The Kingdom has a problem. A set of problems, really. An untested young prince from a family of long-lived warriors and sorcerers has to deal with magical beasts mucking about in the great Forest near the city. A rather large Dragon has appeared, threatening to cut off a road to a nearby world. A hitherto unknown sister has appeared on the scene. A cousin from an old and still grudge-holding realm has popped up, too, seeking to establish relations, personal and diplomatic. It’s a lot on the plate of the young prince, and his siblings, who are trying to manage the kingdom as best they can. No one has any idea where their father, the ruler, or their uncle, the sorcerer, is. Oh, and the secret to the family power is a magical primal node of power in the Castle basement.
Roger Zelazny’s Amber you say? You’d be forgiven for thinking so, but the prince is Gwydion, the power source is a Spring, the Kingdom is Argylle, and the author is Elizabeth Willey.
The Well-Favored Man, A Sorcerer and a Gentleman and The Price of Blood and Honor mark an incomplete series of novels by Elizabeth Willey.
The Well-Favored Man is a first-person look at the world of Argylle and the nearby worlds from the perspective of Gwydion. He’s not particularly enthused with his job, but he’s stuck with it. His father, Gaston, and his uncle, Dewar, are both in self-imposed exile after a tragedy involving the queen, Freia. Gwydion really has no choice but to step up. He does have a set of siblings to help him sort out things, but of course they have their own interests, and agendas, and points of view. It’s not the best way to run a kingdom, especially in a world where there are connections and Ways to other kingdoms and universes, kingdoms and polities which have power sources of their own, and might be nursing long-standing grudges against Argylle. The novel focuses on character interactions and motivations and can be slow and pastoral in developing the plot, sticking to the inner life of Gwydion and how he deals with his family and peers.
A Sorcerer and a Gentleman and The Price of Blood and Honor, really two halves of one novel, take us in time several centuries back to the creation of what would be the world of Argylle. Here we get to really meet the head of the clan, Gwydion’s grandfather Prospero, as well as his daughter, Freia, and the world that they both came from, and that Argylle is a reaction against. Even more so than in The Well Favored Man, Willey leverages Prospero as exiled sorcerer-noble a la The Tempest to excellent effect. This Prospero is a maker, and creator, but also a sorcerer capable and willing to raise arms against his brother Avril. Freia isn’t anywhere near as naive or sheltered as Miranda, and can be rather feral and wild, dangerously so at time. Too, she has a connection to the growing land that is more than just a symbolic one.
Dewar, too, is a much more active and front-and-center figure than in The Well Favored Man, and he makes a very interesting counterpart to his half-sister. And while we don’t get to see the epic, life-changing romance that is mentioned within the Well Favored Man, Freia’s future husband Gaston does show up, and we see the beginnings of their relationship. It’s interesting to see their mythologized, distant status from the first-person point of view of Gwydion in the Well-Favored Man be transformed into a contemporary third person POV.
I am a sucker for courtly intrigue, complicated characters and family relationships, and of course above all, multiverse-style fantasy. The aforementioned template of the Amber novels is something that Willey likes to leverage. Importing the music of Bach, for example, into Argylle from a world far away from it is something that a Prince or Princess of Amber would definitely do, if inclined. Willey improves on Amber by doing far, far better by its female characters than Zelazny does. While I think that Willey could have done even better and gone further in this regard than she did, it’s refreshing not to have a set of noble women who are deemed neither willing nor fit to hold any power. They often go through a lot of hell, but they are strongly developed and active in the pursuit of their goals, and contain hidden depths.
I also strongly appreciated the finely nuanced sense of style in these books. While distinguishing people’s diction and speaking patterns by kingdom, or town, or locale is old hat, Willey goes for more nuance. Given the extreme range of age of the characters (given their longevity), the older characters speak with a much more pronounced archaic manner, given that the language itself has changed in the centuries since they were born. Beyond that, on a general line reading, Willey tends toward beautifully rendered, descriptive complexity.
The Price of Blood and Honor sadly leaves the story of the characters and the world unfinished, with no sign of Willey as an author since then. I maintain that Willey’s novels came perhaps too soon, and so are undeservedly obscure. Willey’s novels should be read along with Ellen Kushner, and Delia Sherman, and Sherwood Smith and Mary Robinette Kowal. I’d like to think, especially, that if the latter decided to rewrite Zelazny’s Amber series to her sensibilities, it would look much like what Willey created.
The novels are well worth seeking out.