Regular readers will know that I am very fond of Glenda Larke, both as a person and as a writer. She’s a talented story teller, and a committed environmentalist — the sort of person that you’d think, had she been male, would be the darling of left-wing science fiction readers. Instead she’s stuck writing books “for women”. That means fantasy, it means elements of romance plots, and it means having your ideas ignored by many reviewers. Hopefully I can redress the balance a little here.
Larke’s latest series, the Watergivers Trilogy, is very clearly epic fantasy. It comes in three fat volumes, and the central character, Shale, is a young kid from a poor background who is discovered to have spectacular magical powers that mean he is destined to become the ruler of his land. The other major character is Terelle, a young girl desperately trying to avoid being forced, by poverty, into a career in a brothel. Naturally they meet, and all sorts of things get in the way of their happiness. To far, so yawnable. But there is far more to the Watergivers than the genre elements.
The story is set in a country that is pretty clearly Australia, because where else in the world would you find a vast desert full of red sand? The map is a little odd, but large parts of the coast are liable to be flooded if sea level rises, which might explain things. You can clearly see the Snowy Mountains in the top right, and there’s a vast salt plain where there Murray-Darling basin ought to be. Hmm, the author is an environmentalist. Something going on here?
Access to water is, of course, a major issue in Australia, as indeed it is in many parts of the world. In Larke’s version of Australia, water is very hard to come by, but thanks to the sophisticated magical powers of a small group of people, water can be evaporated from the southern ocean, brought across the south coast as clouds, and dumped as rain just where it is needed. Magic doesn’t do everything, of course. The civilization that Larke has created also puts a lot of effort into engineering to ensure that water is trapped, transported and preserved so that as little as possible is lost. The “stormlords”, as the magicians are known, are genetically rare, and the act of creating rain requires a huge amount of energy. You can’t just snap your fingers and create a downpour. Inevitably possession of water means wealth, but there is a social responsibility upon the stormlords and their less-powered relatives, the rainlords, to provide service to the community. Without them, everyone will die.
When the series opens, with The Last Stormlord, the land is in trouble. There is only one man alive with full stormlord powers, and he’s getting old. Taquar, an ambitious young rainlord, seeks political power by gaining control of, or eliminating, anyone more powerful than him. Meanwhile, in the red desert, a tribal war leader called Davim seeks to conquer the rich cities of the south coast, kill all of the sorcerers, and return the land to the time of “Random Rain”. Who needs civilization anyway?
There is some excellent worldbuilding going on here. Larke has put a lot of thought into the economics and politics of the situation, and like any other good writer is reflected present day concerns. Taquar reminds me a lot of a modern-day merchant banker, not caring how much of the economy he destroys as long as, at the end of it all, he ends up with most of the wealth and power. The Reduners, as the desert tribesmen are known, have political ideals similar to those hardline environmentalists who believe that only destroying civilization can save the planet, and they are being whipped forward by an ambitious revolutionary also out for personal power. A key point that Larke makes is that there are no easy answers, and few obvious villains. The society of the southern cities is deeply unjust, and yet without the magicians everyone is in trouble. The debates between Shale and Ravard, a young Reduner warlord from the same sort of background as our hero, as to whether the powerful can ever rule fairly are doubtless reproduced in student debates the world over.
Larke pulls few punches. The first book ends with a full-blow Reduner invasion. Lots of people die. There’s a particularly nasty form of weapon that the Reduners use called a “zigger”. It is a large, fast, voracious insect that will literally eat its way into your flesh, usually through the eye, and kill you. The only protection is scent-based. If you are wearing the right perfume, the ziggers will leave you alone. Anyone who thinks these books are soft, girly stuff needs to read a few passages about zigger attacks.
As the series progresses with Stormlord Rising and Stormlord’s Exile we follow the escalating political conflict, and also find out more about the world, in particular about Terelle’s ancestors in Khromatis (the far off Snowy Mountains). Along the way there is much interesting material. There’s plenty of feminism; the fearless warrior character, Elmar, turns out to be gay; and we even meet a young transman from Khromatis whose mother has used her magical healing skills to alter his body. We also discover that, unlike the rest of the characters in the book, the people from the salt plains have fair skin and hair, and everyone is suspicious of them.
