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The Prize in the Game (2002)
by Jo Walton
No current Talk conversations about this book.
More depressing than I had expected -- and given what I knew from having read The King's Peace, I expected it to be significantly depressing. ( )
This book is set years before [book: The King's Peace], and focuses on several characters mentioned only in passing. Like many fantasy heroines, Emer yearns to prove her mettle in battle--although unlike most fantasies, what holds her back is not her sex but her youth. She throws herself headlong into the life of a warrior, and in so doing falls completely in love with Conal, another would-be warrior. Their love affair (which readers of the King books know ends tragically) is a frame for cattle-raids, duels, and visitations from deities. Walton has a gift for writing exhilerating battles, and her world-building is excellent. [book: The Prize of the Game] exists in an alternate Europe, and Walton has clearly thought about each and every aspect of it, from lawgivers to religion to who does the menial jobs. There is always a feel of solidity to her work.
Unexpectedly, the character I was most interested in was Elenn, Emer's older, calmer sister. Each of the characters in the book have clearly been strongly influenced by their parents, and most have been damaged. Emer's malevolant mother and manipulative father turn her into a headstrong hoyden who forces her way through society. That same upbringing molds Elenn into a self-contained, untouchable princess of ice. In the King books, Elenn marries the High King Udo and remains his childless but incomparably beautiful queen (a la Guinevere). We got little glimpses of her there, but here she gets whole chapters to herself. I loved that Walton turned the usual heroine convention on its head: the people around Elenn are disturbed and saddened that she voices no desires other than to be a good princess and a valuable tool in building alliances. She is similar to GRRMartin's Sansa, but smarter--she knows her strengths (beauty, charm, social graces, piety) and her weaknesses (she will never be a good warrior). At the end of the book after (SPOILERS) Emer has given up hope, Elenn is just getting a glimpse of it. She has no expectations of actual love, only courtly admiration, but hopes to expand her mind and prospects by becoming an excellent queen.
Unlike the King books, this did not leave me breathless. It is a slightly more clinical, less exciting story; seen in retrospect, it is a nuanced exploration of honor.
Based on this and the Small Change series - Jo Walton writes fantastic, dense, powerful stories in which the well-realized characters are constantly forced into doing the wrong thing, or making the wrong choices. I quite liked Darag, based on the one extended comment he made about his dreams; I liked Conal, until he became obsessed with being king. But no one was ever simply happy for any length of time - always fretting about the past or the future (and we didn't get to see them in Muin). Maga is foul - I hate manipulators - and Allel is limp and greedy both, ugh. Conary isn't much better. Emer is decent but trapped. And while the story was grand, I'm sorry I read it and I don't intend to read any more. If you like grim tales, you'll love it, but not for me. I didn't know it was a retelling of a known legend - though the flavor certainly matched, it's why I don't like most Celtic myths either. Doesn't help, it merely makes me unwilling to read The Tain as well.
I adore this book; it's full of just my favourite kind of claustrophobic relationships and resigned refusal-to-be-resigned-to-fate.
I like Conal, Emer and Elenn better than Ferdia, but still feel dissatisfied with the text's summation of Ferdia's character: he's weak, certainly, and "lesser" in many ways than his companions, but that doesn't mean there's less of him.
My first reaction was faint irritation that I had managed to end up with yet another retelling of the Táin Bó Cuailnge with some names changed a lot (eg Cú Chulainn becomes Darag) and others changed only a little. (This was augmented by deep irritation with the writer of the blurb on the dust-jacket who appeared to have read a completely different book.) But of course that basically dispensed with my having to read it for the plot, and instead I was able to sit back and enjoy both the characterisation and the world-building.
And I must say I can't think of a retelling of the Táin to match this in terms of believable characters. The fact that the story is mainly told from points of view with which we are not familiar from the standard versions made me think almost for the first time about the events of the legend as they might have appeared to the participants. The relatively minor liberties taken with the plot (and the fact that I hadn't read the other two novels) meant that I was, slightly to my surprise, in some suspense about the fate of Ferdia, who of course in our standard version falls on the third day of single combat.
Once I had worked out why the Welshism (if that's a word) "ap" had replaced the Irish "mac" and "nic" as a patronymic/matronymic, it all, within certain limits, became clear. The society portrayed is of course a pagan Celtic one where magic flourishes within certain limits. Women can be equal as warriors, lawyers and kings with men, and have full control of their own fertility. It almost becomes possible to read The Prize in the Game as the author's concept of the "original" or "real" story of the Táin, before it was filtered by mainly male, Christian editors, rather in the same way that Tom Shippey argues Tolkien wrote his mythology to be the "original" version of which the surviving Anglo-Saxon and Norse myths are but a faint distorted echo (or perhaps a closer parallel is Marion Zimmer Bradley's treatment of the Arthurian mythos in The Mists of Avalon, though I think Jo Walton is more imaginative with her material here). Reading the book on that basis, I really enjoyed it.
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Wikipedia in English (1)
When a friendly competition leads to the death of a beloved horse and incurs the wrath of the Horse Goddess, the kingdoms of the island of Tir Isarnagiri are doomed to suffer. As the goddess' curse chases them down the years, four friends destined for kingship-Conal, Emer, Darag, and Ferdia-are forced into conflict as their countries build towards war.Matters are complicated when Emer and Conal fall in love, and dream of escaping together from the machinations of their respective families. But Conal and Ferdia are rivals for the High Kingship of the island, and Conal cannot simply leave. The contest between them will lead to a visionary quest on a mountain sacred to the gods-and terrifying to men.Yet Emer faces an even greater struggle. For when war finally comes, Emer has two choices: perform her duty to the homeland to which she owes everything, or protect the one she loves and be branded a traitor forever. The path she takes will become the stuff of legend, and forever alter the destiny of Tir Isarnagiri.Set in the world of Jo Walton's previous novels, The King's Peace and The King's Name, this book takes us to a shining era of dark powers, legendary heroes and passionate loves-all of them ruled by the hand of Fate.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813 — Literature English (North America) American fiction
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