The King’s Peace, by Jo Walton

thekingspeacecoverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating:
Book Review by Richard R. Horton

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The King’s Peace is an absorbing book, full of action and battles and treachery, which nonetheless reads almost quietly. This is because it is at heart about a rather philosophical subject: the creation of a nation. In this case, a nation is seen as a people united in “Peace”, obeying a “Law”. (The two sections are called “The King’s Peace”, about the wars which create the peace by uniting the nation, and “The King’s Law”, about imposing a fair and just rule of law, applying it consistently, and seeing it tested by various stresses.) This nation is a good nation, embodying tolerance for multiple religions, a high degree of equality between the sexes, and a true rule of law. (Not much in the way of democracy, though!)

The book is fairly obviously based in some sense on the story of King Arthur. It is not intended as a retelling of the Arthurian tales, nor even as a fantastical retelling of a version of the real history of Arthur. The Arthurian echoes are certainly there, but only as echoes of inspirational material.

The book is a fantasy, and gods and magic are real. There are healing charms and fertility spells, and apparently effective evocations of the gods. There are several different religions, including a close analog to Christianity and magical land worship. The magic system is limited so that it is plausible that the overall feel of this world and its technology is similar to general conceptions of 7th Century Britain. There are no dragons and no real wizards (though many people can work charms), and there are no elves or trolls.

The story is told by Sulien ap Gwien, a woman warrior, daughter of the King of a small part of the island of Tir Tanagiri. The story opens with her brutal rape by six invading “Jarnsmen”, and the murder of her brother. Traveling to Caer Tanaga, the capital, to request help from Urdo, the young High King, she stumbles upon a skirmish between some more Jarnsmen and some defenders of the land. After proving her skill in this chance-met battle, she meets the King and is immediately enchanted by his leadership skills and charisma. She enlists as an armiger for the King, eventually arising to command of the King’s own “ala” (roughly speaking, a regiment of cavalry). The rest of the story follows the ensuing couple of decades, as after many years of war the invading Jarnsmen and Isarnagans are subdued, as political unity is urged on the many different small kingdoms of Tir Tanagiri, and as a rule of law is enforced.

The story is involving throughout though a bit slack structurally, and the pacing is erratic: it’s somewhat episodic, often skipping years in a sentence, and it features two climaxes. And at times the book reads perhaps over-earnestly. These are minor quibbles. The conclusion is satisfying. Sulien, Urdo, Urdo’s wife Elenn, and a few more, are well-portrayed, though some of the large cast of minor characters do blur together. The prose is clear, couched in a rather simple, declarative, fashion that seems appropriate for the narrative of a woman whose main interests are war and horses.

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