Jumpdrives & Cantrips

The Dancers of Arun

The Dancers of ArunNot all that long ago I wrote about Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Watchtower, the book that won the 1980 World Fantasy Award. It was also the first book of The Chronicles of Tornor, and The Dancers of Arun is the second volume of the trilogy. Trivia: both books were nominated for the 1980 World Fantasy Award. If you go in search of this book, there are many versions of it–but for whatever reason, the same image keeps popping up. Inevitably, it includes a dancing (mostly) nude man under the moon in a forest. This isn’t a key moment in the novel, so its persistence puzzles me.

Lynn follows the story of Kerris, an orphan living in his uncle’s keep, and Kel, his older brother who practises chearis–a dance-related variation of aikido. Kerris has been linked to Kel’s mind most of his life, and then one day Kel comes with a group of friends to Tornor to take Kerris to meet his Southern family. You can think of The Dancers of Arun as a coming-of-age sort of book: comparatively not much happens beyond character growth. It’s the purpose of the book, and by golly, it sticks to its purpose well.

Kerris’ coming-of-age involves acceptance of his newly-explained powers, which are desirable in the “witch town” that he and his brother travel to. More centrally, though, Kerris’ emotional and sexual maturation are a large part of the novel. He also must integrate his family into himself (I’m tempted to make a tasteless joke here involving him and his brother, but will opt not to), learn to live with lacking an arm, and decide what exactly to do with his life. Kerris vacillates between different levels of maturity, which can become annoying at times, yet true to making the transition to adulthood.

The Dancers of Arun deals with gender and sexuality issues, including modes of sexuality beyond hetero, as well as incest. Out there on “the internets” I noted many complaints about the so-called gratuitous homosexual erotica, but I found that the sex itself was depicted tastefully and wasn’t graphic at all. Lynn focuses more on the love–sexual and otherwise–experienced by the two brothers, and treats her topic with more depth than in Watchtower. Lynn refrains from making statements of judgement, but offers consideration. For example, the gradients of sexuality scattered in the book have no morality attached in the world of Arun; they just are.

Lynn forces her readers to consider sameness: in gender, families, sex matches, cultures, thoughts, perceptions, and so on. Kerris and Kel, while definitely not alike in many ways, functionally mirror each other. One serves as a balancing point and context for the other within the novel’s structure. The themes of relativity and “comparative comparativeness” in this book form an exploratory route rather than a focused one. This necessarily reduces the importance of plot, instead focusing on social interactions and mundane actions.

In this book, the writing improves by increasing the detail present in Watchtower, with a continuation of the same sparseness and simple prose. I felt The Dancers of Arun flowed better than Watchtower did, though Watchtower had more plot to unpack than this volume. Despite the improvement, I do have some complaints. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the resolution between the village and the nomads, which seemed more simple than it should have been. Also Lynn’s voice as a writer sometimes conceals more than it reveals: by this, I mean her tone overrides the characters’ individuality, and everything (characters, places, etc.) merges together to create a mostly-uniform environment.

Elizabeth A. Lynn is not the ideal writer for someone searching out the “grit” found in today’s de rigeur fantasy novels. Her writing makes for a definite break from the current stylistic mode, reminiscent of family sagas of the Icelandic tradition. The Dancers of Arun is a social fantasy, one wherein character development is the story and love is interwoven with all actions, violent or otherwise. While the Tornor series is not your standard epic fantasy trilogy, it looks more at change to differing people over time, taking a historic view of a culture, and with it, a philosophic view of society.

Lynn, Elizabeth A. The Dancers of Arun. 1979. New York: Berkley Books, 1980. 275 pages. $0.50 (Canadian), bought used.


February 24, 2008, 1801
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

WatchtowerBeing one of those authors who pops in and out of the publishing world, Elizabeth A. Lynn’s books can be hard to find. I first discovered her with Dragon’s Winter, published in 1998, and spent many years thereafter trying to search out anything by her that I could. What I didn’t know was Dragon’s Winter was a massive accomplishment for her. In the early eighties, Lynn suffered from severe writer’s block–she did not begin writing again until the mid nineties. Sometimes shelf space is a losing battle when an author doesn’t keep writing and her books don’t stay in print. In any case, I managed to find the entire Chronicles of Tornor at a book sale earlier this month and grabbed them up, fast as I could.

Watchtower is the first book in the Chronicles of Tornor trilogy, and Lynn’s second published novel. The story starts with Tornor Keep’s defeat from a southern army: Prince Errel is held hostage as the conquering lord’s jester so Ryke, Tornor’s defeated commander, will cooperate as a commanding officer for his new lord. The southern lord’s army has been pressing north in a winter battle, taking the keeps as they move through the mountains. When two messengers from the Green Clan bear a request for a treaty from the neighbouring keep, the prince secretly sends his commander to ask for the messengers’ aid in escaping the fallen keep. This eventually results in a journey to Vanima, a town of revolutionaries hidden in the mountains, and a plan to recapture Tornor.

Themes of societal change, gender and sexual identity, and questioning whether violence and war are acceptable practices permeate Watchtower. Elizabeth A. Lynn was one of the first fantasy and science fiction writers to explore GLBT themes, and this book antes up. The messengers are women who dress androgynously outside of Vanima, and fled their past lives to remain in a long-term relationship. Ryke tends toward the stubborn, and does not welcome change, remaining steadfastly loyal to Prince Errel and Tornor itself. He serves as a foil to Errel, often providing a conservative viewpoint and remains uncomfortable with life in Vanima even as he questions his own society throughout the book. It can be argued that Ryke falls in love with Errel over the course of the book, but there is no explicit mention of this.

Vanima itself has a non-hierarchical social structure with a communal economy. The entire community works together and learns chearis together, an oft nonviolent dance-like form of combat which is very much like aikido (not surprisingly, Lynn is a 6th dan aikido instructor). This is a strong contrast to Tornor, which has strictly defined sexual roles, a strong idea of us versus “the other”, and a distinct hierarchy devoted to warfare. Through Ryke, we experience his eventual horror and disgust with the violence of warfare and its consequences. Even more horrific is his acceptance at one point that sexual assault cannot even really be considered rape when done as a part of war.

Lynn’s writing reminds me of studying translated Icelandic sagas–the details are important. Characters show their inner thoughts and emotions through actions, and the book lacks descriptions of internal dialogue. However, the sparseness can be problematic and sometimes conceals characters more than revealing. Some passages depicting daily life in Vanima and in the resolution of the story near the end of the book come off as being prescriptive more so than descriptive, and this interferes with the “fourth wall” of the novel and contributes to breaking down the reader’s sense of wonder. A large part of the book is spent in travel of one sort or another, which can be seen as symbolic for the inner paradigm shift–most notably in Ryke.

Overall, Watchtower serves as an entry point to a world in the midst of upheaval. I suspect Watchtower was awarded the World Fantasy Award in 1980 for the intellectual exercise Elizabeth A. Lynn showcases in the novel more so than her prose. However much I like the simple phrasing of Lynn’s writing, it doesn’t negate the tenuous nature of our connection to her characters and world-building. More depth is required for a truly engaging read, but the book remains enjoyable and raises some important questions that remain relevant today.

Lynn, Elizabeth A. Watchtower. 1979. New York: Berkeley Books, 1981. 226 pages. $0.75 (Canadian), bought used.