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REVIEW: The Archer’s Heart by Astrid Amara

Dear Ms. Amara,

book review There’s a continuing discussion among fantasy circles about non-Western settings and non-Caucasian characters in fantasy. Or more to the point, the lack thereof. I confess I count myself among their number. I realize many people take it as a given that a fantasy setting should be faux medieval Europe but these days, the settings of different novels have gotten so generic as to be interchangeable. I know I often find myself sighing over the pseudo medieval setting in many a fantasy novel and then hoping something else in the book — the prose, the plot, characters, other aspects of the worldbuilding, anything — will make up for it. And then I read a book like this and I ask myself why I should even settle in the first place.

I think many people will pass this novel by because they’ll label it as “just” a gay fantasy published by a smaller, independent publisher. That’s a great disservice and those readers honestly have no idea what they’re missing.  Because there’s another ongoing discussion in SF/F circles about the lack of non-white and/or  queer characters, and if this book doesn’t fit the bill, I don’t know what does. I especially think fans of Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series might find something to like here.

Set in a world reminiscent of ancient India, The Archer’s Heart opens with Keshan Adaru returning to the capital city of Prasta after spending five years in exile as punishment for stealing and marrying another man’s fiancee. Gifted with prophetic visions, the one that drives Keshan the most is one in which he stands beside a great warrior who’ll bring revolution to the country of Marhavad by eliminating the highly restrictive caste system.

Keshan believes the man in his vision is the charismatic Darvad, the illegitimate son of the previous king, because not only has he proven himself worthy in battle, he has shown himself willing to cross caste lines. The legitimate Paran brothers, of which the eldest Yudar is expected to assume the throne once the current Regent makes his decision, represent everything Keshan hates — blind obedience to tradition and conservative interpretation of the holy texts. This does not, however, stop Keshan from falling in lust with the youngest Paran brother, the gifted archer Jandu.

What follows is a sprawling fantasy epic, and I mean that in all the best ways possible. I find it impossible to summarize everything that happens so I’ll leave it to readers to discover that for themselves. I will say that we are treated to much political intrigue in the battle for the Marhavad throne. As expected, there are two factions: that of Yudar and that of Darvad. And as also expected, Jandu supports his elder brother and Keshan supports Darvad. This does not stop the two from embarking on a secret love affair.

In this oppressive and deeply conservative society, homosexuality is heavily disfavored, to the point that those discovered to engage in homosexual activity are executed. Because of this, Jandu keeps his relationship secret from his two beloved brothers. I do wonder about Keshan, however. I admit I read his character as bisexual (though I may be wrong) and I don’t think he made much effort to hide his flamboyance. I suppose he’s been very discrete, however, and being a member of the higher caste may help shield him. But it is Jandu’s struggle to come to grips with his sexuality and love for Keshan, and what that means in the context of their highly restrictive society, to his deeply traditional brothers, and to himself, that drives the narrative arc as we follow Jandu through his transformation.

Keshan and Jandu’s love story is wonderful. Here you give us two men with vastly different outlooks on life and show us that even though they may be in lust-turned-to-love, that doesn’t mean they’ll reach accord so easily. I felt Keshan’s frustration with Jandu as he tried to open his lover’s eyes to the inherent unfairness built into the caste structure and failed over and over again. And I also felt for Jandu who completely disagreed with Keshan’s radical beliefs but found himself unable to resist him. For me, this was good example of how love transforms people. It wasn’t the only factor in Jandu’s character arc, but it formed a cornerstone in the story of Jandu’s maturation from young, arrogant warrior to a wise, older man.

I enjoyed the nods to Indian mythology and legends. How Jandu won Suraya’s hand in marriage by shooting a fish in the eye without looking directly at it. How Suraya ends up marrying all three Paran brothers. The Yashva demons and their forest. The fact that the Yashva king gave Jandu and Keshan mystical gifts. My knowledge of Indian and Hindu mythology is not that great but even I was able to pick these out. I suspect someone with a better background might be better equipped to identify more.

