and an outside perspective to her tribe. She is an interpreter, a catalyst and a diplomat. She also has a minor gift for prescience. She is the main protagonist, and falls in love with Karis.

Emil is a scholar and part of the Paladin order (the military of Shaftal). He was forced to take an active role as a commander of the resistance when the Sainnites invaded, and becomes a close friend to Zanja.

Karis is a half giant, an amazing, powerful, intelligent woman who was chained by smoke addiction as a child, in order to make her more pliable in a brothel. Plucked from a miserable life, she was invested with the power of Shaftal on the eve of the Sainnite attack, and kept hidden for years afterwards.

In Summary...

Thoroughly recommended to fantasy lovers, people interested in the culture clashes and the effects of war, and of course, to people looking for gay or lesbian characters. The setting is well developed, the characters are fantastic, and the magic is fun. And the social commentary is applicable to real life, giving you something to take away.

The pairings continue into the rest of the series, and I'm going to be reading my way through them as soon as I finish this review! (As far as I can see, they follow the same group of characters as Karis takes a more prominent role in Shaftal and they seek to bring the warring peoples to some kind of resolution, with some changes in the supporting cast).

The books in the Elemental Logic series:

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