Review: 'By Sword and Star', by Renee Carter Hall
Here is a “fairy tale” fantasy novel with a young anthropomorphic unicorn prince who must fight to regain his kingdom from the evil elk lord who has usurped the throne. Old-fashioned? Yes, but “once upon a time” never goes out of style.
Prince Tiran of Silverglen may be heir to the throne of all Asteria, but he's always felt more at home among the villagers, no matter how many lectures he gets from his father. But when the elk-lord Roden slaughters the royal family and claims the throne for himself, only Tiran is left to avenge their deaths and take his place as the rightful king. (publisher’s blurb)
Hamlet, anyone? Prince Tiran has always preferred to rub shoulders with the peasants and commoners of his kingdom than to take an interest in the affairs of state, as King Sevrin, his father, wishes. That is why Tiran is in a tavern, playing dice, when Duke Roden, a visiting elk-lord with his retinue, kills the king and the rest of his family at the castle banquet and takes over the kingdom.
Alone, Tiran flees while the stag Aldric, his one loyal retainer (which later turns out to be two; Sarid, his oryx tutor), organizes a popular resistance against Roden and his nobles. (Sevrin’s nobles have all been slain or defected to Roden after Sevrin’s death.) Tiran is advised by a friendly rabbit villager to seek refuge with the squirrel-clan of the Drays.
The squirrels, led by Rikka-akai, Captain of the Chief’s Guard, are analogues of Robin Hood’s merry men:
He [Tiran] studied her a moment, then smiled. ‘What do you care for, Rikka-akai?’
She grinned. ‘A fair fight, a strong ale, and a warm bed. Not always in that order.’ (p. 40)
The Drays are a community in the treetops; natural enough for squirrels (whose nests are called “dreys”). Tiran expects to live there in exile for the rest of his life, but a message from Aldric summons him to join the rebellion back in Silverglen. Along the way Tiran is joined by his old tutor, Sarid. He learns that the rebellion is coming together, but Asteria’s peasants and the rough squirrel warriors will not be enough to fight Roden’s trained knights. Tiran must journey to win over additional allies, the fierce wolves of the distant Northern Reach. To reach them, he must be guided by the Children of the West Wind (nomadic horses) …
Tiran – always pursued by Roden’s assassin, Razul the red fox – has many adventures before he can return to Silverglen. He is tempted at first to give up and settle down in exile, but that is before he learns that the fate of the whole world literally rests on his success:
Asteria is inhabited by both anthropomorphized and normal animals. The anthro animals were Awakened, ages ago in the mists of the past.
Everyone gathered at the Springs, most of them still unsteady on their two legs, used to running on four instead – for that is how they say we were in the days before we were Awakened. (p. 36)
Most people of today regard this as the mythology of Asteria’s matriarchical religion, but Tiran learns from Sarid that it is literally true – and has a terrible meaning for the present conflict.
Through the rule of Her chosen kings, we remain Awakened still. (p. 73)
The Lady’s chosen kings have always been the unbroken unicorn line. Now Roden and his elks have usurped that rule.
‘The longer Roden holds your throne, the closer we all come to returning to what we once were: the unaware, unthinking, unspeaking. […] Now, I’ve no desire to be running about on four legs, cropping grass.’ (ibid.)
By Sword and Star is an enjoyable, fast-paced fantasy in the style of the late Victorian/Edwardian Ruritanian romance – think Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, McCutcheon’s Graustark, or Burroughs’ The Mad King. But they all featured human casts. By Sword and Star really does, too, despite its seeming anthropomorphism, and that is a serious problem. Its veneer of anthropomorphism is thinner than the coating over a 1544-47 phony “silver” coin; the ones that gained Henry VIII the nickname “Old Coppernose” because the silver wore off the nose of his portrait so quickly.
The story is full of anthropomorphic descriptions:
- “Aldric nodded and led on, his hooves clicking on the stone.”
- “… and his hooves and nails had been buffed until they shone.”
- “He remembered, now, the eagle messenger arriving …”
- “…winking at the rabbit serving-maid. Her ears reddened …”
But there are even more descriptions that are overly human. An anthro unicorn is almost always unconvincing, anyway; a long spiked horn in the middle of the forehead would be just too unwieldy.
- “He had just pulled off the tunic …” – Over that forehead-horn?
- “On the lips of any other man …”
- “The air was cool in the evenings now, making him wish he’d taken a cloak before storming out …” – No fur?
- “He paid for a room and a bath, and the hedgehog innkeeper even managed to find a change of clothes for him …” – Considering how tiny real hedgehogs are, this reminds the reader that all the animal-peoples (including the avians) are conveniently the same size; it is later evident that carnivores and herbivores share a [human] omnivorous diet. Later, a fight between a squirrel and an elk shows them to be the same size as well.
- “‘A certain brown-eyed young man [rabbit] who’s been hanging about …”
- “But I’ll see if I can dig up a cloak for you with a hood, in case we need it.” – How will any hood disguise a unicorn’s horn?
By Sword and Star is more convincing in its presentation of magic; both the inherent magic of this world, and the applied magic of its inhabitants.
He [Tiran] had just taken up the dice when he felt it: a sudden, tingling shift in the erys around him. It felt as if someone had placed a warm, heavy cloak over his shoulders.
The mantle of the king. He had heard about this sensation from Sarid long ago. And it meant only one thing.
His father was dead.
Tiran stared blankly at the scarred table. He wanted to sweep the feeling aside, call it imagination or weariness from his long walk, but he knew in the heart of him that it was neither. (p. 8)
In everything around him, in the earth and trees and stones, there was erys. It pulsed and flowed through all things as the energy, the very essence, of life. Most in Asteria were barely aware of it; a few had the gift to sense it. But only the royal-born could shape it to their own purpose.
They called it glamour, and he had learned it back when his white beard was only a foal's wish. It was the skill to mold erys as potters did clay, as carvers shaped wood. He could not change what things were, but he could change how they appeared to others.
Now he focused on his own body, mentally tracing its lines, feeling the eddies of erys coursing over and around him like warm water. Bit by bit, he took control of them, altering their course, turning here, smoothing there. (p. 15)
Once the legends of the Awakened’s creation by the divine unicorn Lady are revealed to be true, Asteria’s magic is perfectly explained. By Sword and Star is a trifle simplistic for a Ruritanian romance – Asteria’s legitimate unicorn aristocracy is much too easily overthrown and replaced by Roden’s elk soldiers – but it moves fast, it is smoothly written, it has a nice fantasy subplot, and it is consistently if superficially anthropomorphic. On the whole, I enjoyed it.
Read more: The first four chapters of By Sword and Star.