Title: The King’s Name
Author: Jo Walton
Summary: Sulien ap Gwien is seventeen years old when the Jarnish invasion begins, and strong enough to match any one of their raiders in battle. But when they do come, she finds herself unarmed and at their mercy. As she watches her attackers walk away from where she lies bound, she vows revenge.
With the land around her disintegrating and no help forthcoming, Sulien rides out in search of King Urdo, a young ruler fighting to create unity in a country where there is none.
What follows is the beginning of an alliance that will shape the course of history in Tir Tanagiri as well as the rest of Sulien’s life.
(Note: 2,531 words including quotations of surprise!book discussion. Let me know if this is an approach or format you’d like to see more of!)
The King’s Peace by Jo Walton is actually a reread for me. I first read it in, so my records tell me, 2013, which will have been right around the time I heard about asexuality for the very first time and when a lot of what is happening in this book will have resonated in a vague inexplicable way. Now, I’ve been rereading it for a variety of reasons, but notably the part where it’s frequently cited as being a mainstream publication with an asexual (aromantic asexual, actually) protagonist.
It is, hands-down, one of the best books I’ve read for aro and ace rep to date. This includes the indie books that include explicit and deliberate representation that don’t require me to put a TW for rape on the book and lack the insinuation that the character is (aro)ace because of the resulting trauma. (Point of note: I don’t think the book is saying that. I do think it is very easy to miss that the book isn’t actually saying that.)
As such, this will not be the usual kind of review for me. I want to try and do something new. See how we all like it when I do something a little, um, different from the way I usually tackle reviewing. There will be spoilers.
TW: Rape, mention of rape, religious zealotry (including but not restricted to forced conversions and discussions about the same), dealing with the emotional fall-out of both rape, becoming pregnant through rape and also coming face to face with one’s abuser and being forced to be in the same general area as said rapist. Also depictions of PTSD.
I’m probably missing stuff. This is a book of which 90% or so takes place during a war in a country just starting to see the emergence of a new (and powerful) religion, so… Basically: if you need warnings for anything related to that topic, assume this book comes with said warning.
That said. Wow, have I learned a lot in the four years since I first read this book. There is so much in this that went over my head the first time around and I don’t even have words to explain exactly all of what. Anyway! Let’s get to this experimental new approach for reviewing!
The King’s Peace and its sequel The King’s Name are both retellings of Arthurian legend. If you don’t know Arthurian legends at all, you’ll probably miss it. Walton, however, weaves far more legendary tales into her narrative than Arthurian. You’ll find traces of Tristan and Isolde, Maeve – though perhaps not, from what I could tell, a straight-up retelling of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, but given the deft way Walton weaves these old narratives into her world as believable history I wouldn’t be surprised if I simply missed it because I don’t know the tale well enough to pick up on the nods and references – and more that I’m just too headachey to remember.
The King’s Peace is also one of the first books I’d read with a character (and a protagonist at that!) who is visibly asexual. Sulien is interested in neither sex nor marriage, something which comes up several times in the story and in several different ways.
I should note, first of all, that the reader is first introduced to Sulien moments before she is gangraped by invading Jarnsmen and the narrative only subtly hints at the idea that Sulien’s asexuality and disinterest in marriage predate these experiences. That is not to say that Sulien’s aromanticism and asexuality would be less valid if they did arise from the trauma of rape – of course it is –, but it is worth noting because so many allosexuals assume that it always stems from trauma and would be ‘cured’ (whether the person in question wants it to be or not) by working through the trauma or other such ‘helpful’ suggestions that deny asexual and aromantic people their identity.
Throughout the narrative, Sulien is adamant that she is not interested in sharing someone’s bed or marriage. The first we hear of her feelings regarding marriage are when she encounters Duke Galba and attempts to explain to him why she cannot go through with the arranged marriage to his son. The whole exchange is subtle.
