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The twentieth century was one of the bloodiest. There were two world wars, the wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Serber/Croatia, Iran/Iraq, Israel/Egypt and on it goes. There were governments that seemed to enjoy slaughtering its own citizens by the millions, with China leading the way, followed by the Soviet Union and Cambodia. Civil unrest was everywhere providing its own brand of massacres. Can we ever forget Rwanda?
Okay, I think we get it that human beings have a thing for blood. As much as we say we are less than human when we war, we are all too human when we take out our knives and hack one another. The important idea is that we are beginning to admit it, that the guy in the mirror is capable of committing mayhem. How else are wars fought except by willing participants? Radical Islam seems to have an unending supply of young men willing to blow up for their god. Women will kill their unborn and their born children without batting an eyelash.
The new genre of literature that has appeared in the last 10 years is revealing to us that human beings have a propensity to kill. Make that a propensity to willingly kill when a government calls us to. I want to make clear that initiating violence is quite different from self-defense. When an individual or a group is violent toward us we, as an individual and a group, have the right to defend. Yet this new literature shows us a very violent world, one in which the cycle of violence never seems to end. No one wants it to end. I speak of books like Game of Thrones.
Now here comes another novel, epic in scale, set in a mythological no place and full of individuals who we love to hate and hate to love.
The action in Miguel Conner's The Executioner's Daughter (the first of a series) takes place on the Misty Continent. This pretend place is broken up into a vast Kingdom of Keloveria and a Wastelands. The kingdom is the civilized portion of the continent. The Wastelands is where the nomadic tribes dwell.
Keloveria is divided up into several subkingdoms. The vast kingdom along with its subkingdoms operate in the usual way. There is a King of Keloveria who lords it over several subkings, much like a king and barons setup. As the story begins, the King of Keloveria, Tendrik Partaghast, has just claimed the throne from his deceased father. To secure his place on it, he makes the usual political marriage arrangement and marries a daughter of one of the subkings. His mistress is dumped, along with the two bastards she produced for Tendrik when he was a prince.
Beside the king, there is an executioner, titled The Deadspeaker, who has a role in the kingdom as a check on the king's power. The Deadspeaker must also abide by tradition and its rules. He carries a weapon, Afterglow, that seemingly has a life of its own. The king wears a crown, called Forethought, that thinks, or I should say, has a consciousness that influences the king. Keloveria has two conflicting religious bodies: the Vein, which represents the orthodox view, and the Necromancers.
The Wastelands, which may seem a place of anarchy, functions under a loose federation of tribes that chooses its supreme leader every 20 years. He is chosen through physical combat. It's a last man standing process that gives the tribes a grand leader who is physically fit and shrewd as a fighter. He is given the title of Champion of Mekidow, yet he has no proper name. The Champion must also be fit sexually, able to produce heirs that will not inherit his title, but are meant to foster a unity among the tribes. Therefore this leader must sleep around, mating with women chosen for him by the leaders of the various tribes. Their religion is centered on a druid like priestess establishment that can offer advice and foretell the future.
Naturally, the two political entities, Keloveria and the Wastelands, are at odds with one another. The civilized world thinks its better than the uncivilized one, no surprise there. Yet in this story, the Wastelands thinks it's better than Keloveria. That's juicy, and portends to interesting plot twists in the stories to come. Connor certainly hints at it, but, let's focus on this first tale of Keloveria's people.
We begin our descent into the Misty Continent with a mystery, a dialogue that takes place between a Fool and a Thief, in a setting that is a gory mess. Something very violent has taken place. How this massacre of an entire community by persons or person came about Connor only hints.. As we listen in on this dialogue between the Fool and the Thief, we learn, through the Fool's storytelling, that a Deadspeaker defied the laws. This executioner's name is Mateoz. His defiance was two fold: executioners are not supposed to have female as a first born, and any child that causes the death of their mother is to be killed. Mateoz' daughter, who is named Tempest, is allowed to live. Therefore this Deadspeaker has sinned greatly. Big sins set off big stories.
As the Fool speaks, the story is pieced together through the flashback method, each section beginning with a dialogue between this Fool and Thief that moves forward by moving the past forward. Conner paces the two time frames well as he leads us from the present predicament to the past. We are enticed further into the story because we have to know what happened in that past that gives us the gory mess.
What is most engaging about The Executioner's Daughter is the fine line that Connor has drawn between protagonists and antagonists. The "good guys" kill as well as the "bad guys." Everyone has his reasons for doing so! The "nobility" behaves like, well, the nobility: No one minds his or her manners. They don't have to. They are above such behavior. Like any aristocrat, they are armed to the teeth, and what constrains them is that war is only an insult away. Even the sympathetic Prince Aron of West Atlans, spouts off at the mouth so much that I found I was willing to punch his lights out. That he makes enemies comes as no surprise. His gorgeous sister, Allana, also has trouble keeping her own counsel. She has been married off to a thug, Lothar of Thoz, the crown prince of the East Atlans, who loves beating his princess bride for every derogatory word she utters.
The Executioner's Daughter, like the genre of literature it lives in, gives us a mythology ever as rich as any Greek or German could dream up. The metaphors are all over the landscape, shining a light on the bits and pieces of earthly life that we don't want to look at. Like the proclivity to break our own traditions. The results are always unforeseen. Connor's story uses women as the catalysts. Not only does Mateoz keep his daughter alive, the Necromancers bring a young female into their group, which is so unacceptable in Keloverai that the leader of the religious sect, Zeratol, passes the young Andora off as a boy. The other female that portends to changes on the Misty Continent is the head strong Princess Allana.
I see The Executioner's Daughter as a morality tale. The parallel with our own world is twofold; first, we too, in our present day, are excessively male centered. We are dizzy with maleness even as we think we promote femaleness. However we may dress up the female in men's clothing or behavior, at some point the female must be dealt with. Boiling "women's rights" down to her productive apparatus, that thinking abortions and contraceptives will set her free truly misses the point.
The second parallel is our own precarious position. We may have the most fabulous technology in the world, nonetheless we are only a generation away from a New Dark Age. Our irony is this: as we attempt to bring our own version of Wastelands into modernity, we may destroy ourselves doing it. Like so many characters in Daughter, we fail to see that the rules apply to us as much as they applied to all the large civilizations that came before us. We are not too big to fail.
In this first book, Connor does not take us to where the breakdown of the traditional roles of the two women, Tempest and Andora, will lead their culture. It's suggested, and with those suggestions I am eager to continue reading the story in the subsequent volumes.
My one criticism of this book is that Connor tends to tell us when he needs to show us. A first book in a series does have much information to impart. We would, however, enjoy it even more if we could "see" the Misty Continent and its people instead of reading long passages of description.
The characters are engaging and they will lead you along into this pretend place, the Misty Continent. They will make you think about life in our own century. It won't be easy to draw some conclusions, because it can make you uncomfortable to do so. For this mythology doesn't have a cranky systems of gods and goddesses who are all too human to blame. It's the humans who are the problem as well as the solution.