Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review/Annotation: The Raven Ring by Patricia C. Wrede

Three weeks after Eleret’s mother is killed, a messenger arrives with the tragic news.  She died far from home, succumbing to wounds sustained in battle, and Eleret must travel to reclaim her belongings.  The overland journey to the city of Ciaron is treacherous, but Eleret has no fear.  She straps a dagger to her leg and sets off to recover one of her mother’s prized possessions: a ring etched with a raven.  Though she makes it to Ciaron safely, getting home is another story.  Eleret doesn’t know what’s special about her mother’s ring, but someone wanted it badly enough to kill for it.  To make it home in one piece, she must unlock the mysteries of the ring her mother died to protect.
***As I wrote, this became more of an essay than a standard review. While it contains no spoilers for the denouement of the plot, it contains more detail regarding the three main characters’ interactions than some of my other reviews. ***

Every once in a while I get so frustrated looking for new books that I dig through the back catalogues of authors I know and love, hoping for something obscure and/or out of print that I never knew existed.  Successful forays into the past have resulted in the acquisition of the complete works of Patricia McKillip and Diana Wynne Jones, and, last summer, Patricia C. Wrede’s books of Lyra.  The five books are loosely interconnected, set in different times and places in the same world, all pitted against the same enemy—the Shadow-Born—in one form or another, but can be read in any order or as stand-alones.  I read them immediately and enjoyed them immensely, though the last two, Caught in Crystal and The Raven Ring were far and away the best.  I reread The Raven Ring last week, partially to get Soulless out of my mind, and the contrast between the two moved me to collect my thoughts here.

As the vague jacket description states, Eleret is forced out of her mountain home by the news that her mother has died in battle.  What it fails to mention is that Eleret is Cilhar, a warrior people with particular, clan-like customs, and she goes to Ciaron not to recover the raven ring which she has no idea her mother took with her, but to collect her belongings as per Cilhar tradition.  It is technically the duty of the head of the family, but her father is laid up with a broken leg and concussion and Eleret, the eldest child, accepts the task.  (The jacket also fails to mention exactly how heavily armed Eleret is—the dagger is only the beginning.)  When she arrives in Ciaron, already annoyed by the skirt she is forced to wear to conceal her Cilhar identity from unfriendly eyes, and even more annoyed by the foul-smelling city, poorly designed to the practiced eye of one who is a warrior by birth as well as trade, she finds her simple errand blocked at every step.  First, she learns that not only has someone been trying to steal her mother’s belongings, but that her mother secreted away a family heirloom and died under suspicious circumstances.  To make matters worse, she is waylaid by a shapeshifter who has called the city guard down on her, claiming she stole her mother’s belongings from him.  Enter one Lord Daner, handsome, charismatic wizard in training who swoops to her rescue.

In any other book, the story would take an all too recognizable course from here: pretty girl lost in a strange city joins forces with the young lord who unexpectedly saves her, they fall in love, defeat the bad guy, and live happily ever after in the city.  This is precisely the narrative Lord Daner fancies himself the hero of.  But he is not the hero: That title belongs to Eleret.  This is her story.  And Eleret is not pleased with Daner for sticking his nose into business not his own, particularly not when she had matters well in hand before he showed up.  She is especially displeased when he offers to settle matters by dueling her accuser himself, an offer he thinks is chivalrous, but comes off as arrogant.  Eleret is Cilhar. She does not need nor allow others to fight her battles when she is more than capable of doing so herself. 

Eleret is more amused than annoyed with the second young man who gets himself entangled in her business, the thief Karvonen.  Karvonen is short (much shorter than Eleret), unremarkable in the looks department, would rather run than get caught in a fight, speaks fluent if accented Cilhar, and belongs to a family of thieves, spies, forgers, and occasionally heroes.  Both men are clearly interested in Eleret and both instantly recognize the nature of each other’s interest. Eleret has no idea. Not because she’s unobservant, but because she is Cilhar: It never occurs to her that anyone would be so foolish as to attempt courtship while on active duty.  Karvonen’s arrival and interest in Eleret raises the possibility of another narrative: In the hands of a different author this story could quickly have devolved into yet another love triangle.  And again, it does not—because of Eleret.  Wonderful, practical Eleret, firm in her knowledge of herself and the task she must accomplish, who has no patience for romantic delusions, particularly not when battle is at hand. 