I also loved the magical system of curses and countercurses. I found the idea of the spells binding the yashva demons and using their powers to attack very fresh and original. I thought that climactic scene in which Yudar unleashes the most powerful — and deadliest — curse of all was stunning. I could imagine all of the yashva demons turning as one to look at Jandu and Keshan before vanishing.

While I enjoyed how you made the characters three-dimensional overall — the paragon of religious fervor, Yudar, suffers from a terrible gambling addiction and brash, strong Baram is an excellent cook and given to grandiose public displays of affection — I admit I didn’t much care for the treatment of Keshan’s wife, Ajani. I know some readers will probably find it distasteful that both men are married when they embark on their affair, thus making it a sort of infidelity. I personally believe the worldbuilding allows for this since in this society, women are little more than chattel, subject to the whims of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and other men of power. Men can take multiple wives, and women from lower castes are often subjugated by higher caste lords. I also think Jandu’s lack of sexual interest in his beautiful wife is made sorely apparent from the very beginning. At best he views her as a sister and in many respects, Jandu reminded me of a Spartan warrior. I’m not talking about 300, but the real historical warriors who viewed women as something like aliens and had no clue how to relate to them. And because of the Parans’ unsual arrangement regarding the marriage to Suraya, most of the time I forgot Jandu was actually married to her.

But what I found off-putting was the fact that Keshan’s wife, Ajani, is portrayed as irrational, clingy and, well, just an ugly person all-around. For me, this was the equivalent of the bitchy, vindicative ex-girlfriend in a heterosexual genre romance. I don’t like that convention there and I found I don’t like this convention here much either. Much like how the ex-girlfriend’s bitchiness indicates her general unworthiness for the hero’s love, I suppose the wife’s over-the-top unattractiveness signals why the male lover is better. I’m not objecting to the infidelity. Like I said previously, I think the worldbuilding and society as presented supports these actions, but I dislike how Ajani’s portrayal functioned as a shortcut to glossing over the fact that Ajani worships the ground Keshan walks on. Where does his taking up with Jandu leave her?

The beginning and ending stretches were the best for me in terms of pacing and keeping my interest. There were a few sections in the middle that lagged slightly for me, and I admit I have mixed feelings about the genderswitching aspect of the plot. I’m not convinced it added much to the story, but it was interesting to read at least. Overall, this was a high, solid B for me.

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or Powells . No ebook format.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

19 Comments

  1. Janine
    Sep 10, 2008 @ 15:24:22

    I really liked Amara’s two novellas in the anthology called Tangle, so I’m glad to see that The Archer’s Heart worked for you, Jia.

    Edited.

  2. K. Z. Snow
    Sep 10, 2008 @ 19:20:27

    Thanks for the review, Jia. I like keeping up with everything Blind Eye produces. Recently, I treated myself to a Tangle story a day. But every one seemed eclipsed by Jesse Sandoval’s, so I may have given most of them short shrift. I’m going to let some time pass and go back to the anthology, bypassing Sandoval’s on the next round.

  3. Val Kovalin
    Sep 10, 2008 @ 20:42:59

    What a terrific review! Very thoughtful and comprehensive. I appreciate you bringing attention to deserving m/m fiction. I may have to order this book.

  4. Janine
    Sep 10, 2008 @ 23:38:10

    That Sandoval story in Tangle was beautiful. But Amara’s “Remember” was quite good too.

  5. Nenena
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 08:22:36

    I suspect someone with a better background might be better equipped to identify more.

    Oh, the entire book is lifted wholesale from the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Pretty much every single character and story element, with the addition of a few what-if twists (and the homosexuality, obviously). Which there’s nothing wrong with, I don’t think – after all, people are writing new versions of Shakespeare’s plays, La Boheme, classic fairy tales, and even Bible stories all the time. But what bothers me somewhat about The Archer’s Heart is the complete and utter lack of explicit acknowledgment of the source material. Personally I loved loved loved the book, but I remain deeply ambivalent about the lack of a callback to the Mahabharata. I mean, again, there’s so much that was lifted from the Mahabharata, nearly every single plot twist and every single character, albeit remixed in really awesome ways. I just wish there had been some acknowledgment of that.

