Grace Dugan

Penguin Books (2006)

ISBN-13: 978 0 14 3004479

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts (this review was first published in August 2006)

Zuven is a foundling with a great and terrible destiny before her. Yelela is a young noblewoman who has defied her parents to train as a soldier. Haga is a rebel with a cause.

Against a lush tropical setting, these three protagonists will come together as an evil king is deposed, and a young peasant-raised woman put in his place. The winds are a-changing, and not necessarily for the better…

Ten things that make this an original, interesting and generally excellent work of fantasy.

1. Imagine a Tamora Pierce book with a bit more depth to her characters and worldbuilding, or an otherworld fantasy penned by Scott Westerfeld. Or, failing that, imagine a combination of those two fine authors. Yep. That about does it.

2. A lesser author would have told this particular story over several volumes, or at least one much fatter volume. You know how she kept it succinct? She skipped the boring bits. The walking, the riding, most of the actual warfare, a lot of politicking, massacre, famine, etc. The only scenes exposed to the readers are those which directly advance the plot for the protagonists, and it’s amazing how refreshing that is. It shouldn’t be amazing and unusual, but it is.

3. When there is fighting, it is hard and dirty and utterly unromantic. This is a novel about soldiers, not warriors, and there is a businesslike attitude about violence which never undercuts the unpleasantness of it. The violence is rarely gratuitous, however, and is, like the rest of this book, succinct. 24 hours or so before I read this book, I watched the Oliver Stone film Alexander, in which battle scenes go on and on and on in a somewhat pornographic manner, for no reason other than the director is physically able to put these things on screen. I have no doubt that Dugan could fill a book with realistic battle scenes, but she chooses to be more selective in her depiction of violence. Which makes her better than Oliver Stone.

4. A lost heir, raised among peasants, is completely psychologically unprepared to be a monarch. This is an intelligent inversion of a hackneyed fantasy trope (heir raised as peasant turns out to be Best King Eva!), and becomes a major theme of the work rather than being swept under the carpet after, say, a token conversation on the subject. In this, Dugan proves herself more insightful than the majority of epic fantasists in the history of the genre.

5. Too often the society of a fantasy world is presented as being medieval, or of a similar structure as regards to patriarchal power, and yet the female protagonists (or, more commonly, the female characters who hang out with the male protagonist) are only faced with societal restraints when it is convenient to the plot. This is not the case in The Silver Road, a decidedly patriarchal society in which women are never allowed to forget that they are women. Both of the female protagonists, Zuven and Yelela, have daily limitations on their conduct and behaviour because they are female, and are treated very differently to men (by all male characters, not just the ones we are not supposed to sympathise with). Despite this, they emerge as strong, powerful and capable women in their own right, within their chosen spheres. Yelela’s battles with her mother and her inability to understand or be understood by her more traditional sister make her decision to be a soldier and a rebel all the more interesting, and brave. Zuven’s dual life as a peasant and then a queen are both haunted by the prospect of marriage – the only “free” life she can imagine and crave for herself is among the religious order of the Servants.

6. The tropical setting feels alien, and the society feels like it is constructed from aspects of Asian and African culture without actively borrowing from either (not that I know enough about either to be certain of this). It is certainly a detailed and believable culture. Elements such as the flagscarves that each character wears (each is unique, marking the person’s identity) are used powerfully to move the story forward as well as to build up the culture in the mind of the reader.

I also suspect that most or all of the characters are not white, though I found little evidence one way or another (a single reference to Zuven’s “brown hand” and a few to curly is about all I personally turned up in a first reading). In any case, there is even less evidence that the society is white by default, as is the case for the majority of otherworld fantasy.

What with one thing and another, this is not your average Fantasyland™, and the book is all the richer for it.

7. There is no stark, black and white morality here. Our heroes are not necessarily heroic (certainly not all the time – they all perform morally questionable actions at times, and acknowledge this), and the villains are not 100% villainous. The “evil king” is barely seen onstage, though the effect of his reign is felt at a distance – an interesting creative choice to make. One of the most interesting scenes for me showed Zuven, the king’s successor, discovering that the one event that had convinced her the king was a wicked tyrant had a different side to it – and that it is rather difficult to avoid outright tyranny once you are in charge. Politics is not about Good vs. Evil (wouldn’t it be easier if it were?) and this book is all about complicated, twisty and thoroughly grey politics of Being In Charge, whether that be of a country, barony, village, rebellious school of warcraft, or just oneself.

