The Gambler’s Fortune by Juliet E McKenna
Review by Cat Fitzpatrick
The third of Juliet E McKenna’s Tales of Einarinn series, this continues Livak and co’s fight against the invaders from the ice islands. Livak has found a book of old songs in the wizard island of Hadrumal’s archives and is on a quest to recover translations for these songs and any new material that may reveal old traces of aetheric magic that may have passed down through the communities of forest and mountain dwellers.
Livak and the wizard Usara meet up with two associates of hers, Sorgrad and Sorgren, brothers who originally come from the mountains, to undertake the journey into these close-knit communities. Meanwhile, other men from the mountains are trying to sell their wares direct to market in the lowlands to cut out middle men, but face opposition at every turn and eventually get mixed up with the local crime lord and get cheated out of their family’s gold. This starts a chain of events as one of the brothers hears a song Livak told to a player she knows, with the intent of having it heard around the lands to warn people of the blond magic wielders trying to attack from their islands. However, it has the opposite effect and this sows the idea of contacting these ‘brethren’ across the water, as the mountain men are too a blonde people, to work together to remove the land-grasping lowlanders from the mountains.
With the ice islanders once again infiltrating the mainland, Livak and her friends must tread the fine line between saving the mountain people from the ice island wizard who is manipulating their anger for his own gain, and instigating another war over magic use in Einarinn.
This is a very powerful book, quite different in tone from the first two. This novel has the original theme of the elemental wizards from their island base trying to uncover the secrets of aetheric magic in order to prevent the ice islanders from invading Einarinn, but upon this backbone as it were is built a story of both personal and racial identity. Livak, Usara and the elder brother Sorgrad undertake their own journeys into understanding who they are as they move between the different peoples of Einarinn.
Livak, who grew up with her single mother, is the daughter of a wandering player from the forest, a people noted for their flaming red hair and restless spirit. She inherited both the hair and the drive to be something more than a maid in a house, but she never knew her father and grew up with a mother bitter at the youth she lost, blaming Livak for her own mistake. Livak has grown up with an understandable interest in who her father was, and how much of his personality he passed on to her, but when she finally meets a community of Forest people she finds being half Forest blood allows her a partial acceptance into their party, but it isn’t a welcome back to the family experience, which I think she was secretly hoping for having had a relatively rootless life. However, she also has some doubts as to settling down with her lover Ryshad, which has its appeals but spending time with his well-bred family made her feel very out of place.
Usara has grown up in Hadrumal surrounded by wizards his entire life, which means that when he has to make his way back in Einarinn his naivety about the harsher side of life that many people experience is painfully clear, especially as he is travelling with the worldly-wise and morally dubious company of Livak and the mountain brothers. He doesn’t have much of a role in the previous books, so this is the opportunity for the reader to see this character develop a personality, but this also works within the story as well, with Usara exploring a world he’s never previously experienced and using his magic practically rather than in a safe research environment back on Hadrumal. His unintentional arrogance at being a wizard is also tempered as he realises that although others may not be mages, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have useful talents.
Sorgrad and Sorgren haven’t lived in the mountains for many years, instead choosing to work as mercenaries and with gamblers and thieves like Livak in order to make quick coin. Throughout the book the life of the mountains comes across clearer, with female-run tight-knit communities striving to make a living through selling furs and mining. Land is extremely important to these people, with a strong tradition of being passed down the female lines. The brothers were cast out of their community, Sorgrad for being born a mage, and Sorgren for having ill-omened birth runes. So, having grown up in the mountains, they know the language and traditions, but are not longer part of this community. Again, they are rootless like Livak, but the mountain superstitions have led Sorgrad in particular to reject mountain life and make his own way in the world.
As well as these personal journeys of the main characters, there are the overall racial identities of the mountain communities, the ice islanders and the Forest people. ‘Lowlanders’, which make up the vast population of Einarinn, have their own identities depending upon which of the various areas or countries which make up Einarinn they come from. These differences aren’t explored here, although there are several mentions of on-going wars in the country of Lescar – there’s more of a general view that there are the elite, the merchant class, and the poor, and magic is regarded either with suspicion or disbelief. Outside of the lowlanders there are these fringe people of the forest, mountains and islands. The islanders to the south were the focus of the second book, and this novel moves to give a sense of the other ancient communities in Einarinn.
The forest people seem to take the role most often in the lowlands of minstrels, or actors, who travel all across the lands and have a reputation of being promiscuous. Livak then learns that forest dwellers often go back to the forest in winter to live with various groups, who part and come together at random rather than forming family units. The forest is viewed as a whole rather than sections belonging to one group.
The mountain people meanwhile form very strong family units with the women heads of the household, and their husbands and sons working and looking after their lands. They have their own magic users, called Sheltya, who traditionally moved between the communities to sort disputes and agree to marriages and so on. This reliance is waning, but they still hold a position of awe and secrecy, especially as when a child is chosen to become one by them, the child has to leave their family forever. This strong attachment to their lands becomes the source of conflict as lowlanders move further and further northwards, taking land belonging to the mountain men to graze their animals, secure due to the large numbers of fighters that can be called by the lord who has staked his claim to it. Trade is also a major issue, with lowlanders appearing to cheat the mountain men out of profits, holding the view that mountain dwellers are stupid and backward.
The ice islanders are also explored further in this book, as we learn more about the structure of power in their community. The islands are ruled by various powerful aetheric magic users, who form the elite whilst everybody else works as their slave. This has grown through the isolation of these islands, and the extreme harshness of life they experience. The magic wielders therefore view lowlanders as weak, and their lands ready to be controlled by their superior might.
One of the mountain dwellers asks his Sheltya sister to contact the ice islanders, who he feels may be sympathetic to their plight, being blonde and persecuted themselves, and teach their mountain brethren their magic to get back their lands.
These different people, differentiated mainly by hair colour, clearly reflect the tensions that exist in our world between different racial groups, but I think it’s been woven into the story very well, forming a strong entry point for the ice islanders to once again make a move to control Einarinn’s populations, but also emphasising the need for different groups to see past the differences and work together. This is a strong moral point that although used in many fantasy stories, has been crafted in this series I feel with a great amount of skill.
Layered on top of this is the political and social ramifications of wizards coming out in force to destroy the ice island mage, leaving Livak and her friends to try and solve this situation by other means.
Booktrunk from Leices
Nice review. I enjoyed this book a lot. I haven't read it for a while, but after reading your review I have an urge to read it again. It really is a fun book.
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