The Hall of the Mountain King: Judith Tarr

★★★½

The Avaryan Rising Trilogy: Book I

I’ve wanted to read more by Judith Tarr ever since finishing A Wind in Cairo and, thanks to a very bountiful visit to Hay-on-Wye, I now have quite a few of her books lined up. The opening salvo was this high-fantasy trilogy, combining court intrigue with an elemental struggle between light and dark. It begins with a loss: the disappearance of the old king’s daughter, chosen as his heir but consecrated to the Sun God. She leaves on the traditional Journey of a trainee priest; and never returns. For twenty-one years, the old king stands waiting every morning on the battlements of his mountain-locked castle, hoping that his beloved heir will return. One morning, he has an answer, in the form of a young man, a stranger, who bears an almost incredible message. He is Mirain, the son of the lost princess, fathered by the Sun God himself, and he has come home. His arrival brings joy to the heart of his aged grandfather, but alarm to the court – for this stranger has, at one stroke, destabilised all the hopes of the king’s illegitimate son…

I do love a bit of political jostling. Young Mirain is different in every way from his uncle, the mature, confident and well-loved prince Moranden, who has grown up expecting to succeed to his sister’s empty throne. The arrival of her self-proclaimed son puts the cat among the pigeons and Moranden isn’t the only one who finds it a bit suspicious. Mirain might go round proclaiming that he’s the son of the Sun God, but this isn’t a world where gods appear to their worshippers, let alone impregnate them. Isn’t it more likely that his mother, the saintly princess, broke her vows and had a fling with some unidentified stranger? Who’s to say that he’s even her son? And so Moranden, nudged on by his ambitious mother Odiya, the king’s concubine, believes that he can still claim the throne that should have been his birthright. What chance does a slight, small foreigner have against a man who holds the loyalty of the people in the palm of his hand? But Moranden has overlooked one crucial point. Mirain is no fool. And his so-called divine birthright has given him just enough magic to win the hearts of those around him.

It’s these friends who give Mirain his best chance of surviving in a court that could be his death. His grandfather loves him, of course, and he swiftly wins the support of the singer Ymin, his mother’s foster-sister. And he is given a liege man, the squire Vadin, who initially resents it – he’s grown up admiring Moranden and longing to serve him – but he has enough honour to resentfully accept his new charge. To live with it and, slowly, grudgingly, accept that he’s developing loyalty to this young, unpredictable, mysterious new master of his. Not friendship. Not that. But tolerance, at least. And frustration when Mirain seems determined to get himself killed in some way or another. And, irritatingly, the same kind of admiration that Mirain seems to provoke in all those around him. Yes, Vadin probably would follow him to the death. But, when he takes up his new charge, he has little idea of how soon he might be called upon to put that to the test.

Tarr’s fantasy is very conventional in some ways: the battle between Light and Dark; the snares of courtly politics; the rebels, priests and bards of a standard fantasy world. But what I enjoyed was the diversity of her world-building. Her characters wear kilts and jewellery – trousers are for barbarians – and the cover illustration on my edition shows figures in what looks like ancient Assyrian dress. There aren’t any elves, dwarves or giants, but there is a variety of ethnic diversity among the peoples of her world: we hear of the ruling family of Han-Gilen, with their red hair, and of people far to the west who are as white as snow, and looked upon as exotic curiosities. The people of Ianon are, as far as I can tell, dark-skinned, bringing a welcome variety to a genre that (at the time of the book’s publication in 1986) must have been overwhelmingly white. And so the book feels just that little bit different from the run-of-the-mill high fantasies I’ve read before.

Plus, Tarr writes beautifully. Really beautifully. Her prose has a poetic flair while still being eminently readable, and her real speciality is in describing horses – as in A Wind in Cairo, her own passion as a horsewoman shines through, and the horses in her novels are characters as individual as her humans. One thing I’ll say is that this first novel does very much feel like the first third of a trilogy – it’s very much setting out the board and doesn’t really work as a self-contained tale, because the end clearly leads to something else – but my appetite has been profoundly whetted for what comes next (if only I can find where I’ve put the other two volumes on my overcrowded shelves…).

Buy the book

Or you can buy the entire Avaryan Rising trilogy in one omnibus volume here.

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