The third novel in Leona Wisoker’s Children of the Desert, Bells of the Kingdom, opens at the monastery of Arason, which shares territory — or did — with the “children of the lake” — witches, the human inhabitants (those who don’t know better) call them; those who do know better know that they are ha’ra’hain, mixed blood children of the ha’rethe, that ancient race of unknown origins and seemingly unlimited power. A soldier comes from the capital in search of a particular witch, Ellemoa by name, and questions an acolyte, Kolan, as to her whereabouts. But she is gone — as are they all — and Kolan doesn’t know where.
As it turns out, Ellemoa has begun searching for her son: she’s escaped from captivity, and one of the strongest memories she has is holding her child. All she knows is she must find him. And as we learn soon enough, that son is none other than Idisio, once a street thief called “Lifty,” now an honorary Scratha, thanks to Lord Cafad Scratha, accompanying the new desert lord Alyea Peysimun and the enigmatic and dangerous Deiq of Stass to the capital, Bright Bay. Ellemoa does find Idisio and decides that the way to deal with his present circumstances is to kidnap him — she’s not fond of humans and wants her son back, away from the humans and their influence. Since she is a being of immense power, and is not bound by anything other than her own desires, she clouds his mind and essentially takes over.
Another one we must pay attention to is Tanavin, who prefers to be called “Tank,” a young Guild mercenary, who knew Idisio on the streets of Bright Bay, and who has his own demons to tame.
The narrative is built of memories, and they’re pretty horrible. Wisoker dedicated the book to “the ‘silent’ survivors” of every horror we’ve found to inflict on each other and on ourselves. And they’re all here, in the intertwined stories of of Ellemoa, who by any standard is insane; of the acolyte Kolan, who loves her; of Idisio, who forgets who he is as he moves on to what he will be; of Tank, who has been used again and again, never honestly.
Wisoker notes in her Acknowledgements that this was the hardest book she’s written, in no small part because of the personal histories she has translated into fiction, but she’s translated them exceedingly well. It’s a journey, in more ways than one, and it’s a journey into darkness. Wisoker’s series so far has not been what you could call light-hearted, but this volume takes us some places I found very hard to go. Much of it brings us face to face with the devastating consequences of memory — Ellemoa’s memories of being tortured into committing atrocities, of having her son taken from her, memories of those experiences that have left her shattered. Idisio’s memories come into play later, after his mother has taught him to be ha’ra’ha — as she understands it — and pushed him into acts that both repel and attract him. Perhaps the most affecting are Tank’s memories of his childhood, a childhood spent as a katha village child, essentially a child prostitute — the innocence of his child’s understanding of his relationship with a regular customer is devastating.
That’s a brief survey — the book is, needless to say, more detailed, but those details are revealed in small, fragmentary flashbacks, never revealing much at once, but cumulatively they give the story an almost unbearable weight. It’s a tribute to Wisoker’s skill and talent that the narrative generates enough tension that you want to scream, and just when you’re ready to, it changes scene. You don’t want to put it down. She’s taken those personal histories and transformed them into a powerful and moving story. There’s light, of a sort: everyone comes through it, one way or another, but there’s an insight here that sneaks up on you: as bad as the memories are, as much damage as you’ve sustained, you can get past them but you can never get rid of them, because they are part of who you have become.
And all this mixed in with the sometimes dizzying politics of the Northern Kingdom, of hidden motives and unknown plans.
It may seem strange to ascribe that much meaning to a work of fantasy, but fantasy is, after all, another form of literature, and it’s to literature we look to explicate those meanings. (And I’m sure there are many other meanings, many more insights here.) Wisoker has succeeded admirably well, but a word of caution: read this book in the bright days of summer.
(Mercury Retrograde Press, 2013)