Abruptly his stronghold folded. His names struck. He tore my mind-veil off. Before I could react, the names retreated, reformed his stronghold. All too powerful for me. He laughed. “The Raker’s daughter has taken a single two-syllable. Women, huh. Weaker even than your mother. So be more sensible than her, sweet Vendelin….”
Rose Lemberg is one of those amazing people on Twitter who, on seeing someone looking for diversity in their reading, will turn around and recommend a whole tranche of work… and discuss why finding intersectional genre fiction is so hard. She’s also absolutely lovely, and described the world in which this story takes place as an incredibly intersectional one, so I couldn’t really resist giving it a go!
Held Close In Syllables Of Light is, in some ways, standard secondary-world coming-of-age travelogue fantasy; Vendelin is in many ways the stereotypical protagonist of such a story, headstrong, struggling to find her place in the world or who she is, trying to live up to the reputations and expectations of those around her whilst not betraying either her friends or her principles. The personal conflicts that engenders are fantastically portrayed and Lemberg manages to write teenage angst without it feeling like teenage angst; rather, it feels like the disgruntlement, uncertainty, lack of belonging that we feel at that age and that is (dismissively) described as teenage angst in bad fiction. Held Close… also manages to portray a number of other characters, and while the Shahniyaz is rather two-dimensional and stereotypical in his evil, the allies of the protagonist are rounded out and interesting characters who add a lot to the story in the ways they act on and are acted on by Vendelin, which has an interesting impact on the plot.
Held Close… has a plot that at times feels a bit unfocused. It’s not just episodic, though it certainly is that, it also seems to lack a unifying theme other than Lemberg’s need to move the chess pieces for her set-up at the end; Held Close… in some ways feels like the long prologue to a standard epic fantasy novel, wherein the teenage protagonist is set on a coming of age quest that goes wrong and becomes a far bigger quest than anticipated. A number of things just don’t seem to have a pay off in the story, but Lemberg does manage to keep the reader’s interest, in part with a beautiful, visual writing style that creates a fantastical world wonderfully and that really manages to realise the secondary world of the setting.
It’s also an incredibly queer setting. Held Close In Syllables Of Light features a number of different societies, but the one that is portrayed in the best light is Vendelin’s native society. This is one in which polyamory is the norm, homosexuality is perfectly acceptable and even expected, and there seems to be no real judgement about consensual sexual acts in or out of marriage; the lack of nonbinary gender aside it is almost a queer paradise in its acceptance, and Lemberg’s obvious partiality to it does nothing to undermine its uniqueness. The other societies are different, much less accepting, and that is shown to be damaging to everyone involved; Lemberg clearly has no time for the restrictions on human sexuality that the modern West places on us.
In the end, I wish Lemberg had been more clear about what Held Close In Syllables Of Light was doing; as it stands, it feels more like the prologue to an Eddingsesque high fantasy than the new, mold-breaking story that both world and characters clearly want it to be. Since it’s available free in Beyond Ceaseless Skies #80, I do recommend taking the time to read it for its portrayal of these accepting societies, just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot!