Vulcan’s Peak

Book log: Of Harps and Rings

June 13, 2009 1:16 pm

Wrede-harp Here’s the disclaimer, folks:  this is me blathering about a couple of lesser-known books by one of my long-time favorite fantasy authors.  I first picked up some of Patricia C. Wrede’s books some time in middle school, and have been lending them to all my friends ever since.  (Seriously.  Was there anyone who didn’t borrow the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in high school?)  Hell, as Carmen can tell you, I even made friends through those books.  That makes them magic.  I also adore her Regency-England-but-with-magic books.  As far as I’m concerned, Wrede is one of the masters of YA fantasy.  (And as long as it’s well-written, I see no reason ever to grow out of YA books entirely.)

Wrede-ringSome of Wrede’s earliest books are set in a secondary world called Lyra, and it’s two of these that have been hanging out on my shelf for a few years now:  The Harp of Imach Thyssel and The Raven Ring.  For whatever reason, I hadn’t read them until last week — or at least, I hadn’t read Harp.  I think Elf also has a copy of Ring and let me borrow it once in high school, but I remembered only the barest shadow of the story.  Like the cereal ad used to say, taste it again, for the first time.  (Ahh, brain sludge.)

Although the two books share the same fantasy world, each stands completely on its own, set in different parts of the world and with no characters in common.  They’re also separated by almost ten years of real world time (during which Wrede was writing many of the books we all enjoyed).  If you read them back to back, it’s easy to see how much Wrede improves as a writer between Harp (1985) and Ring (1994).

The Harp of Imach Thyssel isn’t a bad book, certainly, and The Raven Ring isn’t a perfect one.  But Harp’s biggest weakness is that it’s very predictable and takes itself a little too seriously.  The wit that makes many of Wrede’s books so charming is mostly absent, and the plot leans heavily on the usual fantasy genre conventions — to include some fairly strong echos of Lord of the Rings.  To show you what I mean, here’s the teasing description on the front cover (complete with a comma of dubious necessity):

Everyone wanted the legendary harp — except the man who found it, and was wise enough to fear it.

(And on the book, it’s printed in all caps, of course.)

The first chapter could be the beginning of any Dungeons & Dragons campaign ever written:  A minstrel, Emerick, and his buddy, Flindaran, are traveling through the woods.  They stop for the night at an inn, where they run into some Unusual People and they all get attacked.

When they arrive at the castle of Flindaran’s father (a duke), Wrede puts in some nice work on Flindaran’s large and interesting family.  Although some live in the shadows and never make it out of Cliché Land, others pop out and surprise you.  (Happily, Emerick’s love interest is one of the latter.)

On the other hand, the villains of the tale — three schemers and dreamers who each wants the eponymous harp for him- or herself — are an almost ridiculously sinister bunch.  One of them did surprise me when she was first revealed to be a schemer, but her villainy pushed her into melodrama almost immediately.

The harp of the title turns out to be a magical instrument of great power, with tales attached about a price paid by those who use it and its reluctance to change hands.  As a result of the latter, Emerick quickly becomes suspicious and obsessive, and though he never reaches Ring-Bearer levels of possessiveness, echoes of the One Ring are hard to ignore.

I’d be interested to know roughly what percentage of fantasy written in the last fifty years has, as the  cornerstone of its plot, Somebody Goes on a Journey.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with it; fantasy tends to trace a direct lineage to mythology and folklore (also to Tolkein, but that’s another story), which are full of transformative journeys and enlightening journeys and feat-accomplishing journeys.  But there also comes a point when I don’t want to see another scene in which the characters make camp, or the narrator complains about sleeping on tree roots, or blisters, or saddlesores, or what have you.

By contrast, The Raven Ring staunchly refuses to Go on a Journey.  There’s one that happens at the beginning of the book, but the narrative jumps tidily over it, introducing the heroine before she sets out and then fast-forwarding to her arrival, which is where the story really begins.  The capable Eleret spends most of the book wanting to leave for home, and sometimes it seems like she really will, but the story is about what happens to her in the city.  As she is finally forced to realize, her problems are ones that need to be dealt in the city.

