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[GUEST REVIEW] Constance Ash-Sublette on Sherwood Smith’s ‘Banner of the Damned’

Constance Ash-Sublette has published three novels and some short fiction; she edited Not of Woman Born, the first original anthology short-listed for the Philip K. Dick Award. Currently her writing focus is history, including the forthcoming The American Slave Coast From the Chesapeake to the Gulf, co-authored with Ned Sublette.

Banner of the Damned is set in the secondary fantasy world of Sartorias-deles; the events take place four centuries after the close of the previous Sartorians-deles epic series: Inda, The Fox, King’s Shield, Treason’s Shore, commonly called the Inda series. It is not necessary to have read these books before reading Banner of the Damned. All these titles are available from DAW.

Armies vs. Melende

Sherwood Smith should rank high on any list of military writers, though her novels are not military fantasy fiction per se. Julius Caesar would have caveats about her cavalry battle scenes. Her naval campaigns and battles, and the hand-to-hand fighting scenes on board ship, are the equal of Patrick O’Brian’s.

The cavalry battles, hand-to-hand, strategy sessions, the aftermaths of battles, these scenes in Banner of the Damned, roll across the page with the effortless mastery that the courtiers at the Colendi court strive to embody, what in their language they call melende. The action scenes feel so right the reader doesn’t sense the author’s work to make them so. This is writing combat accoding to the melende code. Battle and grace are in conflict with each other throughout the novel. The contradiction between them is resolved through the power of compositional melende. Melende evolved in fact, as a way to resolve conflict without the use of physical violence.

The code of melende, the dark side and the bright, the silly and the amusing, is in play throughout Banner of the Damned: to humiliate the courting Chwahir King Jurac who doesn’t know how to dance; to conceal a love affair from the court ravenous for gossip; to Princess Lasva’s making of melende a carapace impervious to her mad royal father-in-law’s paranoia.

Colend’s state use of melende includes diplomacy and trade, while Marloven Hesea stands upon the warrior code absorbed at its Academy, and the Chwahir can only imagine the blunt force of conquest. The Marloven warrior code has its bright side as well as melende has – profound loyalty of the warriors to each other, their leaders and their cohort; their brilliant battle skills, their physical endurance. Like the melende code it too has a cruel dark side, abusing those who are vulnerable. Marloven Hesea’s without art and play, while Colend’s strategy sessions when threatened with invasion become comic operetta, except they know the consquence of no military and no battle experience are likely to be lethal.

The best way to describe melende may be to say it melds the mannered formality of Japan’s classical Heian court with the sprezzatura sparkle of the late Renaissance Italian courts.

English doesn’t have a word that matches what is contained by sprezzatura. So we turn to Castiglione, whose power of verbal invention created the concept and the word that contains the conception. In his The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione presents an idealized, successful courtier – the courtier who retains the support of his ruler, from whom all good things flow. The ideal courtier was skilled in weaponry, leadership, horsemanship, hunting and games, and equally skilled in music and dancing. His presence was always a grateful addition to company, never a drag on it. Further, the courtier had make his mastery of martial, hunting and artistic skills appear effortless as well as graceful. Castiglione describes it thus:

“I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all thing a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”

Sprezzatura is a public performance, at the heart of which is paradox: the face assumes a mask of naturalness, naturalness as artifice, a contrived persona, fabricated to disguise the obsessive jousting for rank and status.

Melende masks the condition of total war that is Colend’s court, waged by one and all, against one and and all, fought upon the battlefields of dinner parties, poetry recitations, court receptions, balls and certainly in the bedrooms. Melende’s weapons are wealth and fashion, wit and gesture, art (particularly the theater) and style, and the lethal poison of rumor and gossip. The melende code is part of the Colend state strategy that prefers the diplomacy and trade which fills the coffers and disdains the destructive expense of warriors and armies.

Another way to view the melende code that rules Colend’s court is to see it as “a hieroglyphic world,” as Edith Wharton named polite society of the United States’ Gilded Age. Such a milieu demands stern control of personal verbal and physical expression, as well as exquisitely practiced skills to read the tiny clues embedded in tiny gestures, tiny color choices, tiny timbre change in laughter. This meticulous, constant cataloging of interpreted detail, the anxiety that every presentation and every reading be just right, builds the fuss and feathers atmosphere of the Colend court. There is a strong suggestion that despite the uncertainities, life away from the Colend court and its melende strictures, is a lot more interesting, and even a relief for more than one of our characters.

