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Hodgell, P.C.: To Ride a Rathorn (re-read)

Waiting for P.C. Hodgell's next book in the Chronicles of the Kencyrath has been a constant feature of my adult life. Hodgell has had singularly bad luck with publishers: they die out from under her regularly. Add to that the demands of an academic career, and you've got the recipe for a very slow rate of book production. I'm hoping now that she's retired and can spend more time writing, there may actually be some chance of seeing the proper ending of the adventures of Jamethiel before I die.

For me, it's always been worth the wait. I love Hodgell's writing voice: wry, mordant, dark, a bit twisted, and yet guardedly optimistic about humanity. Jame spends a good deal of her time thinking that she's damned, and the mistakes she makes and the devastation she causes tempt us to believe her. Yet at heart she's a fiercely loyal friend, partial to small children (and their ghosts) and cuddly animals (and non-cuddly ones too: in this book she befriends a poisonous snake and a carnivorous armor-plated unicorn), and with an extremely strict sense of honor.

If you haven't read any of these books, this is a terrible place to start: published last summer, it's volume 4 of the series (the first book is Godstalk - also available in a single volume with book 2, as Dark of the Gods). If you have read the earlier books but had given up, rejoice: Jame is starting a term in the Kencyrath's military academy, and you can bet that this august institution will never be quite the same ...

To Ride a Rathorn by P.C. Hodgell - review

If the fish were coming back from the hills, thought Rue, the worst must be over.

Toto, we're not in Kansas any longer. But neither are the Kencyrath, also known as the Three Peoples. You may recall that they've been fighting the creeping chaos of Perimal Darkling, their ancient enemy, across hundreds of worlds for tens of thousands of years. This place, Rathillien, is merely the latest battlefield. It has its own bizarre brand of magic, including the violent weirdingstorms, which can displace large chunks of the landscape - not to mention buildings, people, and wildlife - hundreds of miles from their points of origin. Thus the wandering catfish observed by Cadet Rue, who is hurrying to Tentir, the Kencyr military academy, where she will become part of Jame's troop.

Jame has been hungering for her own people ever since the first book, but since she was reunited with them (and her twin brother Torisen, Highlord of their people - and now inexplicably 10 years older than she is) at the end of the second, it hasn't been much fun for anyone (except the reader). Highborn Kencyr women lead tightly controlled lives, constrained by their people's perceived need to conserve valuable bloodlines. Jame, raised by Kendar (the second of the Three Peoples, powerful fighters and talented craftspeople who treat women and men as equals - and who are born with the need to be psychically connected with one of the Highborn) in a fortress on the borders of Perimal Darkling, and with a stint as a thief in the god-crazed city of Tai-tastigon under her belt, is no one's idea of a proper Highborn lady. But she and her brother are the last of the Knorth, the most eminent clan of the Highborn. At the end of the third book, Torisen takes a suggestion made by one of the scholarly Jaran clan, and names Jame his lordan (heir). And the Knorth lordan always attends Tentir.

Classes in military strategy and weapons, punishment runs, hazing, and all the expected details of life in a military academy are covered - with some special Kencyr twists, like training in how to make the best use of one's inborn ability to mentally bind an animal or fight with one's retractable claws (Jame needs to attend both classes). Meanwhile, deadly rivalries between clans take their toll, and Jame once more finds herself tangled up with Rathillien's own native magics as animate trees stalk the landscape and a wild rathorn colt haunts the area surrounding Tentir.

It's all a lot of fun. But there's nothing quite as forceful as Jame's encounters with Bane in Godstalk, or her old teacher in Dark of the Moon. And romance is beginning to make its awkward way into the storyline. The flirtatious Timmon, lordan of the Ardeth clan, is actually pretty amusing. But there are hints of a far more serious suitor. I won't spoil this any further, but it's not being handled all that well - and it needs to be.

Still, this is well worth the read, if you liked the earlier books.

ETA: Some of the book's problems, like those of vol. 3, Seeker's Mask, might have been solved by a decent edit. But I'm wondering whether Hodgell's strange publishing situation means that these books are getting nothing much more than a proofreading. It's really too bad!

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