In the city, Eleret is a stranger in a strange land, which helps the reader to take a fresh look at a European Renaissance sort of city, while at the same time the things that seem odd and unfamiliar to her tell us a great deal about her and the culture she comes from.  Her people pride themselves on their martial skills, so a great many of her comparisons involve weapons or fighting tactics or tales of great battles.  It makes her frame of reference seem a little one-sided, but since we’re given the impression that the mountain region she comes from has seen more than its share of invasions in recent history, it works well enough.

Despite the foreignness of the city, Eleret acquires an impressive array of fairly powerful allies.  Not powerful in an otherworldly sense — there’s very little of that here — but powerful on a civic level.  The commander of the Imperial Guards is firmly in her corner, as is the headmaster of a magic school.  She also picks up a young nobleman who contributes his swordsmanship and social privilege, and a thief who belongs to a powerful underworld family, which also has its uses.

I’m of two minds about this bunch of very useful people.  As a pragmatist, they make me very happy — and Eleret is a very pragmatic person.  She first goes to see Commander Weziral and Adept Climeral because Weziral is the person she’s here to see and Climeral is her designated welcoming committee.  She returns to them because she has puzzles to solve and each of these men is clearly in a position to help her.  Each of these men has a purpose within the story, and the reader is never left thinking “But if you’d gone to him in the first place, you wouldn’t be in this mess!”  I like Eleret.

The problem here is that Eleret’s allies easily overpower her enemies.  As in Harp, the title object is coveted by an odd assortment of unscrupulous people — here it’s a ring that Eleret has recently inherited from her mother.  But while there are references to nobles, the antagonists we meet are common folk without a great deal of any kind of power.  With her allies’ might and magic backing up her own skills, Eleret seems to find the whole ordeal more of an annoyance than anything else, and it’s hard to blame her.  If it weren’t for a little dark magic introduced fairly late in the game, the bad guys would hardly seem like any kind of challenge for Eleret and company.  Although she does get into more than a few fights, Eleret spends most of the book struggling against a lack of information more than anything else.

Although plot complexity does its share to make this a better book than Harp, its big strengths are in the character department.  Eleret has a depth that Emerick never really achieves.  Her strength is always evident and we see her softer side through her grief over her mother’s death, which she works through gradually in a way that Emerick doesn’t have the opportunity to show when a friend dies in the middle of Harp.  By that point in Harp, there’s too much plot happening to stop for introspection, while Ring is able to take five in a couple of spots to deal with Eleret’s emotions.

And if the villains are underpowered, they make up for it by exhibiting some personality.  My favorites are the nobleman who accuses Eleret in the street of having snatched his bag (when in fact it is her bag, and doesn’t he splutter delightfully when it turns out she can stand up for herself?) and the sneaky Jonystra, who uses every trick she can think of to get close to Eleret and won’t take no for an answer.  I’m not sure what it says about me that I relish the pleasure of slamming doors in Jonystra’s face, but there it is.  Plus, without her we wouldn’t get the tarot scene, which (A) pretty much comes out of nowhere, and (B) actually moves the plot forward in a big way.  Not bad for a day’s work.

It happens near the middle of Ring, after Eleret has taken refuge with her friend the noble swordsman, Daner Vallaniri.  Now, the Vallaniri family includes a trio of sisters and a crabby aunt who would not look out of place in a Jane Austen novel.  Did I say before that this felt like a Renaissance-type city?  Yes, there’s a bit of a tone shift here, but given that it’s a made-up city anyway, and Eleret is still feeling like a fish out of water, it works.  Yes, Reader, you too can feel unsure of what the social niceties are.  And for that matter, perhaps it’s not Austen we’ve wandered into, because Jane Eyre is what the tarot card scene reminds me of.

As you may know, midway through Jane Eyre a bunch of fashionable people come to visit Mr. Rochester, and one day they are entertained by a palm reader who sees the guests one at a time in a separate room.  Likewise, on Eleret’s first evening with the Vallaniris, a member of the family hires a tarot card reader (having one’s fortune read with tarot cards is all the rage, the young ladies tell us), who turns out to be the insidious Jonystra.  Both Jane and Eleret are prevailed upon by the other women to have their fortunes read, and of course in both cases, she is the person the fortune teller is interested in seeing in the first place.  (And for those of you playing along at home, this is where the similarity ends.)

The downside of the tarot scene, to my mind, is that it’s Jonystra’s last scene — and just as I had worked up a good hate for her, she gets injured and begins to be treated by the narrative as a victim rather than a villain.  But all the same, it’s a big turning point for the book as the real villain, and the real importance of the ring begin to be uncovered.

If you’re looking for a recommendation, here it is:  The Raven Ring is a good read.  Eleret is a strong, sensible female protagonist and I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few hundred pages with her.  But it’s okay by me if you give The Harp of Imach Thyssel a miss.  I hope writing it helped Wrede learn a few things about how to write books better (the evidence would say yes), and I hope it brought her some cash when it came out.  But I’m willing to bet that her newest book, Thirteenth Child, which I haven’t read yet, is a safer recommendation than poor old Harp.

By the way, the premise of Thirteenth Child? Magic and the American West.  I’m so there.

For those who may be interested — and if you’re still with me at this point, I can only guess that you probably are — I also noticed (while doing what we might cheritably call “reserach” for this post) that, as of earlier this spring, Wrede herself has a fledgling blog at

3 Responses to “Book log: Of Harps and Rings”

Tae wrote a comment on June 13, 2009

I totally almost ‘gleed’ when you mentioned she’s got a new book out. Granted I need to get my mits on the others to simply have them but yes. Loooove her Regency era ones in particular and I am rather comfortable in my good YA and odd little fantasy niche (as in Not Trying to Be the Next Lord of the Rings).

I think I was reading something about the Heroic Journey being a staple of myths and it really is one of those things that’s hard to escape- I think it depends on how much attention you draw to the actual journey part. It can work well- especially for introducing the world- but as you said, it’s so standard as to be comic.

But in any case, yay, I can stalk Ms. Wrede politely now! <33

Elf wrote a comment on June 28, 2009

The Harp of Imach Thyssal and The Raven Ring are the only Wrede books I have. (Barring the co-authored epistolaries, of course.) It amuses me that those are the Lyra books you’ve managed to find as well. (There’s an omnibus of three or four of them. Somewhere. That I cannot find. Because it was published who knows how long ago as well. Rar.)

She’s one of the authors I head into a used bookstore and hunt out specifically before backtracking to browse. I can’t even find The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Le sigh. (I found out about Thirteenth Child by checking for the Chronicles in the bookstore a couple months back and was amused to find it, but no Chronicles. It came across as vaguely Dark Is Rising, except with Americana instead of British folklore. Which makes it less appealing to me, but eh, I may give it a try later.)

And you’re right about the styles of Harp of Imach Thyssal and Raven Ring, but the same can be said of the Chronicles- book four comes across as more unpolished than its prequels. (I’d give it a miss too, except I can’t find *any* of them, so they’re all getting a miss.)

Odette wrote a comment on June 28, 2009

Ditto about seeking her out in used bookstores — I’m sure that’s how I found Harp, and probably Ring as well. If I ever run across any of those older, long out of print books, I’ll send ’em your way after I’ve read them. :o)

I love my British folklore, but I love my pioneer, wagon train, Old West stories, too.

I agree about the fourth book of the Chronicles, and I figure it’s probably because of the order in which they were written — the fourth one first in the late ’80s, then revised later when the others came out. Or so wikipedia told me when I asked… And partly I just don’t love Daystar as a narrator as much as I love the others. All the same, I have to read it, because book three ends on such a cliffhanger.

Care to comment?