  6. Jia
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 08:30:08

    Ah, is it? That’s a shame. Indeed, it would have been nice to know that since, unfortunately, the Mahabharata isn’t as widely known as Shakespeare’s plays. At least in Western countries, I would say.

  7. Lleeo
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 09:46:58

    There's a continuing discussion among fantasy circles about non-Western settings and non-Caucasian characters in fantasy. Or more to the point, the lack thereof.

    Yes.

    Because there's another ongoing discussion in SF/F circles about the lack of non-white and/or queer characters

    Thank you! I have felt this way for a long time and have always found it next to impossible to find this kind of historical romance in the romance genre. I’m so pleased to see your review of this book. As an avid (mostly) romance reader, I just love, love, love this site! And your review was both thoughtful and insightful.

    I, too, agree with you about the “bitchy ex” trope usually used as a device to make the protagonist look better. Or I find in yaoi manga this figure is used to show the push of society for the gay heroes to conform to the heterosexual norm, how they must escape this ugly ‘push’ and how women are vindictive, manipulative, silly and only care about getting with the hot, popular guy (usually one or both of the gay protagonists).

    It’s such a negative and stereotypical plot device that seems especially hypocritical in a gay romance. So we’re going to demonize women in gay romance to make the gay heroes look better? Oh, that makes sense.

  8. Susan/DC
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 12:40:59

    My reaction to the review is so colored by my personal experience that it’s hard to say how I’d respond to the actual book. I once dated a bisexual man, and his gay lover said he should break off with me because all women were:

    irrational, clingy and, well, just an ugly person all-around

    In the end I broke off the relationship because I realized that I was not deeply committed to P, whereas the other party was in love with him. However, it does mean I’m highly aware of the potential for negative gender stereotypes, and I resent them.

    It's such a negative and stereotypical plot device that seems especially hypocritical in a gay romance. So we're going to demonize women in gay romance to make the gay heroes look better? Oh, that makes sense.

    Definitely. Such stereotypes are found in straight literature too, but I try to avoid them no matter where they are. Needless to say, I also resent stereotypes based on sexual preference.

  9. DS
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 18:54:48

    Ok, even though I felt a little dubious about the way the wife was handled– I hate demonized mistresses in historical romance– I ordered this one from Amazon.

    This makes the second M/M book I’ve ordered after reading a review on here– Wicked Gentlemen was the first. Given that I don’t usually seek out M/M stories (I also ordered a number of stories written by Ann Somerville) I wonder if this is a trend? While I didn’t necessarily like all of the M/M I have read it has been on average better than the mainstream (nonurban fantasy, nonsuspence) romance novels I have given up on half way through this year.

    I do wish these publishers would get on the eBook bandwagon though. Instant gratification and all that. I now hate to wait for a dead tree book to come by the USPS although this one looks like it has a nice cover.

    If anyone likes historical novels by the way, I am really recommending The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss. (Due out end of this month I think.) Partly set on the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1790′s and partly in Philadelphia and a friend and I have been debating about whether the depiction of gay characters is accurate.

  10. Lleeo
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 19:09:01

    Definitely. Such stereotypes are found in straight literature too, but I try to avoid them no matter where they are.

    Definitely agree with you there, Susan. I’ve always felt the gay movement is such a strong ally to feminism because they’re both based on the idea that we cannot be defined by or denigrated for our gender or sexual orientation or shoved into narrow, stereotypical categories. And then artists or even people who call themselves feminists and pro-gay turn around and start pulling these negative stereotypes out of their ass and it’s so ridiculous. Not to mention counter-productive.

