Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Lifelode by Jo Walton

I really enjoyed Jo Walton's Lifelode for its ethereal feel. This is uncommon fantasy, with a real ear for how the storyteller's language sets the mood.

The story takes place in a rural setting with a medium level of magic, in a geography where the strength of magic and the speed of time's flow vary according to how far east or west you go. Like Vinge's Zones of Thought, there are regions with powerful magic and powerful gods, and regions where magic is absent and even ordinary thinking is slowed down. The village of Applekirk is a feudal setting, though there's more of a sense of the lords taking care of and protecting their subjects than of taking advantage of them.

Ferrand is the lord of the manor, and a gentle, just and foresighted leader. His polygamous household consists of his wife Chayra, his sweetmate Tavethe and her husband Ranal. Each has a 'lifelode', or calling that fills their days, and some have a gift with 'yeya' or magical mana. Tavethe's lifelode is keeping the house running smoothly, and she also sees shadows of the future and past selves of those around her. The household is busy with three children of different ages and temperments, each eager to grow up and find their own lifelode.

Into this mix comes Jankin, an academic from the west, with no particular magic of his own, but a driving curiosity about the history of a civilization that passed through this area centuries earlier, and Hanethe, Ferrand's great grandmother and a previous, reluctant, lord of the manor. Hanethe has been in the east having mysterious adventures for 15 years or so, while 60 years have passed in Applekirk. Hanethe is being chased by agents of a vengeful god she has wronged, but I'm more interested in talking about the setting than the main conflict, so you wan't get any interesting spoilers here.

Walton does a great job of fitting her prose to the scene, or whose story she's telling. When she talks about Tavethe, future, past and present are swirled together in an eternal now. When Walton is giving background on Applekirk, she also mixes past and future recklessly, in a way that makes the place seem unchanging, even as people are remembering or experiencing momentous events. And as Tavethe says occasionally, "The house remembers," and since the doors spontaneously announce the arrival of visitors or invaders and open politely for people with yeya and a strong connection to the place, it's easy to believe.

It's common for young people in Applekirk (and presumably other villages in the vicinity) to spend a year or two seeing what life is like a litttle ways east (for people with a touch of yeya) or west (for those with a more worldly bent), but they often return home and live out their lives where they started.

When Jankin is the subject, any little object or incident can suddenly shine with a special intensity as he focuses his attention, and learns something new about the history of the place, or how yeya works, or how people develop and exercise their skills (mundane or magical).

Melly, Taveth's daughter has a strong affinity for yeya, and becomes an apprentice to Hanethe for a short while.

When harvest time arrives, everyone bends to with a will, knowing their part already, except Jankin and Hanethe. Jankin has never lived on a farm, and has no relevant skills. Hanethe is no longer young and no one is willing to assign duties to her. But by this point, she is under threat and needs the villagers' support, so she does odd jobs that keep her visible like carrying water and refeshments to the workers. Jankin joins the reapers and learns about dirty and sweaty work.

The children are also drawn in great detail. Hodge is 6 and the natural son of Ferrand and Chayra, so he is the heir and everyone can tell that his lifelode when he grows up will be taking his place as Ferrand's successor. He is very earnest, and pays careful attention to the way that Ferrand leads. Still, he is easily distracted. Melly is 8, but less mature, except when her yeya comes into play. She hasn't yet learned to control it, except for small feats like bringing more from kitchen to dining room than will fit in her hands. She is excited to learn more, and fastens on to Hanethe, whose power is obvious, and who has been in the east.

This is a very satisfying story, with great mood, well-drawn characters, and interesting conflict. Even if the outcome is telegraphed, the twists and turns are surprising.