"Strife Without Bitterness": Jo Walton's The Prize in the Game

Reviewed by Christopher Cobb

"Let the Ward hold across Tir Isarnagiri," Conary said. "Let there be death in bright sunlight, life out of darkness, war without hatred, strife without bitterness. And let the evil time come not."

The Prize in the Game cover

This is the prayer of a heroic culture. It's not a prayer for peace, but for the joys of battle and competition. One might imagine the heroes of the Greek cities -- Achilles, Diomedes, Odysseus -- asking the gods for something like this. This heroic spirit is at the heart of Jo Walton's latest fantasy, The Prize in the Game, which tells the story of a group of young heroes and princes -- Darag, Ferdia, Atha ap Gren, Elenn, and, most importantly, Conal the Victor and his beloved Emer -- whose pursuits of honor and victory deserve to be spoken of in the same breath with those of the heroes of Homeric epic. The Prize in the Game is an exceptional fantasy; it beautifully, poignantly captures the spirit of a life that is uncivilized but far from uncultured.

That Walton has rendered these heroes and their uncivilized culture with such depth and sympathy is both surprising and unsurprising. It's unsurprising because her first two novels, The King's Peace and The King's Name, are memorable precisely for the depth and sympathy with which the central characters and their culture are portrayed. It's somewhat surprising because all the heroes in Prize are minor characters in these earlier novels, and the narrator of those novels, Sulien ap Gwien, usually views them and their culture with little more than contempt. She sees them as vicious and barbaric, though she does finally learn to value Conal and Emer. Sulien is the heir of a classical civilization, fighting to save its legacy of law, learning, and peace after the collapse of a great empire, so to her the ways of the Isarnagans have little to recommend them. In Prize, however, Walton takes us inside that "barbaric" culture, and inside its heroes' hearts, to show us their integrity and strength. The breadth of her sympathies, and the flexibility of her style, set her apart from most fantasy authors, who tend to give readers essentially the same characters, values, and conflicts over and over, just dressing them up in different trappings of landscape and magic.

The landscape and magic of Prize will be quite familiar to readers of her earlier novels, of course, but it will also not be wholly alien to readers who are approaching Walton's work for the first time. The heroes of Homeric epic may be the best analogue to Prize's heroes, but the novel's culture -- its customs, magic, and religion -- are Celtic (more specifically, Irish) in inspiration. Walton's first two novels are a re-telling of the Arthur legend, set in an alternate world, in the fashion of Guy Gavriel Kay's historical fantasies. Walton's island kingdom of Tir Tanagiri corresponds to Arthur's post-Roman Britain; Tir Isarnagiri corresponds to Ireland at about that same time. Her rendering of this fantastic land is informed by Celtic myth and by the heroic culture of Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity.

The heroes of Prize need all of the integrity and strength they can draw from their culture in this novel, for it shares with her earlier novels a deeply tragic sensibility. The game that is at the center of the story is the competition, mostly between Darag and Conal, for the right to succeed their uncle Conary as the king of Oriel, one of the five Isarnagan realms. In the course of the novel, their competition grows from an informal struggle to a highly structured, heroic contest, and finally to a war that threatens the kingdom they both love with destruction. Worse, it draws in the other young heroes, who are themselves competing for the love of Darag and Conal, and threatens to tear apart the code of honor that gives their culture its integrity. The poignance of the story arises from the fact that the young heroes are learning to value their honor as heroes in a conflict that may undo the culture from which that honor derives its meaning.

The scope of this conflict is hardly their fault, of course. Their game makes them pieces in a larger game: the struggle for preeminence among the Isarnagan kings. And in this game Walton shows us the grimmer side of this culture; the physical and, worse, the emotional brutality of those for whom Conary's prayer has lost its meaning. The most ruthless player in this game is Maga, King of Connat. Mother of Elenn and Emer, she uses them as marriage tokens, demanding that they sacrifice their feelings, and their honor, to her quest for power. She has fostered her daughters in Oriel, with Darag and Conal, in the expectation that they will either bind Oriel to Connat through a marriage or reveal Oriel's weaknesses to her, even though it would violate the laws of fostering for them to tell her. When Emer refuses her out of respect for the law and love for Conal, Maga tries to tear the knowledge out of her:

"There's nothing," Emer said, passionately and emphatically.

"You're lying," Maga said, and caught hold of Emer's braids and pulled her head back by them, twisting them hard, so hard Elenn was afraid she might pull them out by the roots. Elenn's own scalp hurt in remembered pain. "I can tell you're lying to me. Tell me now."

"If I ever would have told you, I wouldn't now," Emer screamed, tears of pain and chagrin on her face. She stood up, wrenching her hair free. A hank of it stayed in Maga's hand, blood on the ripped-out roots.

This sort of violence holds nothing like the joy of battle; Walton's rendering of it is chilling, both graphic and subtle, with its implication that Elenn understands this sort of treatment all too well. As Emer and Elenn struggle to be free of their mother's control, her use of them becomes only more brutal, their emotional suffering deeper. It is this struggle, which has no rules and no honor, that draws the contest between Conal and Darag into the larger games of power and turns it into war between Oriel and Connat.

The transformation of a coming-of-age story, in which the stakes are largely personal, into a war story, in which kingdoms and cultures are at stake, is a common device in fantasy novels. How numerous are the adolescent protagonists (tailored to attract alienated, talented teen readers) who discover that they are the chosen ones with as-yet-undeveloped awesome powers, in whose hands rest the fates of worlds! Walton's novel partakes of this device, but it handles it with more psychological integrity and less wish-fulfillment than most. Her adolescent heroes are drawn into the larger conflict not because they have a crucial role set aside for them by fate but because they are useful tools for the adults who are competing in the larger game. This is a harder vision than many fantasies will admit, but it makes the growth of the heroes, and the limited triumphs they enjoy, much more satisfying, because they represent difficult victories over the helplessness we all feel when faced by the great forces that shape our worlds.

It also makes for more difficult reading than we expect from mass-market fantasies, especially early in the novel. The difficulty does not come from Walton's style, of course. The back cover of The Prize in the Game is full of praises for the immediacy and the lyricism of her style, and they are entirely on the mark. But the plot is rather rough-hewn. Because most of the major events of the novel are outside the control of its central characters, the plot lacks that smooth, unfolding suspense that makes the mass-market fantasy so difficult to put down, even when the characters and the plot are hackneyed. Because the characters really do come of age, they are callow and often hard to like in the early chapters, before they learn better how to love and how to be responsible for one another. It was only about half way through the novel, when the coming of age story began to turn into the war story, that I became fully engaged and was drawn along by the story's flow. The novel's harder first half is necessary to establish the integrity of its second half, and it's entirely worth continuing to reach that part of the story, when the apparently random events of the first half become linked together in a tale of tragic intensity.

The Prize in the Game is not, perhaps, a tragedy, because the great story it tells is not yet complete. It is the first volume in a new series; it's not known to me how many further books are planned. The smaller stories that are contained within the novel are tragic: lovers forbidden to marry, friends forced to fight one another to the death. Nevertheless, this is not a bleak novel. The heroes come of age in suffering, but they endure their trials with honor and even with hope. In ways that I cannot fully describe without compromising their beauty, they find their triumphs from bearing their suffering. It's ultimately not a bleak but a humbling vision of human possibility.

 

Copyright © 2003 Christopher Cobb

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Christopher Cobb is Senior Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous publications can be found in our Archive.