Review: E.J. Beaton, The Councillor

I want to say at the outset that I ended up really enjoying this book and gave it four stars on Goodreads which has become kind of my standard for “damn good but not life-changing” and did I mention that stars are stupid ways to rate books? Anyway, I’m saying all that because the criticisms that follow might make it sound like I had major beef with this book, which I don’t.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a European-inflected story of fantasy court intrigue, with not one but five courts combined, plus another court mostly offstage playing the role of diplomatic spoiler. Five countries have formed a confederation called Elira, and the central country, Axium, is where the “Councillor” of the title, Lysande Prior, is from. Lysande is an orphan foundling, casualty of the war with the White Queen, who was taken under the wing of Sarelin Brey, the Iron Queen whose throne in Axium oversees the city-principates of Elira. Lysande grows up a scholar, sneered at by the nobility, who has been developing an illicit habit of drinking a concoction of chimera scale for both stimulation and solace.

When Queen Sarelin is murdered, the court at Axium discovers that Sarelin has appointed Lysande the Councillor who will choose the new monarch from the other city-princes, a plan which goes off the rails immediately when Lysande institutes a new council of all five leaders to make this deliberation while she investigates the murder, which may be a sign that the White Queen is rising again.

Lysande isn’t the only one afraid of the White Queen’s rise. Every principate in Elira has been undertaking to exterminate or at least suppress all people known as “elementals,” or what Avatar fans would know as benders — people with the magical ability to summon and control an element such as fire, air, or water. The assumption is that any and all elementals are evil minions of the White Queen, and why would they not be, with such power to harm ordinary mortals in the palm of their hands?

Both my main criticisms of the book are a matter of pulled punches. Lysande’s arc is about discovering her own power despite her upbringing in the orphanage with its mantra restrain, constrain, subdue. Why do the denizens of the court sneer at Lysande with her ink-flecked doublet? Because class war, that’s why. But you can’t have a class war without something to make it stable — or resolve it altogether. To use a Bowen systems metaphor, you need a triangle. The elementals would appear to furnish the third leg of the triangle between “the silverbloods” and “the populace,” but other than a bit of window-breaking, it’s not psychologically established that the silverbloods have been stoking the populace’s resentment against elementals in order to maintain their sway, or that the elementals are to the populace anything but the oppressed in parallel. I mean, it’s right there within the story’s reach, but Beaton doesn’t quite reach for it, either because she’s occupied with other aspects of the worldbuilding or because she wants to conceal the fact that elementals can crop up in the bloodlines of the nobility as well as the populace.

This is important because all three of these, er, elements, find their nexus in Lysande’s POV. The orphanage taught her the mantra restrain, constrain, subdue, but its main function seems to be as a bond for her to break free from and leave behind; it could be something they teach children of unknown provenance in case they turn out to be elementals, or it could be something all non-noble children are taught so they don’t rise against their betters. The point is, the story really only cares what Lysande thinks about the mantra, not what the oppressive teachers were hoping to accomplish by inculcating it. I think this is a missed opportunity, because a major plot point of this story involves Lysande reading her own thoughts and feelings into the affect and words of another character, and missing clues to a later betrayal. She’s a scholar; she’s trained herself to avoid eisegesis and steer to exegesis. The story needs to give her something to exegete, but there are some blank spaces.

Similarly, part of Lysande’s arc is embracing her D/s sexuality. In this ‘verse, no one is particularly fazed by bisexuality, or other gender-inflected orientations, but D/s is still somewhat taboo, it appears. Here again restrain, constrain, subdue is an obstacle for Lysande, whose desire to be the Dom in her relationships gathers force during the course of the book. Now, I know what I just said a week ago about smut sunblindness and my preferences for evoking rather than baldly stating what’s going on in a sex scene. But there are a couple of sex scenes — again, rather key to the plot — in which Lysande becomes less diffident about bringing her Dom orientation into the open, and the most explicit thing in them is the communication of the characters’ eyes. I’m not saying that D/s sex scenes should always be explicit. What I’m saying is that a scene about Lysande loosening her own tethers can’t depend on the opening stages of foreplay to establish what that feels like to her before subsiding in amorphous euphemism in which all we clearly know is that she’s on top. It doesn’t seem, judging from a later scene, that Beaton can’t write that kind of sequence; it’s that she chose to pull the punch here. If Lysande commanding the initiative was the main point of the scene, it’s possible a fade-to-black might have been more effective for the purpose, but clearly a few clues also needed to be established, and that was the sequence’s downfall — attempting to have it both ways.

I dwell on these criticisms because they really did slow me down a bit in the first half of the book — I was interested in Lysande but not compelled by her, and the problems I mention were sustained throughout. But the prose is evocative and well-paced, and getting to know the world was fun, and I always like a bit of politics, and the other characters, while avataristic, are interesting, with something likable about nearly all of them. These things come together to make the last stage of the book very satisfying, with its tiered reveals and a catastrophic attempted wedding and a duel between elementals with fire, water, and rapiers. No punches pulled there! Much of this depends on the character of Luca Fontaine, the prince of Rhime, who is Lysande’s only real equal (with the possible exception of her attendant Litany) among the other characters and has a bottomless capacity for snark, swag, and sleight of hand.

Possibly the best thing about this book, despite the obvious pitfalls of the choice, is that it is set firmly in Lysande’s POV and is therefore not portentously concerned with Lysande’s Destiny with a capital D. This story is about her experiences as they unfold and her changes as she meets them, and it does an excellent job of letting us in to Lysande’s surprise that anyone might want to ally with her, without protesting too much. Because of this, it’s easier for me to imagine what Lysande might look like to people looking at her from the outside — easier to imagine her gaining enemies as her power grows. It’s true I did guess early on who the murdering traitor was, but there was still plenty of suspense as to when Lysande was going to discover it, so it was no encumbrance.

Take it all around, this is an ambitious, creative, imagistic fantasy that takes interesting characters and established tropes and twists their right angles into fascinating tessellations. I’m glad I persevered with it.

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