Originally posted 09/01/10 my meta/review blog
The Tale of the Five, is an obscure, early fantasy series by Diane Duane which isn’t complete yet. It is the first series I read that had homosexual and bisexual characters who were just characters instead of stock humor characters, hateful villains or Afterschool Special-style protagonists where we learn important lessons about accepting others. Herewiss, Freelorn and Segnbora are three of my favorite characters in the series, followed closely behind by Sunspark (a fire elemental) and Hasai, a Dragon. Duane creates an interesting world here, and the juxtaposition of “medieval” setting with a surprisingly non-standard-medieval society was something I really enjoyed. The final book in the series, TheDoor Into Starlight has been in the works for a long, long time.
It also occurs to me that it also fits into one of my stranger reading preferences: I have a fondness for “post apocalyptic fiction” of a certain type. Specifically, I enjoy “rebuilding” themes and magical post apocalypses. (I blame the post apocalyptic fiction that came out during the cold war, okay?)
Our protagonist is Herewiss, the prince of Brightwood, a region in Darthen, one of two countries with a long history of alliance and interdependence. He is the first man in a thousand years to possess a form of high-level magic called the “Blue Flame.” The in-story mythology is that humans were given the Blue Flame in order to help the Goddess protect the world from entropy, personified as a being called The Shadow.
Unfortunately, the humans lost the power in a great cataclysm, and now only women have enough Fire that they can use it via a focus. Because humans mostly lost the Fire due to misuse, using the Flame shortens the lifespan. However, the benefits of Flame, and the feeling associated with using Flame can outweigh the risks..
Herewiss has been trying to create a focus for his Flame–but because he can’t use the same tool that a woman would use–a wooden rod–he’s been trying to create his own focus in the form of a sword. He has been spectacularly unsuccessful in his endeavor so far, but he keeps trying.
Herewiss receives a message from his boyfriend Freelorn, the crown prince of Arlen. Freelorn is currently holed up in a keep that’s surrounded by mercenaries. The crown prince had been on the run ever since his father died, and was replaced by the usurper Cillmod. Herewiss of course, rides to the rescue, and on the way hears about an abandoned keep from before the cataclysm. It’s out in the wastes and has a reputation of being uncanny and having Doors into various Other Worlds. This interests Herewiss a great deal, and he files this information away for later.
Also during this trip, he runs into a fire elemental, a shapeshifting tourist from the larger universe who apparently didn’t realize that planets with mostly water would result in water precipitation, and got caught out in the rain. After Herewiss rescues the elemental they form an alliance after playing Fight Club. Sunspark originally planned to “accidentally” kill Herewiss during the “friendly wrestling match,” but is otherwise agreeable to playing horse for Herewiss. Together, they rescue Freelorn and his companions, among them one Segnbora d’Welcaen, who will be Very Important in the next book, The Door Into Shadow.
Freelorn is not happy about Herewiss wanting to camp out in the keep. He would much rather have Herewiss’ help in stealing money from the usurper in order to pay mercenaries to try to take back his throne. Herewiss does not approve of Freelorn’s decision and is upset that Freelorn is being less than supportive about Herewiss’ goals. They argue, and Freelorn and his merry band head off to steal from the Arlen treasury.
Herewiss stays at the keep and works on what he hopes is his very last sword. Sunspark stays with him, and helps. During the course of their stay at the keep a very good thing and then a very bad thing happens. The very good thing is that Sunspark decides that it loves Herewiss, and they have a relationship. (Relationships in general seem to be very open in this series.) The very bad thing is that Herewiss accidentally frees a soul-eating creature called the “hralcin” which is a lot like Gmork from The Neverending Story, only a lot scarier. Sunspark and Herewiss manage to stuff the hralcin through a door, but the sorcery Herewiss is using to bind it probably won’t hold for very long.
Freelorn returns, mostly successful from his little adventure and feeling a little guilty. Freelorn and Herewiss talk and work out their lover’s quarrel, but the presence of Lorn and his followers causes the sorcery binding the hralcin to weaken–oh, and it’s brought friends with it. Everyone is about to be eaten by the hralcins, Sunspark has been obliterated during the battle, and the only one who might be able to do something can’t, because he hasn’t focused his Fire yet. In a desperation move, Herewiss essentially commits suicide, hoping that his death will enable him to focus his fire enough to save the day from the monsters.
And it works.
He’s able to focus his Flame through his sword, heal himself, and get rid of the hralcin. The victory is a little hollow, because Sunspark is apparently dead–but then Sunspark comes back. Apparently, fire elementals do not die in the same way that other creatures do, and they can make a return trip, particularly if a Goddess is helping them. The book ends on a hopeful note, though with a feeling of trepidation, because Herewiss has pretty much painted a very large target on his chest.