Karvonen understands that neither his part in the story nor the casual rivalry between himself and Daner rising from their mutual interest in Eleret will go the way of the love triangle, but Daner continues to behave as if he is the leading man in any number of heroic romances.  He cries Eleret’s name as he leaps unnecessarily into battle, assumes she’s nervous about meeting his family and tries to reassure her when she couldn’t care less, forgets to tell her important details, disappears to consult adepts and generals about her predicament without telling her where he’s going or inviting her along, shuts her up in his house assuming he’s protecting her, and completely fails to notice that she is not only capable of looking after herself in a fight, but is in fact much, much better than he is.  Eleret responds with a mixture of frustration and annoyance, scandalizes his family, sneaks out of Daner’s house by repelling down the roof, berates him for blocking her throwing lines, and takes down four of the five assassins who attack them without a second thought while Daner has his hands full with one. Karvonen by contrast, understands that Eleret is Cilhar and, perhaps more importantly, a human being with free will and opinions.  While he too appoints himself to Eleret’s cause,  citing an “aid in distress clause” to his family’s “do not under any circumstances steal from Cilhar” rule, he places himself under her command, offering assistance and waiting for Eleret to dictate what form it should take.  What’s more, he understands Daner and the narrative his character represents:

“It’s not just that.” Eleret frowned, trying to put into words something that all Cilhar understood in their blood and bones.  “An army or a battle team can only have one commander, or it doesn’t work well.  And you’re not just acting as if you’re the one in charge; you act as if you’re working entirely alone.  I don’t know why—“
“I do,” said Karvonen.
Eleret looked at him, but his expression was serious and his voice did not have its usual mocking edge.  “Why then?”
“It’s because he’s so used to being my lord Daner Vallaniri, second heir to Lord Breann tir Vallaniri of Ciaron.”
“Bah!” said Daner.  “That’s absurd.  I don’t trade on my rank.”
“No,” Karvonen said, still seriously, “but you’re used to having it.  When you ask about something, things get done your way, without argument.  Most of the time, you don’t even have to ask.  So you don’t think to find out how Eleret wants them done.”
“He’s probably right,” Eleret said. “And you’re going to have to stop.  If it comes down to it, it’s my ring and my problem, not yours.”
Daner looked as if he had bitten into a sour apple.  “This seems to be my day for lectures.  Very well, I’ll try.”
“Good,” Eleret said.  Daner looked at her in some surprise, and she smiled.  “I want your help, so it’s nice to know I can have it.”
Daner returned her smile.  “You’d have it in any case.”
“You don’t understand,” Karvonen said.  “It’s not a matter of your willingness to help, it’s a matter of her willingness to have you.  If you’d said you couldn’t accept her command, she’d act without you.”*

Karvonen is no more pleased to have Eleret put herself in danger than Daner, nor is he any less eager to be of assistance.  The difference is that unlike Daner, Karvonen understands that it isn’t about him.  Eleret’s business is Eleret’s business, her life is her own to risk as she pleases, and his presence in her life is contingent on her willingness to accept it. This should not be a novel worldview in fantasy, romance, or life—but it is, because so many make assumptions like Daner. 
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out whose company Eleret would prefer on her journey home, should she choose the company of anyone once her business is done.  Still, even Karvonen can’t help but be startled by her decision, despite his good sense, because Daner is everything we have been taught a fantasy heroine’s leading man ought to be: “He’s good-looking, he’s rich, and he’s noble-born.  He’s intelligent, well-spoken, and he’s a reasonably skilled wizard.  He’s tall.  He’s a magician with a sword…”** His character and the story he mistakenly believes himself to be the hero of represent the narrative readers have come to expect because we’ve been fed it in all its subtle variations a thousand times and more.  Wrede sets up the formula of the narrative not taken, allows it to try to assert itself over and over through Daner, and thwarts it at every turn.  This is not a romance, it is an adventure, one that belongs to Eleret. And everything, everything, from the way she chooses to face and defeat her adversaries to who she keeps company with is entirely up to her.  

There are any number of points where this book could have gone another way.  The brilliance of The Raven Ring is that it does not. 

Type: Fantasy, last in the Lyra series 
Acquisition: Personal purchase from Amazon, nearly impossible to find in stores
Discovery: Digging through Wrede’s back catalogue due to love of her Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Sorcery and Cecelia
Current Rank: Book I love
Number of Reads: 2 (With many more to come.)

Second Opinion
If you are looking for different readings of The Raven Ring, your only recourse is to look it up on Amazon or Goodreads and read the reviews there. I could only find one blog review that did more than regurgitate the jacket description and add “it was a good book.”  Since that sole reviewer and I disagree rather vehemently, I have posted the link here:


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