A More Interesting Plot Wrapped in the Same Problematic Storytelling – A Review of Cast in Courtlight by Michelle Sagara

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Of all the potential plots that fantasy and historical fiction (and historical non-fiction) have to offer, I’m most drawn to court intrigue. I like action, of course—I enjoy a good duel to the death, or an epic battle featuring a cast of thousands—but reading about court intrigue is just something I find so much more enjoyable. It’s the mind-games, I think: how one can outmanoeuvre someone else simply by being at the right place, at the right time, with the right people, and saying the right thing, or presenting the right gift, or smiling just so. I’m also fascinated with the ways people can use the letter of the law to their advantage, or find ways of twisting, bending, or finding loopholes in rules that will suit their purposes. To be sure, playing a game of court intrigue is almost never honourable, but I’m not a very big believer in the traditional concept of honour anyway, unless it suits my purposes. (This is why I can never be a Stark.)

Hence, whenever I find plot lines involving court intrigue, I tend to hang onto them like a rather tenacious, enthusiastic puppy—especially since they’re rarely done at all, and even more rarely done well. The last time I read anything that had both qualities was Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel which was pretty much ninety-percent court intrigue, done exceedingly well. If it’s possible for an author I had never met before to tailor something specifically for me, then Addison has done it: The Goblin Emperor makes me happy in ways that few other novels can.

When I decided to pick up Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra series, I had high hopes that there would be some court intrigue at some point. The first novel, Cast in Shadow, made it clear that such a thing was possible, but that wasn’t the point of that particular novel. Though the novel has its issues, I thought the world and the characters were worth spending some time on, and picked up the next novel, Cast in Courtlight, as soon as I was able.

Cast in Courtlight is set some time after the events of Cast in Shadow. It’s Festival season in the city of Elantra: a time of celebration, when those from outside the city come to join in the gaiety and excitement. Unfortunately, it’s not a fun time for those who serve the Lords of Law, whose job it is to keep everything in some semblance of order:

The city was enough of a problem; throwing foreigners into the streets by the thousands was just asking for trouble. Not only that, but every get-rich-quick scheme that had occurred to any half-wit moron in the streets could be expected to rear its imbecilic head during the next two weeks. Unfortunately, every get-rich-quick scheme that occurred to any cunning, intelligent person would also rear its head during the next two weeks. The money that flowed into the Empire’s capital during the Festival was staggering, and everyone wanted a piece of it.

But this Festival isn’t an ordinary one. The Barrani High Court is gathering, and Kaylin has to attend it. While there, she must thread a maze of treachery and intrigue—both Barrani specialities—in order to get to the bottom of what’s really going on at the Court: a bottom that is darker than she could ever have imagined.

In my review for the first novel, I mentioned that I had problems regarding world-building and Sagara’s decision to use third-person limited perspective when first-person would have worked much better. I also expressed some hope that later books would smooth over some of those problems, or that Sagara would at least find a way around them to ensure they didn’t get in the way of telling the story.

In some places, Sagara does manage to smooth things out, showing the reader why third-person occasionally works, like in this scene:

”I am aware that teaching or learning are not the only things you do, at either the midwives guild or the foundling halls.” He raised a hand. “I am advisor to the Emperor, Kaylin. I am aware of the power you do possess. Sadly, so are the rest of the Hawks. Secrecy is not a skill you’ve learned.”

“Emergencies don’t let themselves to secrecy.”

“True. Power does. Do you understand that you have power?”

She hesitated; the ground beneath her feet was shifting, and in ways she didn’t like.

The above works quite well in third-person limited, giving a sense of Kaylin’s discomfort with the situation she’s currently in.

However, it should be readily obvious to the reader that there are ways of rewriting the above in first-person without sacrificing any of the qualities that make this enjoyable to read in its current form. Using first-person would also have the benefit of smoothing out scenes like the one below:

He lifted his hands. “I am squeamish by nature, I would prefer you leave the feminine nature of your nocturnal activities unspoken.”

She wanted to ask him to define squeamish, but thought better of it.

“Where is it now?”

“At home.”

“Whose home?”

She cursed. “Is there anything about me you didn’t ‘investigate’?”

I can imagine this whole scene told from first-person, and I can see how much easier Kaylin’s thoughts would flow, how much clearer her emotions and opinions would be to the reader, had Sagara chose to go with first-person. I know Kaylin’s meant to be both an unreliable narrator and reader foil (since she learns things about the world of Elantra as they are told to her), and third-person limited can work in creating such a character (for example: Harry Potter), but it’s just not working in this novel. Instead of creating a connection between the reader and Kaylin, Sagara creates distance: it’s hard for the reader to get a true measure of who Kaylin is, because the reader doesn’t really get into her head.

Sagara’s handling of third-person limited also makes Kaylin look stupid: an unintentional effect, I’m sure, but when the reader needs to be reassured by secondary characters, again and again, that the main character is smart, then there’s something inherently wrong with the way said character is being handled. Kaylin proves that she’s smart, in her own way, but because third-person limited (or Sagara’s handling of it) prevents the reader from seeing into her thoughts, it’s hard to believe that she’s actually putting things together in her head; instead, in feels like the solutions fall fortuitously into her lap. It’s hard to illustrate this problem in a single selection, but it is there, just like it was in Cast in Shadow—and, probably, just like it will be in the rest of the novels, unless Sagara does something else with her storytelling in later novels.

Another smaller, though no less annoying, flaw in this novel is that it is never once explains what the “Festival” is. It appears to be some kind of annual celebration and completely unconnected to the events of the Barrani High Court, but what, or whom, it celebrates, is never stated. Some passing mention of the reasoning behind it would have been welcome, especially since it would enhance the world-building, but in the course of my reading I never once spotted an explanation, no matter how cursory.

Despite all the issues I have with this novel, I still find it interesting, and find myself almost compelled to pick up the next book. If Sagara has done anything right with this series thus far, it’s that she’s created interesting characters, and an even more interesting world. I don’t know how she’s managed to do it, since I’ve put aside novels with less egregious problems than the ones I’ve just mentioned, but her world and characters draw the reader in, and never let go.

Overall, Cast in Courtlight isn’t very different from its predecessor: it still has the same problems with point-of-view and narrative that I’ve mentioned in my review for Cast in Shadow. The continued presence of these flaws may be the breaking point for a few readers, who may not be willing to put up with them any more than they have to. But for other readers, the world, the characters, and the novel’s overall story arc may be enough to keep them pushing forward, maybe even into the next novel. I shall be doing just that, but after this novel, I think a vacation from Elantra is very much in order.

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