Inevitably, this court has its mean girls; they stress and strain as they strive to project melende. They are the ones who bear melende’s cost, as their outsider mentality’s resentment seeps through all their scenes. Blinkered by their one-dimensional mean girl nature they are not adversaries, or even worthy antagonists, to the protagonists.

In contrast, the protagonists are charismatic and intelligent. Graced with a multitude of skills and talents, they are as good as they are beautiful. Unlike the meanies, the protagonists retain their melende control whatever happens to them. They embody the melende ideal – with the exception of Emras, personal scribe of the Colend Princess Lasva. Both young women are complex figures. However, with or without the melende code, Emras would be a naturally difficult person, introverted and cold – a drag on gatherings — while her Princess would be a naturally attractive person, open and loving.

Character: Point of View and Narrative Voice

In the last years Smith has blogged frequently on the Book View Café about narrative, point of view, what makes a Hero and whether a protagonist is the same as Hero. In this novel we see some of the fruits of the author’s thinking on these matters. Unusually for epic secondary fantasy, Banner of the Damned is a nested narrative of a variety of third person points of view that relate what has already happened, i.e. the past, until the very last words that are presumably written in the narrator’s present, and, for the first time, with the narrator’s hopes of the future. It is very sophisticated technique that provides a great deal of reading pleasure, because it reads so naturally the reader doesn’t see the complexity unless she looks.

“Our first lesson was to differentiate between what we observed, what we had learned, and what we conjectured, or assumed, because sometimes cause and effect are not so simple to identify.

I know it will seem fantastical (if not prevarication) to add to my defense testimony parts of other people’s lives – incidents that you would think I could not have seen, and words I did no hear spoken at the time. Thoughts that thinkers locked inside their heads.

I promise these are not surmises.”

– Opening paragraphs of Chapter Three, Of the Hierarchy of Style, Part One, “Court”

This is the voice of Emras the Scribe. It is her voice and her point of view that frames the novel from the first words to the last ones. Thus we’re immediately signaled that this is a sophisticated play with a multiple of third person narrative strategies – play as theater, and as scribe-at-play. Emras the Scribe’s family has been part of the Colendi court for generations, so she naturally possesses the extra-ordinary discrimination to play melende with narration: graceful, witty, easy.

…incidents that you would think I could not have seen, etc. …” Emras is referring to her ability to spy on anyone from inside their own minds, in the past and the present. As well as an innovative means to explore a variety of aspects of the third person omniscient point of view, the stratagem of spying from within allows a non-traditional introduction to the primary characters. The protagonists and antagonists are presented to us through the Scribe, not on their own. Though there is this multiple of viewpoints, ultimately all of them are Emras’s. As all the actors are presented through the Scribe’s viewpoint, all who speak in the narrative are filtered though the Scribe’s voice. The achievement here is, despite the mono-vocal tone, it’s easy to know whom we are hearing. Layered over these points of view are Emras’s lack of self-knowledge, and her strategy to minimize and conceal her own small and large professional transgressions and personal betrayals. Imagine someone very close to you rummaging about in your most personal thoughts, spying on your actions, without your knowledge or permission – all all to serve you better!

“While serving as monitor in the fountain chamber, I first observed four of the six important people who lives crossed mine and brought me to my prison cell.”

– Opening sentence of Chapter Five: The Dangers of an Unguarded Smile, page 33, in Part One, “Court.”

There are many supporting roles in Banner of the Damned, but Emras the Scribe early tells us that only six characters matter. What she seems to obscure during these infrequent and brief personal interjections into her defense as the novel rolls along is that her actions have as much significance as the six, if not more. is revealing that Emras relates these events at something very like a trial. So — is Emras employing a strategy of humility in hopes of a lenient judgment? Is she the naif she presents herself as during much of the narrative that she relates — hard to believe naiveté in someone bred and trained to traditional occupation in the world of the court. Is Emras an unreliable narrator? Different readers will come to different conclusions and even more questions.

The exception to Emras knowing all the six protagonists from the inside is the Adversary. This essential epic fantasy character doesn’t take the stage until several hundred pages into the the novel. The reader soon recognizes this figure as malicious, because of the effect he has upon Emras. This is also where having read the Inda titles helps out the reader, though that isn’t necessary to understand what the Adversary is about.