I sipped my cider and tried to think of a way to explain diplomatically that I could never think of marriage. “There is a goddess, my lord of Magor, in whose hand I have been, and she moves me to know that although he is a worthy companion I can never feel for your son as I should.” (The King’s Peace, Kindle Locations 944-946).
The scene as a whole is only a few pages long, never explaining Sulien’s reasons beyond that she has changed her mind and cannot. Duke Galba, whom she’s talking to, does mention earlier that he has heard something to suggest Sulien would back out of the match, but not what. The narrative leaves it open to interpretation and makes it easy for readers to assume that he has, somehow, heard that Sulien has been raped.
However, given that in the previous chapter, Sulien and Urdo spent a night in the same room and one of the later plot points of the novel revolves around the suggestion that Darien is Urdo’s illegitimate son, it is more likely that Galba has heard about that night and assumes Sulien is another of Urdo’s mistresses and may yet seek more security with a spouse than such a position offers. Sulien, not understanding that people may assume that she and Urdo had sexual intercourse during their night in the same room, wonders what it is that Galba may have heard.
Later, Sulien remarks that the idea of marriage makes her nauseous. It is a note tied around her pregnancy and the surety that she would have to raise the child alone. And again, later, one of Sulien’s companions, Osvran, suggests that marriage would benefit them both.
“I always thought I’d never marry. I prefer men to lie with, always have. And I am not heir to land. But Urdo has promised me an estate, a name, something to leave to heirs. Not now, but when the Jarnish wars are over and we have peace. If the gods are kind and all this comes to pass and we both live to see it, I was wondering if you might like to consider a marriage. I know you turned down honorable marriage from Galba and Glyn, and you’ve turned down half the ala for something or other. But we wouldn’t need to bother each other too much to what we don’t have a taste to, though I think I could bring myself to conceive a child, or if not you might want to bear another to someone else, or at the least we could bring your boy back from Thansethan. We could do that anyway, I know you miss—” (The King’s Peace, Kindle Locations 2020-2025).
Again, while the narrative does not explicit state that Sulien is asexual, it subtly acknowledges it in Osvran’s speech and, indeed, Sulien has visibly grown more comfortable in rejecting suitors of any kind than she was when she spoke to Lord Galba at the start of book.
“No. I’m sorry. I have no taste whatsoever for that sort of love with anyone, man, woman, or beast.” I shuddered a little remembering it. “We’d both be forcing ourselves, and I don’t want a child that much. I like being an armiger. I don’t want to be a key-keeper and run an estate.” (The King’s Peace, Kindle Locations 2030-2032).
While it is not explicitly stating “I am asexual” it is the closest thing to it. Notable, though, is that part of Sulien’s reasons to decline marriage are because she rejects the feminine-coded gender role rather than romance itself. She likes being a warrior. As the conversation progresses, she explains that she likes the freedom of being her own person. Osvran insists nothing need change. Sulien argues that it cannot help but change and inhibit the freedoms she is currently enjoying.
Romance, indeed, is far from Sulien’s mind and life. It comes up only a handful of times, perhaps most notably in her reaction to receiving a poem from one of her admirers. Early on in the story, she is given another “extravagantly romantic poem” and she only glances at it to make sure it is as disinteresting as she expects. While she is likely jesting about the severity of her feelings, she explicitly describes receiving the poems as torture.
Throughout the novel, as well, there are many small moments in which Sulien expresses confusion about the way people experience love. When the High Queen is accused of adultery, she says
“People like to talk and joke about these things,” I said. “I don’t know why, but they do. They seem to want to believe everybody is secretly in love with someone.” Indeed it has always surprised me that people find this sort of thing believable. It is as if they want to believe it. (The King’s Peace, Kindle Locations 7899-7901).
and “as for me, well, anyone would have thought I’d have said no to enough people they’d not believe I’d have said yes to others” (The King’s Peace, Kindle Locations 7904-7905), suggesting that Sulien does not understand why the people around her struggle so much to understand that she has no desire to sleep with anyone. When she meets Emer and Conal, she explicitly expresses wonder that anyone would risk the consequences of being caught in adultery: “How could anyone take such a stupid risk for the sake of half an hour, even if they found pleasure in it?” (The King’s Peace, Kindle Locations 4609-4610).
