Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Romancing Female Ambition: Claire Legrand's FURYBORN

The danger of ambition is a theme at the heart of many a high fantasy novel. Even if one's ambition stems from the desire to do good, fantasy novels generally warn that political ambition often engenders a far more dangerous desire, a desire for power itself. And as French politician and philosopher deLemartine argued, "absolute power corrupts the best natures"; or, as English Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great me are almost always bad men."

And if the striver in question happens to be of the female persuasion? Well, then the warnings grow even more pointed. As Robin Romm notes in the Introduction to her essay collection Double Bind: Women on Ambition, "striving and achieving [have] to be approached delicately or you risk the negative judgment of others." Twenty-first century American women are socialized to be soft, feminine, but are simultaneously urged to "go for it," a paradox Romm describes as "the double bind of the gender, success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat."

That is what intrigued me about the first volume in Claire Legrande's YA fantasy novel, Furyborn: its portrayal of not one, but two deeply ambitious women. After an opening scene in which a queen gives birth and then gives up her baby to prevent her from falling into the hands of a malevolent angel, Furyborn forks into two separate strands, one set in the near past, the other a thousand years into the future. The first tells how the queen of the first scene, Rielle, came to be "allied with angels and helped them kill thousands of humans. This queen who had murdered her husband" (Kindle Loc 91). The second tells of a the rise of an assassin who is asked to become a rebel against the oppressive Empire, a woman whose questionable morals make her seem just as unfit for the role of savior as was/is Rielle.

Eighteen-year-old Rielle, only daughter of  Lord Commander Dardenne, chief of the king's guards, chafes against the restricted life her father condemns her to after the uncontrolled power of her magic lead to the death of her mother. As she protests to her teacher, Tal, the Grand Magister of the Pyre, the head of those who bend fire to their magical will, "If Father had his way, I'd stay locked up for the rest of my life with my nose buried in a book or on my knees in prayer, whipping myself every time I had a stray angry thought" (Kindle Loc 380). Rielle wants more than a life stuck in a cloister: she wants to participate in the Boon Chase; she wants her childhood friend Audric, now Prince Audric the Lightbringer, the mot powerful sunspinner in centuries, to love her and not their friend Ludivine; most of all, she wants to show everyone just how powerful her magic is. For unlike every other elemental who had ever lived, Rielle needs no physical object to access her power, and her magic is not limited to one element. No, Rielle can control them all.

During an assassination attempt on Prince Audric, Rielle uses her powers to save her friend, despite her father's warnings never to reveal them. And Audric becomes convinced that his old friend is one of the Light Queen of prophecy, a human woman who will rescue them all from the angels who once oppressed humankind and who threaten again:

The Gate will fall. The angels will return and bring ruin to the world. You will know this time by the rise of two human Queens—one of blood, and one of light. One with power to save the world. One with the power to destroy it. Two Queens will rise. They will carry the power of the Seven. They will carry your fate in their hands. Two Queens will rise. (1649)

Rielle is not your usual fantasy heroine, not an empty placeholder for the reader nor a troubled, misunderstood, but deeply good at heart girl. No, as Prince Audric's mother recognizes, Rielle is "Cunning. Willful, and lovely. It's a volatile combination. It unnerves me" (3400). Rielle, with her naked ambition, is meant to unnerve the reader, too. Indeed, she unnerves herself: "Even while my mother burned, I was glad to feel the power simmering at my fingers... Even though you belong to Ludivine... I want you for my own. I want... I want. I crave. I hunger" (4285). Is she the Sun Queen, the one who will save humankind? Or is she the Blood Queen, who will destroy all?

If Rielle seems a questionable savior, what are we to make of the other heroine of Furyborn? We first meet assassin Eliana Ferracora as she helps round up a group of rebels, fighting against the Empire that rose in the ashes of Rielle's betrayal of humankind. Eighteen-year-old Eliana is tempted to let the rebel children of  group go, but resists: "children couldn't keep their mouths shut. And if anyone ever found out that the Dread of Orline, Lord Arkelion's pet huntress, had let traitors run free..." (648). Instead, Eliana watches as the eldest boy is beheaded.

Eliana's partner and lover Harkan wishes she were different: "Harkan paused, that sad, tired look on his face that made her hackles rise because she  knew he hoped it would change her, one of these days. Make her better. Make her good again. She lifted an eyebrow. Sorry, Harkan. Good girls don't live long" (643). Calculating, skilled, and deadly, Eliana focuses on the here and now, on keeping her mother and brother safe, and herself alive. Her ambition may be narrower than Rielle's, but it still burns bright. Though people in Eliana's time call Rielle the evil Blood Queen, it's difficult to believe that Eliana is more suited to the role of Sun Queen than is/was Rielle.

Eliana knows that any day now, she'll be recruited as a member of Invictus, a company of assassins that travels the world and carries out the Emperor's bidding. For she's not just skilled; she also seemed to have an ability no one else in her world has:

The problem was, she liked showing off. If she was going to be a freak with a miraculous body that no fall could kill, then she might as well ave fun with it. If she was busy having fun, then she didn't have time to wonder why her body could do what it did. And what it meant. (552)

But after her mother mysteriously disappears, The Wolf, a famed captain of the Red Crown rebels, bargains for Eliana's help in infiltrating the palace in exchange for his help in finding her missing parent. Coldly weighing both the costs and the benefits, Eliana agrees, looking out all the while for how to shimmy free of any acts, or any personal connections, not promoting her own safety or that of her mother and brother. She even accepts poor Harkan's self-sacrifice, leaving him behind in order to save herself and her brother.

One of the other rebel leaders tries to convince Eliana that "Revolutions mean nothing if their soldiers forget to care for the people they're fighting to save," but Eliana has more than her share of doubts (2609). Somehow familiar with the trajectory of the typical fantasy romance, she knows that she's supposed to be transformed by her time with the rebels, especially by her admiration for The Wolf, known to her now as Simon, a man who has endured much during his battles against the oppressive Empire. "People like us don't fight for our own hope... We fight for everyone else's," Simon nobly avers, but wily Eliana uses his own hope in her redemption to deceive him (2964).

At the end of this first installment, both Rielle's and Eliana's worlds are on the verge of war: Rielle's against the resurgent angels, Eliana's against the invading Undying Empire. Can either war be prevented? Will either young woman be Sun Queen? Or will both fall into the temptations of blood?

Or might the stark binaries of the prophecy be pushed aside, the opposition between sun and blood,  self-focused ambition and other-directed empathy, shown to be equally necessary in order to defeat true evil?

I'm gnawing on my fingernails, waiting to see what the next two volumes in the trilogy have to say about women and ambition and power.

Art credits:
Elemental magic symbols: Zenkora Wiki
Ambition: Girltalkhq

Furyborn: The Empirium Triology, Book 1
Sourcebooks, 2018

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