In the future, Earth is just one of the planets ruled by the vast Chapalii empire. The volatility of these alien overlords is something with which Tess Soerensen is all too familiar. Her brother, Charles, rebelled against them at one time and was rewarded by being elevated into their interstellar system—yet there is reason to believe they murdered his and Tess’s parents.
Struggling to find her place in the world and still mending a broken heart, Tess sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, one of her brother’s planets. On the ground, she joins up with the native jaran people, becoming immersed in their nomadic society and customs while also attempting to get to the bottom of a smuggling scheme she encountered on her journey there. As she grows ever closer to the charismatic jaran ruler, Ilya—who is inflamed by an urgent mission of his own—Tess must choose between her feelings for him and her loyalty to her brother.
Having read A Passage of Stars last year, I decided to delve further into Elliott’s early work; and Jaran is widely acclaimed as some of her best work. So that’s where I went next.
Jaran is a fascinating mixture of what we could consider science fictional tropes – aliens, intergalactic empires, vastly superior technology – and fantasy ones; the steppe-riding nomads, the general lack of technology beyond the bow, and so on. The clash between these two worlds, in the person of Tess, makes this novel reminiscent of books like Golden Witchbreed or Left Hand of Darkness, especially when Elliott’s intention – stated in the introduction to the tenth anniversary reissue – of interrogating the patriarchal society we live in is taken into account.
Fundamentally, that’s what Jaran is doing, that’s its “project”; looking at different kind of societies, at how those different societies interact, and at the strengths – and weaknesses – of them. Hence dropping the, essentially modern-Western, Tess into a (moderately; violence is still male-coded, indeed, male-exclusive apart from Tess) non-patriarchal society while also exposing her to the Chapalii, a society that is both intensely patriarchal and also very rigid and formal in its social structure. The way these three worldviews interact across and through Tess is the key concern of the novel, even while more traditional elements of fantastika – anti-colonial uprising, rebellion against oppression, Great Man-driven cultural transformation, romance – go on almost in the background of the book. Jaran manages this fantastically, making Tess question both the strictures and structures of the society she is used to and of jaran society as she runs up against the places they conflict; Elliott handles incredibly well the difficult balance of endorsing jaran culture while not heroising it or making it a perfect, utopian society.
Of course, all this is going on against the background of a huge number of other bits of plot, including Tess’ brother’s plans for a resumption of his rebellion against the Chapaliii; Tess’ companion Ilya’s plans to unite the jaran tribes against the settled khaja people surrounding them; a group of Chapaliii who are travelling on Rhui with Ilya and his tribe for something unknown; and Tess’ burgeoning attraction to Ilya. Jaran is a complex novel indeed. Elliott manages to both meld together and separate out the different elements of plot excellently, and largely focuses on the social side of the story; interactions, conversations, verbal and nonverbal communication all laid out to give the reader a real sense of how people are talking, and what people are talking about, throughout the novel in a really well put together way. It lets us get inside the different characters, under their skins, no matter how different their culture from our own, to understand their motivations, and that gives the plot of Jaran a great deal of extra richness.
Jaran is also astoundingly readable. For a book that has so many different strands, so many different major characters to follow, that hits so many different emotional notes including constrasting ones in the same space of time, and conflicting ones within the same character, Elliott keeps it incredibly unified as a reading experience; her style is neither sparse nor lush, but rather plain, not doing either more or less than it needs to to keep the reader involved in the book and aware of what is happening. Her pacing is excellent and varied, without falling into the trap of flatness or of jerkiness, and accelerates in a very natural way as the conclusion of the novel approaches; and while we’re left with an awful lot of open strands of plot, there is a certain feeling of conclusion about the end, as a number of narrative arcs do get tied up in a satisfying way, the last page of the the book feeling like a place one could stop without reading the rest of the series if so desired.
The novel does have one problem, and that’s a certain backing off from its feminism at times; Elliott can’t quite build the jaran as a non-patriarchal society, and gendered violence is in fact an accepted part of society, in the form of marital rape. Similarly, while women are positioned as the authority figures in jaran society, this doesn’t actually seem to carry over on the whole into personal interactions; authority on a social level isn’t the same as authority on an individual level in any case, but there doesn’t seem to be the correlates of it one might expect. Furthermore, the decisions of Ilya are his decisions; despite affecting how the tribes will live and function on every level, he does not consult the women about it, or deal with the consequences of it for women. Jaran walks up to the matriarchal brink and then, in a number of ways, falls back into patriarchal constructs.
Jaran is one of those books that sets out with big ideas, and delivers beautifully, whilst also being a very enjoyable book to read; if you want to see a great example of the scope of what SF can do, look at what Kate Elliott does with Jaran, and be awed.