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Review: Watchtower, The Dancers of Arun, and The Northern Girl by Elizabeth A. Lynn

I re-read the very gay Chronicles of Tornor series and found that it was even better than I remembered

by AK Krajewska

It’s too bad that most reflections on the three books that comprise the Chronicles of Tornor focus so much on the fact that they have gay and genderqueer characters who are portrayed in “a positive light,” as many of the reviews say, that they hardly say anything beyond that. Because, well, first of all, no, they are just portrayed as characters living their lives, making both good and bad choices, and their sexuality is portrayed as normal, neutral even, not “in a positive light.” And putting it that way might make you think that the books were interesting in their time–they were published in 1979 and 1980–but now are just historical artifacts. But, actually, there is so much more, which makes them worth reading, or re-reading, now.

Feudalism with gay psychics #

The Chronicles of Tornor is a fantasy series set in a feudal society. The series spans over 200 years, with each book following the stories of a new set of characters, and charting the development of an increasingly more complex and peaceful society. With each book, more aspects of society become organized into institutions, and more people and ways of life become integrated into that society. Ancestral enemies become coveted trade partners. A wild dream of one character in book one is an established institution by book two and a lost way of life by book three.

People with psionic powers are barely acknowledged in book one, and misunderstood and grudgingly accepted by the tolerant, while thriving in one special city in book two. By book three, they are institutions like scholars or traders, not only established but involved in political power plays that corrupt their original mission. Now that I write that, it sounds a little like an allegory for gay acceptance, though it’s so subtly done I didn’t even notice that it was as I read the books.

However, one thing that changes very little in the books is the acceptance of gay relationships, because for all the ways that the society might seem backwards from our own, a taboo about gay relationships is not present. (And that’s not the only sexual taboo that’s absent, which I think is an artifact of the books having been written in the 70s when Freudian psychology was mixing with feminist theory in ways that are now out of fashion.)

After the first book, each set of characters looks back on the past that the previous characters inhabited through a mythologizing and romanticizing lens. Each character at some point thinks, ah, yes those were the glory days, those ancient times, recalling something we, as readers, had just read in the previous book and know very well that it was first, kind of miserable and not at all glorious like that, and second, didn’t go like that at all, what’s wrong with you people!

The commentary on the tendency to romanticize the past while forgetting the actual achievements of our predecessors (because they did such a good job achieving them that we now take their outcome for granted) is particularly effective because of Elizabeth A. Lynn’s gutpunching vivid writing style. She goes for short sentences and sensual descriptions, which gives us beautiful likes like:

“The sky was blue as flame. The half moon sat like a ghost on the eastern horizon.”

Equally vivid, she shows scenes of everyday activities like eating, washing, having sex, or getting your period early:

“Opening the chest at the foot of the bed, she took out her sponge, and, crouching, inserted it. Her back twinged. Scowling, she dressed, and stamped downstairs with the soiled linen in her arms. Against the waistband of her pants, she felt her belly's bloat.”

When I first read The Northern Girl in my teens, that scene when the athletic city guard, Pax, gets her period stuck with me. I didn’t know you could use a sponge as a kind of tampon. I had also never read a scene before that so unflinchingly and vividly described the experience of getting your period. It's not a gross-out or played for laughs or shock; it's just life. In most fantasy, characters never even have to pee. In The Chronicles of Tornor they have to deal with chamber pots, get sticky from sex, and on more than one occasion deal with their periods. I hope I’m not giving the impression that the books are scatalogical, because they are not, but they are extremely earthy.

Which is, also, not to say that these are just books about people doing household chores and dealing with physical needs. Rather, it’s that they do all those things while they travel across the world, fight battles, hone their psychic powers, found new civilization-changing institutions, and have epiphanies that lead to personal growth, like when the point of view character, Ryke, in Watchtower, begins to question his assumptions about womanhood and manhood:

“It was as if there was a man inside her. Perhaps there was; that might be the thing that made her seem unlike all the women he knew. He wondered if there was a man hidden inside all women. He thought of Norres, of Maranth, of Becke. He thought of his mother. If there was a man inside women, was there also a woman inside men?”

Sudden and brutal violence #

And then, there is the violence. I’ve read somewhere, and now I don’t remember where, that one of Lynn’s marks as a writer are scenes of sudden and brutal violence. Only, I think, that’s not right. There’s not actually all that much violence in these books, and the reviewer who complained that The Dancers of Arun is mostly about doing domestic chores kind of has a point. There’s probably more domestic chores than violence, which is a bit surprising for a book about a dancing troupe of martial artists having an encounter with psychic desert barbarians.

Lynn portrays violence the way violence actually feels. When it happens, it’s surprising and horrifying. The characters are as likely to be the victims of violence as the instigators, actually, maybe more so. Perhaps that’s part of what’s shocking about it. Normally, in fantasy, the heroes go around fighting and getting into scraps, and normally they win easily and move on with their lives. In The Chronicles of Tornor, violence has consequences, often devastating and even completely unfixable ones. For example, the main point of view character in The Dancers of Arun had one of his arms cut off as a child during a raid, and it’s the defining trauma of his life. In The Northern Girl, the main character, Sorren, is caught up in a riot and witnesses a person get killed. The scene is brief, vivid, and then Sorren has to deal with the consequences emotionally, and the city government deal with the consequences of the riot politically.

I would argue that it’s not so much that Lynn’s books are particularly violent as compared to the genre. Rather, most of the time when she portrays violence, she also depicts its consequences, including for bystanders, and including its long-term consequences.

And so, given that vivid portrayal of the earthy, the beautiful, and the brutal, when a character in The Northern Girl dreams about the glory days of The Watchtower, as a reader, you kind of go, yeah, no. That reflection is interesting within the world of the series, but it also makes you think about what aspects of the past in our real world we might be misconstruing or romanticizing.

Lesbians who have adventures with swords and psionics #

Now, I must also say a few words about the queer characters and relationships. These were the first books in which I read about gay and lesbian characters. It was sometime in the mid 1990s, when I was a teenager. I still remember reading The Dancers of Arun, which was the first book I read in the series, and feeling confused because there were two characters who were referred to as “he” and each other’s lovers. I kept thinking I must have missed something, or got a name confused. Eventually it became clear to me, the characters were both men, and also lovers. I think I had a brief moment of, oh, OK, that’s how it works, just as I would have with any worldbuilding detail, and moved on.

Only, no, I didn’t really move on. Rather, I assimilated the idea that being gay is not a big deal. When I read about gay and lesbian characters in Watchtower and The Northern Girl, I wasn’t confused any more that people might have a same sex lover. And because I met these characters in fiction and it wasn’t a big deal, when I met queer people in real life, it also wasn’t a big deal, nor was it a big deal to think about my own sexuality. Reading these books as a teen saved me a lot of grief and confusion later in life. I might not have been sure what my feelings were at times, but whatever they were, I never felt I was a bad person for having them.

There are many other books with queer characters now, and so for most people reading them now, the fact that they have queer characters who go about their adventures in a perfectly normal way is probably not a huge distinguishing factor. That’s OK, though. Because the adventures are still great.

You can buy an ebook of The Chronicles of Tornor through Open Road Media. Paper editions of the books seem to only be available used.