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.