At least Emras says she didn’t spy on the Adversary, because he was too guarded or because he could detect her. But Emras has amply testified to her uninhibited trangressions of work and relationship boundaries all along, including lying by omission – and everything we learn about the Adversary still comes directly from the Scribe herself.

It is at the point of the Adversary the tale pivots into something different than in the previous sections, and we have a plot. Colendi melende skills in tandem with the Marloven warrior skills are dealing with the outside military threats and those from inside the courts. With a third element, magic, thrust into regional conflict, the conflict is about something other than what we or the characters thought and Emras falls into addiction.

It’s so easy for a scribe to acquire an addiction. A scribe’s nature is compulsory, obsessive, focused, careful – and yes, particularly in this scribe, repressed and suppressed. These aspects that made Emras a top-ranked scribe, are reinforced by the hot pleasure that wielding magic brings. Is this why scribes are not supposed to study magic? Though we understand the nature of Emras’s gratifications, she shares none of the specifics – unless, the entire chain of events as narrated by Emras are the consequence of her magical addiction.

You have in the accompanying magical text my hour-by-hour notes on what I did, though perhaps those have been consigned to the fire by my judges. Think of it this way: my strategy was to use the Herskalt’s own structure against him, by building a chain of mirrors that reflected his chain of mirrors.

– Opening of Chapter Eleven: Page 676, in Part 6, “Glory”.

We are left with no doubts that the true protagonist, the one who had the most effect on events, is the frame narrator, the Scribe Emras. Emras tells us – not her inquisitors — at the end that she’s breaking the rules of both scribes and magicians even at that very moment. So it’s fairly safe to look forward to another volume in this series.

  • The maps in the Inda series had problems also, but this artifact from the series doesn’t include much of the territory where the events happen.
  • The languages and most of the names, also inherited from the Inda series – despite all the disquistions on the linguistic constructions in the languages of Sartorias-deles, the words sound artificial, and thus they are hard to remember.
  • Despite the characters’ allegience to the code of melende, in places the novel is like an unruly colt undergoing first training. The novel enters a previously unknown space and then is puzzled as what to do next, like the Scribe, who has to figure out how to get into and leave the room without doors where she studies magic. Like the sacks that Birdy juggles ineptly for much of the novel, story lines fall out of the arc. Other story lines get compressed into synopsis, as with the Marloven heir’s experience at the Academy. In the last sections it’s as though the author fears she doesn’t know what to do next and she’s run out of allowed pages. There could have been more pages for the end if the novel wasn’t so heavily front-loaded with the micro details of things, feelings, observation which get all told again one way and another. The story proper doesn’t start until the Scribe is assigned to the Princess, which doesn’t happen until Chapter Ten, page 83 – or even really begin until Part Two (“Love”). This is where we start to have fun. But the plot doesn’t arrive until the Adversary arrives – this might be troublesome to some readers, though it wasn’t for this one.

Banner of the Damned is an epic fantasy set in a secondary world that the author has been building since at least her adolescence. Knowing this world so well in its externals – she even considers the disposal problems attached to the magical removal of the large amounts of horse manure at the Merlovan Academy — the author’s curiosity sent her in this one exploring more the inner worlds of its inhabitants. Because of the ample pleasures the novel provides it doesn’t matter to us that everything the author tried out wholly succeeded . This is part of reading pleasure, seeing a first rate author boldly at play, striving to do things a little differently from what she’s done before with narrative, yet providing her readers the same satisfaction as her previous work. It takes courage to do this (another author with this kind of courage is Katharine Kerr). These are the writers we trust.

Sherwood Smith, author: dedicated to her craft as a Merlovan warrior is to her code of honor.

2 Comments on [GUEST REVIEW] Constance Ash-Sublette on Sherwood Smith’s ‘Banner of the Damned’

  1. Thanks Constance

    (and here I thought I wrote the most detailed and lengthy reviews ’round here. Guess not!)

    I haven’t read any Sherwood Smith, as yet, although I have recently purchased the Exordium book she wrote with Dave Trowbridge.

    You’ve got me curious about this work and this world of hers. Well done!

    • Thank you Paul — but the real thanks goes to the writers, like Sherwood Smith, Katherine Kerr, and so many others! Yay, them!

      Love, C.

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