    I wanted to shoot the writers of Torchwood when they decided to pull an almost complete 180 on their main character for the new season. I didn’t see the first season but my mom did and told me about how impressed she was that they made the main character gay (or revealed that he was at the end of the first season). Not only that, but his character also sounded very interesting. He’s the head of this secret extra-terrestrial organization, immortal and the other characters don’t know much about him; he’s the mysterious, dark, brooding type. And then viewers learn that he once had a lover who died and they shared a romantic waltz at the end of the season and… then this season rolls around and he’s suddenly cracking jokes, and smiling affably, and I swear to God… acting flamboyant! I want to kill whoever came up with the decision to change his personality because I strongly suspect it’s because they decided to make his character gay at the end of last season.

    Just grrrr!

  11. Nenena
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 19:13:40

    Mmm, maybe I’m putting my foot in it right now, but–

    Although I didn’t like the way that Ajani was portrayed, I think it’s important to point out that she was one of two important women in the book. The other was Suraya, who really wasn’t demonized or stereotyped at all. And in fact, Suraya had a lot more screentime, so to speak, than Ajani did. In terms of characterization, Suraya was pretty much all-around awesome.

    I think my problem with Ajani’s portrayal is not so much that she was demonized or stereotyped, but that she was just tossed aside by the narrative. I wasn’t bothered by the way that she appeared to cling to Keshan – after all, she was his wife, and she was starved for attention and affection. Her reactions seemed perfectly natural and sympathetic to me. She was just as much as stupidly head-over-heels in unrequited love as, say, Tarek was. I don’t think she came across as irrational, either, but rather sometimes she was just plain clueless. (She wasn’t so dumb that she didn’t realize that Keshan was sleeping around, though.) What *bothered* me about Ajani, though, was how nonchalantly the narrative treated Keshan’s abandonment of her. Never once did Keshan, whom we’re supposed to be rooting for, really stop to reflect on how he was treating his wife. At *most*, it was Jandu who actually pointed out that he was “stealing” Keshan, and only once, and that particular line of thought was quickly abandoned and never taken up again.

    I disagree that Ajani’s “ugliness” was used by the narrative to justify her abandoment. Because I don’t actually see any of that ugliness. Her character came across as realistic and sympathetic to me. But, the casual way that Keshan abandoned her still rankles.

  12. Nicole Kimberling
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 19:37:08

    I remain deeply ambivalent about the lack of a callback to the Mahabharata. I mean, again, there's so much that was lifted from the Mahabharata, nearly every single plot twist and every single character, albeit remixed in really awesome ways. I just wish there had been some acknowledgment of that.

    Hi Nenena, your question is a good one and one that the author and myself had to really think about while writing the front matter for the book.

    We considered whether or not to make some note about the various homages to the Indian classic text, but, after looking at other books that are homages to older stories, like Shakespere and Biblical stories, we realized that no one ever does that. The authors (and the editors) hope that the readers who recognize the influences will be pleased to be able to enjoy the story on an additional level, just as we hope that readers unfamiliar with the source material will be able to enjoy the story on its own.

    We were also both concerned that Ms. Amara story not be construed as a retelling of the Mahabharata, since the ending and ultimate meaning are completely different and we wouldn’t want to be thought to be misrepresenting a holy text from a living religion.

    BTW, kudos to you for having enough familiarity with the Mahabharata to even be able to make this comment. I knew nothing of it before beginning my edit of this text. I’m glad to have come to know it, though.

    Cheers,

    Nikki

    PS– Thank you so much for your review, Jia!

  13. MoJo
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 19:39:34

    The authors (and the editors) hope that the readers who recognize the influences will be pleased to be able to enjoy the story on an additional level, just as we hope that readers unfamiliar with the source material will be able to enjoy the story on its own.

    I love this approach. It’s a lagniappe for a reader who does know, an Easter egg, perhaps. For the readers who don’t, they aren’t made to feel inadequate for not knowing the source material.

