CW: infertility, child death.
This review contains spoilers.
In one of those slightly uncanny moments when life seems to rhyme with art, I’m writing this on the day of the Queen’s funeral, an event whose public pomp and spectacle clashed in odd and revealing ways with the private grief of the Mountbatten-Windsor family. Sorcerer’s Legacy, the first novel by fantasy veteran Janny Wurts, addresses similar tensions: it’s a book whose characters are hemmed in by the very monarchical institutions that give them power.
Our protagonist is Elienne, the pregnant wife of a king who’s deposed at the beginning of the novel. She’s unexpectedly rescued from sexual slavery by the titular sorcerer, Ielond. Ielond belongs to the court of another kingdom whose prince, Darion, has been cursed with infertility. This is a problem for Darion, since the laws of his kingdom demand that he must conceive a child by his 25th birthday or be executed (he also cannot become king until he’s proved that he’s fertile). Ielond, seeking to prevent Darion’s devious regent taking the throne, proposes to Elienne that she pass off the child she’s carrying as Darion’s; not having many other options, she accepts, and Ielond dies in order to perform the magic that will make it possible to bring her to Darion’s court. Shenanigans ensue, as Darion’s regent attempts to thwart him and Elienne tries to navigate an unfamiliar court. There’s a prophecy at play, too: one of the court’s seers tells Elienne that she will “die truthful”. And Ielond’s impossibly detailed scheming lies behind everything, as the events he set in motion before his death play themselves out.
Both Darion and Elienne are constrained, then, by the patriarchal laws of heredity that underlie the monarchical system; Darion’s very life is secondary to the monarchy’s ability to sustain itself, and Elienne’s position in the court is dependent on her ability to conceive. The inevitability of the prophecy and of the working-out of Ielond’s plans represents a further constraint on Darion and Elienne’s lives that’s tied specifically to their roles in the monarchy: Elienne hears the prophecy specifically in her capacity as queen-to-be, and Ielond’s plots are aimed at making sure the kingdom has a decent ruler. In other words, the very public roles that Darion and Elienne are thrust into – through birth and through extremity of need – restrict their agency and fields of action significantly; the irony is, of course, that they are nominally some of the most privileged people in the kingdom.
But this isn’t really a full-throated critique of the monarchy; it is, instead, a novel about how Darion and Elienne can begin to construct a private life for themselves while performing their public roles. (This tension is heightened, of course, by the fact that Elienne’s lie about the parentage of her child could get her killed: she’s forced to be on her guard, playing her role, almost all the time.) The novel eventually becomes a romance; Elienne’s child is killed by the regent, and Darion’s fertility magically restored so that he is eligible to become king in his own right, and not as the result of a lie. Thus the status quo is protected and the integrity of the monarchical line preserved.
Consolatory fantasy like this can have its pleasures, but even taking it as such I found Sorcerer’s Legacy unsatisfying. Restricted almost entirely to the milieu of a faux-medieval court, its sphere of action feels airless and contextless: what are conditions like for the ordinary people of this kingdom? What is its economy like, its landscapes? Not a clue. For all its concern for the effects of monarchical power on the people that hold it, it shows remarkably little interest in how the machinations of the court relate to those who are ruled by it. The stakes, in other words, feel laughably low for a story that is ostensibly about who gets to hold sovereign power.
But perhaps monarchical power has always operated without regard to the needs of the people who are ruled: certainly many of the businesses that closed in the UK today did so without considering those for whom the absence of a day’s pay would affect their ability to pay their rent on time. In any case, I didn’t ultimately think Sorcerer’s Legacy was very interesting, and I probably won’t be reading any more of Wurts’ work.