Medieval fantasy about religious persecution
Content warning: sexual assault
This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club. I picked up an eBook copy, but unfortunately I thought book club was a week later than it actually was so I only got through about 10% in time for the evening. I’ve been battling with the remaining 90% ever since.
“Medalon” by Jennifer Fallon is a fantasy novel and the first in the trilogy called “The Demon Child”. The book is about R’shiel, a girl in her late teens who is the daughter of a high-ranking Sister in a secular matriarchal society called Medalon. The Sisters of the Blade govern Medalon from the Citadel, which is protected by an army of men known as the Defenders including R’shiel’s brother Captain Tarja. However, when their mother makes a grab for power, and Tarja uncovers a plot involving R’shiel, the two quickly find themselves running for their lives. Hiding out in the regional areas of Medalon, they discover the beginnings of a rebellion and eventually R’shiel’s true identity.
This is a classic example of a medieval fantasy novel with all the tried and true themes: mysterious parentage, red hair, a chosen one, special powers, rebellion and even a dragon. Fallon is quite a macro writer who conceptualises her book as a sort of chess board with politics and big picture ideas without being overly concerned by the details. Brak was probably the most interesting character and I enjoyed his rather acerbic interactions with the gods he came across. One interesting thing about the book’s premise was the way Fallon depicts demons and their ability to almost swarm together to form larger creatures as a collective.
However, for the most part, this book was a real slog. The book has three main point of view characters: R’shiel, Tarja and Brak, and Fallon has a frustrating habit of recapping the same events over and over from each character’s point of view making a lot of the writing was really repetitive. For example:
“What will they do to us?”
“I really don’t know, R’shiel,” he lied, and then he gave into the blackness and lost consciousness again.
R’shiel suffered through the uncomfortable wagon ride, wondering what was going to happen to them.
I can tell you what was going to happen to them. R’shiel spends the vast majority of this book being held captive not once, not twice, not even three times but four times. Plot-wise, this book is completely lacking in suspense because Fallon either foreshadows or outright explains almost every event, reveal, plot point or twist long before R’shiel is made aware of them.
This is a really long book, and despite describing in detail R’shiel being captured multiple times from multiple perspectives, I actually found the story quite lacking in other areas. Fallon doesn’t really flesh out the idea of a secular matriarchal government at all, and the reader spends almost no time in the Citadel learning how women are selected as sisters, what they study, what governing roles they play and how this impacts family structures in the home. There doesn’t appear to be any explanation for why women can’t be Defenders, or why in a secular matriarchal society the Sisters are still very against issues like sex work (regulated but looked down upon) and abortion (condemned yet practised in secret).
The culture of this book is clearly derived from Western fantasy standards, but is otherwise strangely lacking. Fallon does very little worldbuilding and apart from the Harshini aversion to killing, all the countries seem more or less identical with nothing by way of language, dress, cuisine or custom with the exception of religion. Medalon is itself meant to be secular, with traditional faiths stamped out through “purges”. While I appreciate religious discrimination is an issue, there is no real explanation for why people of faith are targeted except to say
in Medalon they had progressed beyond pagan ignorance centuries ago.
But progressed to what? Fallon doesn’t spend any time considering what kind of society and types of laws would emerge from a nation uninfluenced by religion except to suggest that it would be bad. There is no exploration of technological developments, morality or philosophy except to suggest that education is largely restricted to the Sisters. Instead, all power seems concentrated in the First Sister and the council known as the Quorum, with the exeption of the Defenders who execute orders given by the First Sister for no reason except for oaths and fear of retribution (despite the Sisters wielding no weapons or magic or anything other than convention). The legal system is flimsy, contradictory and absolutely corrupt with starting a war being considered very bad, but extrajudicial killings being considered totally fine. There seems to be a total absence of any court with the First Sister exercising the role as both lawmaker and adjudicator.
So the book was repetitive with little worldbuilding, but surely the characters and their relationships were interesting right? Wrong! Apart from trauma following sexual assault and anger towards her mother, R’shiel doesn’t change much at all. The characters swap sides, get outraged at perceived betrayals and come together again without any kind of rationale or lingering distrust. There is basically no romance nor any real, lasting friendships in this book and very little chemistry between the characters except, as I mentioned earlier, between Brak and some of the gods. There was barely any magic!
After receiving a pretty negative reception in the book club, one of the readers did make the observation that when this book was written twenty years ago, publishing books where the chosen one was a woman was trailblazing at the time. However, I think that with brilliant fantasy authors like Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, Jacqueline Carey and Juliet Marillier all publishing compelling, heart-wrenching books at the same time, a book like this can hardly be praised for trailblazing.
A long book without much in the way of tension, character development or worldbuilding.