REVIEW: The Archer’s Heart by Astrid Amara
Dear Ms. Amara,
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.