It is a crime against English fantasy, and a major indictment of the Random House marketing department, that John Dickinson isn’t more famous. He has written several books but in particular I’m talking about a fantasy trilogy – The Cup of the World, The Widow & the King, and The Fatal Child.
At first glance we have yer usual medieval fantasy – a world of kings and queens and lords and draughty castles. It’s the philosophy, the religion, the ethics of the series that make it such fun. The set-up is original and unusual, and it provides a backdrop for all kinds of thought and speculation on morality and duty and good and bad.
The official religion is vaguely Christian but with the four archangels taking the place of the Trinity, the saints and the BVM. Co-existing with this in the background is the local lore, which – this being a fantasy series – is also absolutely true. There is no necessary clash between the two, though the church says there is. The church provides political power and the lore provides the real power. That’s where the narrative tension arises and is what makes the series great.
The ancestors of the present inhabitants arrived from across the sea a few centuries ago, led by a group of brothers. The leader and eldest brother committed a grievous sin – the murder of a child whose mother happened to be the local goddess – when they arrived and this crime has become part of the lore. Now anyone who practices the magic that the lore makes available tends to be contaminated with the guilt of that sin. And the practitioners tend to be the aristocracy of the land – the descendants of those brothers.
Unfortunately it’s a very politically useful magic – the ability to see what’s happening elsewhere and even the ability to travel in hours through a kind of magical hyperspace between points in the realm that would take weeks or months to do on foot. (Said hyperspace is a barren, rocky bowl where, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the goddess weeping, still mourning her child.) The weaker rulers use it for fun but even the stronger, best-intentioned ones find it too hard to resist sometimes. If you want to put down a rebellion many leagues away and get there now then you do the putting down first and worry about the consequences for you, your loved ones and your royal house second. Thus you have a land where even the most well-intentioned efforts of the noblest rulers are contaminated by a kind of original sin and effectively doomed to failure in interesting and unpredictable ways. There is still free will and there are few out-and-out villains beyond any kind of redemption. Individuals can be saved – but can the land?
The three novels are sequential but can be read on their own too. So do yourself a favour and then tell me if I’m wrong.