8. There’s a clothes chapter. Okay, maybe it’s just me, but I like clothes in my fantasy fiction, and the scenes in which Zuven learns to dress as a queen and learns how people (especially men) treat her differently because of the way she presents herself are actually really interesting and important. Okay, maybe it is just me. Well, ha. I’ll keep my clothes chapter and you can go enjoy the feisty fighting bits again. Everybody happy? good.

9. This is primarily a novel about women. Two of the three protagonists are female, and it is mostly their story. Their growing friendship (one of circumstance first, then preference) is perhaps the one aspect of the book I would have liked to see expanded upon. Meanwhile, the male protagonist, Haga, has a more passive character arc than either of them. It is he who sacrifices his happiness and compromises his beliefs for the sake of love.

None of the three characters are cliches in any way, and this is particularly the case with the two women. “Female warrior” and “peasant girl becomes queen” though they are, they are never less than complex and unpredictable people.

10. In case the “this is a book about women” bit made you flinch, I must assure you that this is an utterly unsentimental book which is ultimately about war and politics (even if mostly conveyed through short, interesting character scenes) and Dugan rarely misses a chance to punch action ahead of romance (though there is some romance, subtly and briefly conveyed) which suggests to me that it will equally appeal to male and female readers.

Three things I’m not so sure about (some serious plot development and ending spoilers here, be warned, stay away if you want to read the book spoiler-free which you really should, by the way)

1. Well, the title sort of sucks. Honestly, for the first three quarters of the novel, this was all I had.

2. There’s a rape in the story, which has something of a red flag for me at the moment, what with all the reading I’ve been doing about the lazy use of rape for character development in spec fic, particularly in comics.

However … having considered it deeply, I’ve come down on the side of this being a mostly necessary plot event rather than an overly gratuitous act. However my inner feminist dislikes the fact that such a strong female character is essentially punished for transgressing the norms of society (oh, such a red flag for this one), it is at least mostly used for her character development rather than that of the men around her (though it comes close with the treatment of how it affects her potential love interest).

Another note on this is that the actual event of the rape is written in a fairly subtle, almost coy manner, which makes the details of the rape decidedly blurry – something that I as a reader can only see as a good thing, ultimately, though it did mean I had to read the damn scene a couple of times, trying to figure out the extent of the rape.

Oh, for those of you who prefer fictional rape to come with a suitably nasty revenge, I think this has to be the most quickly-avenged rape I’ve ever come across, and I was gratified that the character in question rescued and avenged herself.

3. There’s the ending. Which, for me personally, was either disappointing because of one thing, or another thing. (Look AWAY if you want to read this book properly, it’s worth it, I promise you, I’m not KIDDING)

Zuven’s inability to handle the power handed to her as long lost heir to the throne is masterfully handled, and a brilliant inversion of the tired fantasy trope. Her lack of lifelong training for her vital position is emphasised, and this is an important point for the author and the story to make.

However … it disappointed me badly that this didn’t change. Throughout the last few chapters, in which Zuven is given the opportunity to escape her position and takes that chance, I was expecting her to come to the realisation that she had responsibilities she could not and should not discard. She didn’t. She didn’t come to any personal realisation, and ultimately she made the very selfish choice to let Haga stay as ruler in her place, while she goes off to indulge her childhood fantasy of being a priestess.

So I’m left with two possibilities, both disappointing. Either this is a standalone fantasy novel that is defying the tradition of an upbeat, satisfying ending (a brave if not entirely successful creative decision), or it is yet another fantasy novel which the publishers have dishonestly chosen to represent as a standalone when it is actually Book 1 in a trilogy or series.

I’m not sure which of these options would disappoint me more. Though the practice of pretending a book is a standalone to lure in readers who are not keen on committing to book 1 of a series is something that regularly makes me hurl books across the room (okay, metaphorically), in this case I have to hope that this is what has happened.

It may be clever and original to end a book with a peasant heir finally proving that they can’t hack the job they were born (if not raised) for, the fact that this is a queen who has spent most of her short reign listening to her Barons and other advisors mutter how a woman is unsuitable for the throne, it’s hard to get excited about the fact that she has proved them right.

I need a Book 2 in which Zuven comes blazing back from the wilderness to save her man and her kingdom. I can’t completely decide how I feel about this book until I know whether that will happen or not. But … either way, despite my mixed feelings about the ending, this is a brilliant debut and a wildly original addition to the fantasy genre. Grace Dugan is a writer to watch.

Addendum: The author has informed me (in true sporting fashion) that she has no plans to write a sequel to The Silver Road, which leaves me with my initial reaction: a brave, but unsatisfying ending to an original and otherwise excellent fantasy novel.