  14. Jia
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 19:53:18

    My main reason for wishing there’d been some mention of it was simply because I obviously haven’t read the Mahabharata (but apparently absorbed disjointed bits of it from somewhere) and now that I know it drew inspiration from that work, I’d like to read the source material now. So a mention would have been useful for a reader like me. But I do understand the reasoning behind opting not to include it since I usually lean that way myself. In this case, my desire to know comes more out of a need to correct the gaps in my knowledge and education. A selfish reason, I know, but an honest one.

  15. Jane
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 20:22:33

    Maybe an afterward, in this case, may make sense. I agree with Jia that if I am interested in the story, learning about the inspiration can also be interesting.

    As for the other discussion re: homosexuality and feminism, how fascinating. You commenters are the reason that this is a fun place to visit.

  16. Nenena
    Sep 11, 2008 @ 20:35:06

    Ms. Kimberling;

    Thank you for your reply to my comment and for sharing your thought process here. Now that I see where you’re coming from, I totally agree with your approach.

  17. Chicklet
    Sep 12, 2008 @ 10:42:24

    I wanted to shoot the writers of Torchwood when they decided to pull an almost complete 180 on their main character for the new season.

    I interpret Jack’s turnaround as a function of his dealings with The Doctor from Doctor Who. Jack was introduced in the first season of the DW and spun off into Torchwood. He’s always been presented as bisexual and in his earliest appearances on Doctor Who was extremely outgoing and charming. However, at the end of Season 1 of DW, The Doctor (and Rose) unknowingly left Jack behind, thinking he was dead (he always revives, due to science-fiction technobabble. *g*). At the beginning of Season 1 of Torchwood, he had been living/dying/reviving for more than 100 years, trying to reunite with The Doctor and Rose, while watching every friend he made grow old and die. So he was rather dark through Season 1 of Torchwood, but at the end of it crossed back over to Doctor Who and had his reunion. As a result, he was much happier in Season 2 of Torchwood — more like his previous, Doctor Who, self. It’s not a function of his character’s sexuality; it’s a function of the character’s interactions with other characters.

    Because of all of the crossover between Doctor Who and Torchwood (and the Sarah Jane Adventures, too), I recommend watching the entire “world” of the new Doctor Who, which started in 2005. There are things you miss if you watch only one of the shows. (To get the full effect, the viewing order should be: S1-2 of Doctor Who, S1 of Torchwood, S3 of Doctor Who, S2 of Torchwood, S1 of Sarah Jane Adventures, and then S4 of Doctor Who. All of these are available from Netflix for easy rental.)

  18. DS
    Sep 12, 2008 @ 16:18:55

    My book arrived at 12:15 pm UPS. Not instantaneous but close to it. I know what I’m going to do this evening.

    And Chicklet thanks for the Whoiverse round up. I need to catch up with Sarah Jane Adventures. The others I have watched– all out of order of course.

  19. Lleeo
    Sep 12, 2008 @ 17:42:23

    Hey Chicklet, thanks so much for putting the apparent ‘out-of-nowhere’ turnaround of Jack in perspective for me! I know I stuck my foot in my mouth there, but my mom, who had seen the whole first season of Torchwood was really surprised by the change in his personality as well. I was really scared it was a case of the show’s producers being like, “Well, why don’t we make Jack happier this season and give no apparent reason? I’m sure the viewers won’t notice!” I just hate it when they do that and I was honestly ready to give up on the show. I know, I know, bad of me… :/

    But, hey, I’ve never given Doctor Who a try and now I definitely will. Thank you! :)

    As for the other discussion re: homosexuality and feminism, how fascinating. You commenters are the reason that this is a fun place to visit.

    Glad to be of service, Jane! Thank you guys for providing such a great site and such insightful reviews.

    And re: Nicole and the Mahabharata; I think that was such a neat idea to use these tales as the basis for some of the events of the book. I love reading historical romance that takes place in different parts of the world, about different histories (other than the U.K.) and different cultures. I learned a little about the Mahabarata when I took a Religions of the East course and now I’m tempted to go brush up on it before reading this book. Great creativity! :)

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