Jumpdrives & Cantrips

Airs and Graces
March 17, 2008, 1110
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Airs and GracesAirs and Graces certainly has a young adult feel to the cover, with the fluffy pink clouds, graceful castle, and the girl and her horse. Nonetheless, Toby Bishop’s sequel to Airs Beneath the Moon has some mature content despite the cover, just as the first did. Toby Bishop is actually a pen name for Louise Marley, who makes a departure from her feminist social science fiction to the realm of more traditional fantasy in this series. There’s no surprise, then, that books in the Horsemistress series have a feminist bent with a little of the “dark side” mixed in.

The Duchy of Oc is notable for its winged horses, who only tolerate children and women who have not borne children as bondmates and riders. This gives horsemistresses a lofty status, and they are normally chosen from noble families. Airs and Graces picks up shortly after the first book when Larkyn witnesses the Aesks, a Northern barbarian society, raiding one of Oc’s villages. Larkyn, our unlikely country-bred heroine, must rise to the occasion with her bondmate Tup–more properly called Black Seraph–to make the duchy aware of the attack. Phillipa Winter, who is the assistant headmistress of the horsemistress academy, takes a more central role in this book in dealing with the Aesk raid and the resulting politics. This leaves Larkyn’s story in the background, even though she mysteriously ends up involved in nearly every major plot point.

One of the main problems I have with this book is that evil Duke William is evil just for the sake of being evil, it seems. He continues to plot ways to breed winged horses who will tolerate men, which wouldn’t really be all that bad if he wasn’t a sadistic psychopath. He spends an awful lot of time trying to quash Larkyn for no real reason other than he dislikes her, which makes his antics tiresome. He also uses magic potions so the winged horses will tolerate him, with the side effect that he physically becomes more female. The villification of this “unnatural” process bothers me on many levels.

Bishop/Marley makes the Aesks one big oversimplification despite their importance to the story. The raid is written twice: both in the prologue and in a redundant first chapter. The Aesks come, they raid, rape and pillage, they take a couple kids, they’re barbaric, and they’re from the North. And so we have another simple viking-type analogue in fantasy, which is pretty tired by now. For some reason slaughtering the entire group of Aesks is first choice and no one bothers to try diplomacy or discover why they attacked after so many years of no contact (which in and of itself seems dubious). One character wonders if the Aesks might not have attacked if Oc had somehow supported them, but never goes any further than to say a barbaric land makes a barbaric people. The oversimplification and generalization present in this book hurts my head. If they are mobile enough to try and raid, one might think it would make more sense to try and settle elsewhere if they are so poorly off. It doesn’t really make sense the way it’s written–even viking society didn’t work that way.

The book focuses on the Aesk issue for the first half then moves on to Duke William and his political manouevres for the second half, abandoning much of the themes from the first portion. The plot felt divided once Oc took their revenge on the Aesks, and the book stagnates after this point. I suspect if the two portions had been structured concurrently this problem would not have occurred. Despite a nice flow to the prose, the story itself just never really felt important. Bishop/Marley wrote a nice story that took no chances; in that respect, it failed for me because there was no emotional impact.

While Airs Beneath the Moon was a middling to good read, sadly Airs and Graces does not match its quality or take the story and characters far enough to prevent retreading the same ideas. The author’s knowledge of equine drills and the intriguing world from the first book fell flat in the second book for mainly structural and logic reasons. Frankly, I was disappointed and expected more from the author, given Louise Marley usually writes with much more thematic structure and thoughtful worldbuilding in her other works.

Rabid fans of the first book or those who are horse-crazy could still enjoy this sequel, though it doesn’t have the same focus on horse and rider that Airs Beneath the Moon did. I would continue on to read the last book in the series, but with the sincere hope that it manages to bring plot and characters together again into a more fulfilling whole.

Bishop, Toby. Airs and Graces. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 346 pages. $10.99 (Canadian).