“Be careful, Na’dio,” Serena said softly. “Remember that the heart is a dangerous land, and there is not one more painful to have to leave once it is full entered.”
Today’s book is The Broken Crown by Michelle West, who also writes under the names Michelle Sagara and Michelle Sagara West. It’s a 1997 epic fantasy, and this discussion will feature a discussion of sexual violence as well as spoilers. Let’s get into it!
So What’s It About?
The Dominion, once divided by savage clan wars, has kept an uneasy peace within its border since that long-ago time when the clan Leonne was gifted with the magic of the Sun Sword and was raised up to reign over the five noble clans. But now treachery strikes at the very heart of the Dominion as two never meant to rule–one a highly skilled General, the other a master of the magical arts–seek to seize the crown by slaughtering all of clan Leonne blood.
What I Thought
You guys! I fucking made it through this book, and I want that to go on both my gravestone and my resume because it quite possibly the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. I ended up struggling with it so much that I winnowed away at it over the course of several months, but I DID IT. To be fair, this is probably not the most fortuitous introduction, and it’s probably important to mention that I did not hate this book!
I didn’t hate it, but it happens to be the most willfully obtuse, irritatingly intricate epic fantasy I’ve ever read. And y’all know that I’m already at something of a Brain Disadvantage with epic fantasies – I just don’t have a good head for keeping track of thousands of interchangeable nobles who all hate each other for various reasons that are mentioned once and then never again. It felt like there were literally 7,000 various interchangeable men with names like Tyr Fileppo kai di’Ramero wandering around making Portentous Statements at each other, and 90% of my mental faculties were occupied with trying to keep them straight.
It also doesn’t help that I am simply not a fan of West’s writing style. There is intricate language, there is purple prose, and then there is whatever you would call her style of writing. The best word I can find to describe it is “ponderous” in the extreme. There is just so much to wade through, and the writing alone causes the pace to slow to an absolute crawl. What’s more, people constantly talk circles around each other, making these vague and weighty statements and leaving you to sift through the dialogue to figure out what’s actually going on. Between the writing style, the pacing and the massive number of boring characters and shifting allegiances to keep track of I found that I could only read a little bit of the book at a time without getting overwhelmed.
The F Word
It’s a shame that I found so many things about the book offputting, because I do genuinely believe West has a great, compelling to story to tell here! It just gets lost in the way that it is conveyed. This is very much a story of direct power vs. indirect power in a richly-realized non-Western fantasy setting, and it discusses the ways that power is masculinized and feminized. In the Dominion, women are little more than ornamental sex objects to collect and have decorate your harem, and West has many interesting reflections to offer on what it would be like for a woman to exist within such a powerless position but nevertheless continue to fight and find meaning in her life where she can. This is essentially Diora’s story – she is told again and again that she should not develop any kind of attachments because they will simply be turned against her and used against her in the ruthless political landscape of the Dominion, where a woman is a disposable object and may be set aside or killed on a whim:
The desire to be loved—it is a false desire, a madness, a weakness. If you let it, it will control your life, and it will lead you down roads, in the end, that even the damned don’t travel.
Sold away to an influential but brutal husband, Diora nevertheless opens her heart to the women of her harem and finds love, meaning and sisterhood with them. To be honest this is the only happy part of the book and it is quickly ripped away when Diora’s father murders the husband’s entire household in a coup. Diora, possessing only indirect power, has no way of stopping this from happening and must find out how to live in the world after losing the only people who loved her and treated her with goodness – especially now that she must return to the household of the man who stole everything away from her. She must not grieve, cannot show that she has been wounded, is mandated to continue being the perfect, beautiful woman that she always has been. But beneath the still waters she has decided that she will use her position of visibility to make a statement to the men who think they can take whatever they want with no repercussions. She is not a warrior, and most would consider her little more than a pretty ornament, but she nevertheless devotes the rest of her life to fighting back against the men who view women’s lives as entirely disposable in their pursuit of power:
Threaten things loved, and a woman might buckle in terror, fold, and give in to any demand until such a time as she might come upon the means to end the threat permanently. But destroy those things, and you destroyed the life, if not the living, of the woman who so loved. Living ghosts were always dangerous.
I have seen other readers argue that this book is simply too full of violence against women and that only Diora is exempt from it because she is the special protagonist, and I can understand that perspective. A shocking number of women die and experience sexual violence in this book, and I do certainly object to lots of violence against women in fantasy novels-but much more so if the author uses it cheaply and exploitatively. In this case I do think that the violence happens because West has something meaningful to say about the functions and mores of power and oppression and how people may try to find agency within those functions and mores. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier to read, however!
There are other parts to the story, certainly, as it is a sprawling epic fantasy – the demons are plotting something, and demonspawn Kiriel appears to be central to their nefarious goals, while the coup in the Dominion may be only the beginning of the blood shed over the throne. However I’d argue that Diora’s story is truly what is at the heart of this book, and that’s why I’ve given it the most attention here. If I knew what I was getting myself into with this book from the start I might honestly not have read it, but I’m pretty proud that I did and I don’t exactly regret it either.
About the Author (from her website)
“She lives in Toronto with her long-suffering husband and her two children, and to her regret has no dogs.
Reading is one of her life-long passions, and she is sometimes paid for her opinions about what she’s read by the venerable Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. No matter how many bookshelves she buys, there is Never Enough Shelf space. Ever.”