The thing that comes through to me most clearly about this series is that, if you could find an acceptable scientific explanation for the powers of the various magicians in the book, the series would be totally science fiction. It is pretty clearly set in a future version of our own world — the clues are all there in the final volume. The way that the magic works has all been logically worked out. The main themes of the books are politics, economics and environmentalism. The nearest comparison I can think of is Kim Stanley Robinson. But because the books are “fantasy” and “for women” most people ignore them. It’s so frustrating.
11 thoughts on “The Watergivers Trilogy”
I enjoyed reading this review. Ever since I read the “Isles of Glory” trilogy, Glenda Larke is one of the very few authors I have on my “automatic pre-order” list, and I think it’s tragic how few of my fellow SF&F readers know of her work.
I’m troubled by the opening of your review, however. To say that Ms. Larke is “stuck writing books ‘for women’ … That means fantasy, it means elements of romance plots, ….” implies that you know for a fact that she would actually prefer to write not-fantasy (presumably hard science fiction) without elements of romance. Since you know her personally, it’s possible you know that she does feel stuck and would in fact prefer to write non-romantic science fiction. Can you clarify if that’s the case?
Or maybe I should be reading what you wrote as saying she’s stuck being LABELED as writing women’s fiction. Sorry to nitpick over a few words, but I was really thrown off, thinking you meant that this is NOT the fiction she wants to be writing. The more I think about it, the more I think you were talking about her work being labeled.
On another note, I completely did not get “alternate Australia” when I read the trilogy. That’s not to say you’re not right, but the extensive dune geology doesn’t feel Australian to me.
I have no idea whether Glenda would like to write hard SF. However, as with all midlist writers, she has to be able to sell books to publishers, and everything I hear from my women writer friends is that there is pressure on them to write to a market. Glenda now has a career as a writer of women’s epic fantasy, and it would be hard for her to change tack if she wanted to. She may well be happy writing fantasy and romance plots, but when I read her books I also see someone with a scientific training and scientific mind behind them. I wish more people knew that was there.
As to Australia, I have lived there, so I guess I recognize it more easily.
Thanks for the clarification.
I think that her scientific training and mind are why I like her writing so much — well, that and her intricate world-building. Hopefully more readers will discover her. Although if she ends up with any more covers like the American editions of “Isles of Glory,” that’s not likely. Those have to be among the worst covers I’ve ever seen, especially “The Aware”. I only happened to read it because one of my book clubs chose it.
I’ll never be able to forget “My Little Sea Pony”.
Thanks, Cheryl. And Amy.
Would I write hard (environmental) SF if I thought it would sell? Yes, just possibly. But I also do enjoy being able to mess with ideas that aren’t tied to one particular country or time period. For example, the trilogy I’m working on at the moment is broadly about colonialism and the Indonesian spice trade — but it being fantasy, I don’t have to stick to a particularly century or a particular colonial power or a particular set of religious beliefs.
Cheryl, you are right that the general concept for Watergivers/Stormlord is based on Australia — it is indeed a future “Australia” after an environmental disaster (caused by sea level rise on a worldwide basis — sounds like global warning, doesn’t it?) but many of the ideas came from elsewhere: the deserts of Iran, Yemen, the Sahara. Fantasy can be such fun to write…
On one of the Lord of the Rings DVDs (I think Fellowship) there’s a film interview with Tolkien. In it he argues forcefully that LotR is not an “allegory” because it isn’t intended to a precise representation of middle England. And he’s right, but nevertheless his thoughts about the industrialization of his homeland shine through the text in many ways. I think that’s true of most fantasy. A book doesn’t have to be an allegory or pure imagination, it can be a mixture of both.
And this conversation is one of the things I love so much about the field. 🙂
Thanks for this, really interesting. I had never heard of Glenda Larke before, but I will definitely check her out.
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