A while ago a friend suggested I should write a post about what I liked about particular books in order to help readers of this blog better understand my taste and therefore where my reviews come from.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the best example of pretty much every single thing I love about fantasy fiction is in Michelle West‘s Sun Sword series.
Yet, Michelle West (a Japanese-Canadian writer, who also writes as Michelle Sagara) is almost criminally unknown here in the UK because she’s never been published here. I stumbled across her books almost 20 years ago, in one of the few shops in London that used to get imports of US-published fiction. I was browsing and looking for long series by writers I hadn’t heard of, and found her work. I was hooked straight away, and when I raved about her to friends in the States I found out she was relatively well-known across the Atlantic.
I was lucky enough to meet Michelle West during LonCon 4 in 2014. When I saw she was coming over for WorldCon I was super-excited. I skipped programme items to make sure I was at the front of the queue to sign up for her Kaffeeklatsch. I can say without a doubt that she is one of the loveliest authors I have ever had the privilege to meet. She gave me a hard copy of Battle as a gift because I confessed to loving these books so much. It’s one of my most treasured signed copies.
The premise of the Sun Sword is that demons from the hells are seeking to take over the world. They can only be defeated by a magic sword that can only be wielded by a son of one particular lineage (anyone else who tries to pick it up is likely to burst into flames). So the demons engineer a coup to massacre the entire ruling family and then attempt to kill the other son who has been held as a hostage in a neighbouring country since he was a child. Shenanigans ensure.
But rather than tell this very traditional fantasy narrative, West’s story follows the Serra Diora di Marano – an angry 16 year old girl who had been married into that ruling family and is now seeking revenge for the murder of her ‘sister wives’ in the coup. What unfolds is a complex story of history, power, politics, gods, monsters and heroes that spans multiple countries.
This is a series that hits every single one of my buttons. Every. Single. One.
Female protagonists who don’t fall into the “Strong Female Character” trope. This is a set of books that are chock full of interesting and incredibly well-realised women of all ages that don’t fall into the usual fantasy fiction stereotypes. Most importantly, all these women have agency and drive their stories forward themselves. They are women of power in their own right – they are not reward or character motivation for a man. There are no Sexy Lamps and the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests are passed very early on. Some examples –
- Serra Diora di Marano. A 16-year old widow who turns herself into the pinnacle of femininity and a political symbol. She is a masterclass in the use of soft power to achieve her goals.
- Jewel ‘Jay’ Markess a’Terafin. A mixed race woman who grew up as an orphan on the streets but is the only person born in her generation who can see the future. Adopted into a powerful merchant house, she is being groomed for power.
- Margret. Matriarch of one of the travelling Voyani clans, and with absolute power over her clan, she is protecting an ancient secret.
- Amarais Handernesse a’Terafin. Ruler of the largest merchant house in the Essalieyan Empire, which gives it special rights and privileges. And it is the rule of this wise, thoughtful Terafin in particular that has kept the House pre-eminent.
Deep worldbuilding. Each of the societies covered is well-realised and different, with complex systems of governance and economies that are believable. But there is a lot of layered history in these books too, with the boundaries between history and myth uncertain. Hidden cities full of powerful relics are just under your feet, and ancient races and parallel worlds can be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. Gods, ghosts, magic and elder races abound, and the present reality is but a shadow of the power of the past..
A strong ensemble cast. There are a lot of people in these books. But every single one of them is a believable individual on their own life-journey. Sometimes that crosses through these books as part of a larger story (Jay), but each person has their own motives, reasons and histories. Some of those only become clear as the books progress (I’m looking at you, Meralonne a’Phaniel …) but every single character is rich and fully realised.
Realistic politics. With that depth of world-building and characterisation – many of whom are people of power of all kinds – you get very realistic politics. This is not a series where there is easy consensus about the need to take on the Dark Lord. We share Jay’s frustration as the Empire debates and discusses the need for intervention. And even the demons themselves are rife with rivalry as individuals seek to win favour, undermine rivals and advance their own private agendas.
Sexist settings without sexist writing. The Dominion of Annagar, where the Serra Diora is from, is a hugely sexist (racist, and classist) society. Aristocratic women live in seclusion, with beauty and skill at art, dance and music prized. But Michelle West shows the significant soft power women wield in this society, within their households and as brokers of alliances between families. And she doesn’t shy away from showing the negative impact of these patriarchal norms on men too. Hyper-masculinity is the ideal for men, with skilled warriors given status and respect, and scholars and intellectuals looked down on. Serra Diora’s father Sendari di Marano takes an alternate path as a wizard and scholar, but even then falls into a hyper-competitive organisation of wizards within the Dominion. And there is no easy place for Serra Teresa, Diora’s aunt and Sendari’s sister. A lesbian with a bard’s ability to compel with her voice, she is unmarriageable and has no role in Dominion society.
Redemption stories. I love a bad boy. It’s a secret shame of mine, as it‘s a very problematic trope – usually it’s a man who behaves abominably but is somehow redeemed by the love of a fairly ordinary girl next door type. But I find myself making excuses for why Avandar Gallais is different. Crucially, West places him with Jay, as her domicis (kind of a Private Secretary in UK civil service speak, but one who is clearly an experienced man of power in his own right, and a powerful battle mage to boot). Jay is no girl next door – she is a woman of power and consequence in her own right. And West pulls no punches about just how messed up Avandar is. Fiercely capable, very protective and frighteningly intelligent, yes, but also deeply flawed in a way that is shown with a level of unstinting brutalism that is unusual in fantasy fiction.
Have I convinced you yet?
Where should I start reading?
Michelle West’s Essalieyan Empire books span three series.
- The Hunter’s Duology. Two books (Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death) that act as a taster and introduce Jay and the Essalieyan Empire. But they focus on characters from Breodanir, a land to the West, and you can enjoy the other books without reading these – I jumped straight into Sun Sword without realising they were connected, and only read them afterwards.
- The Sun Sword. The six books I’ve focused on above (The Broken Crown, The Uncrowned King, The Shining Court, Sea of Sorrows, The Riven Shield, The Sun Sword). They focus on the events of the coup, Serra Diora’s revenge and civil war in the Dominion of Annagar.
- The House War. Six books and counting. This is Jay’s story, with the first three books (The Hidden City, City of Night and House Name) acting as a prequel to The Sun Sword, running partly in parallel to the events of the Hunter’s Duology. The other books (Skirmish, Battle, Oracle and War (forthcoming)) pick up Jay’s story after Sun Sword finishes.
As always, publication order is best.
I would strongly recommend against reading the first three House War books before starting Sun Sword. They contain significant spoilers for things that occur during Sun Sword, and definitely offer more reward to the reader if you’re familiar with the subsequent story.
And don’t even attempt to read House War without Sun Sword. If you try, you’ll find a massive gap of story in the middle and wonder why Jay has acquired a talking stag called the Winter King, three winged cats, and an Elf, among others, as part of her den. There is a summary of the events of Sun Sword on the author’s website, but you’d be missing a lot doing that.
You may struggle to find Sun Sword though. The books are now – sadly – out of print, but ebooks are available.
UPDATE: A quick check of Michelle West’s website reveals that Sun Sword has been republished in trade paperback, so should now be available again. Woohoo!