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.