Sunday, October 3, 2021


Jo Walton
Completed 10/3/2021, Reviewed 10/3/2021
3 stars

This is the first book by Jo Walton I was less than thrilled by.  It was okay, very ambitious in what it set out to do, but didn’t quite succeed.  According to an article she wrote, Walton noted that her goal in this short novel was to write a sci fi or fantasy story with no adventure in it, as she was tired of the adventure trope.  She says it took her five or six books to learn how to do it.  This seemed like her first attempt.  I’d say it’s a character study, but that’s not even quite accurate.  I’d say it doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  It has its merits, but it’s not her best.  Nonetheless, she won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009 for it and was nominated for an Otherwise Award. 

First of all, the lifelode is the role of a person’s life, their passion, not just their job.  The story is about four people who live together in a polyamorous relationship.  They have several children between them.  The main character is Taveth.  Her lifelode is the housekeeper of the household.  She cooks, cleans, and is the primary raiser of the children.  She loves what she does.  There’s also Ferrand, the Lord of the village, Appledkirk.  His wife is Chayra, a potter, but he’s also Taveth’s lover.  Ranal is Taveth’s husband and Chayra’s lover.  Her runs the farm at Applekirk.  Then within a few days of each other, two people come into the household.  The first is Jankin, a visiting scholar from the west.  The second is Hanethe, a powerful wielder of yeya (magic), great-grandmother of Ferrand, and former lord of Applekirk.  She’s visiting from the east where time moves much more slowly than in the western areas such as Applekirk.

Hanethe left the east because she crossed the goddess of marriage.  She decided to come back to her home in hope of being far away from the goddess’ influence.  However, a local priest of the goddess tries to call her out as evil and drive her back east to get what’s coming to her.  She secretly enlists Jankin the scholar to help her by destroying the relationships of the household of Applekirk through sex.  What’s left is a fight for the survival the Applekirk household and surrounding village.

We see most of the story through Taveth’s eyes.  Her yeya is that she can see the past and the future of a person, though not their death.  So when she looks at Ferrand for example, she can see him as a boy and as an older man with one arm.  It’s all very interesting, but Walton tells the whole book in present tense.  It makes it difficult to tell when Taveth is seeing the past and the future because it is written in the present.  It takes about thirty to fifty pages to really figure this out.  Once you get it though, you understand the whole perspective.

While there is really no adventure, there is conflict.  Taveth is put off by Hanethe.  The latter takes Taveth’s younger daughter under her wing to mentor her yeya gifts.  Taveth is also Jankin’s first target.  He then pursues Chayra, who is the more beautiful of the two women.  Chayra has already had many lovers outside the primary unit, so this incites jealousy in Taveth who doesn’t have much time for such play.  It sounds soapy, but it doesn’t read melodramatic.  One could say it’s more like domestic drama, several steps up from soap opera.  

The prose is decent, though the whole present tense thing is difficult to get used to.  I think the world-building is decent, but could have been better.  Perhaps if the book was longer, it would might have worked better.  I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s a good concept.  I just think the execution was lacking.  And as Walton said herself, this was part of a learning process for her.  

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