Throughout the novel, Sulien expresses similar sentiments when they show up. She fails to understand how one of her friends could look more agreeably at an arranged marriage after meeting the bride, for another such example.
While the novel does not dwell on the psychological effects of her rape, they are nevertheless present, most notably during the scenes when Sulien meets the one surviving assailant, when she meets her son and notices how much he looks like his father. Her usual method is to ignore what happened as much as possible and to throw herself into her work as an armiger or into her love of horses. Walton never explicitly links or unlinks Sulien’s sexuality from what happened to her, but scenes such as the ones quoted and the sheer lack of explicit ties in those scenes suggest that, if anything, what happens to Sulien in the first chapter of the book, allows her to find words and express feelings that she has always had as Sulien’s love of arms and warfare are and her dislike for farming and household chores is established within that same chapter already.
And yet, despite the fact that Sulien falls quite squarely into a depiction of asexuality that mingles sex-repulsion, aromanticism and asexuality and adds the suggestion of trauma, Walton never falls into the trope that Sulien is somehow apart from society. She is apart from her home in Derwen, but that is depicted as being because her heart lies with the ala, the roaming life she is used to and Caer Tanaga. The relationships she has with living blood relatives throughout the novel are shown to be cracked and fractured. She has left her family home, true, but she has left it with the explicit desire to join a different and larger society and to be a central piece in building the society her lord and friend is striving to create. It stands in stark contrast to those asexual characters who leave their home to become a hermit or otherwise exile themselves. Sulien, further, does not exile herself completely. She willingly accepts the role as heir to her younger brother’s rule while he has no heir of his own blood and she returns to her home several times throughout the narrative, once even coming to understand how strongly she is tied to the place in which she was born and raised.
Further, while Sulien’s relationship with her son, Darien, may be strained due to the fact that she is rarely at Thansethan where he is being raised (or around children), she is not shown as averse to children, later on in the novel even going out shopping with several and remarking that she enjoys being around children. She’s also determined to build a better relationship with her son once she is able to do so. Their relationship is complicated not just by the kind of work Sulien does and how little she can take Darien with her or raise him, but also by the fact that her mixed-race son reminds her of her rapist and she has to deal with the emotional impact of that. Sulien may not be a family-oriented warrior and she may not always understand other people’s sexual attractions, but she is clearly depicted as someone with a lot of love and friendship to give and her whole narrative is devoted to the story of how she helped build a peaceful civilisation. Sulien was, above all, a warrior who strove to protect society and make sure that everyone could, safely, be a part of that society.
Walton’s depiction of asexuality in the depiction of Sulien’s character is at times incredibly subtle, but in that subtlety lies a nuance that is rarely seen within the mainstream depictions of asexuality. It also not the only aspect of the novel that is treated with such nuance. The King’s Peace is a book filled with characters from different cultures and with different ideas on life, working together (or not) to create a kingdom in which they can all co-exist in peace. The narrative is filled with discussions of cultural norms (and, read carefully, for Sulien is an unreliable narrator and has bigoted view of her own that go unexamined) as well as discussions upon the nature of religion and the questions of moderation versus zealotry. (A point carried through in the recap of The King’s Name, actually, which is a delightful fictional introduction to a scholarly work and which drives home the differences and the ideas of cultural dominance of one group even more.) If that wasn’t enough, there are at least four languages being spoken within the narrative and, while relying only rarely on conlang terminology, Walton weaves the cultural misunderstandings and the linguistics notes through her story expertly.
The King’s Peace was, when I read it, easily one of my favourite books of the year. Rereading it now, and understand much more of what Walton accomplishes within the text, I love it even more. I would highly, highly recommend this book to fantasy readers. It is filled with quiet magic (for the most part) and low fantasy retellings. If you’re looking for a narrative that focuses as much on the domestic and the daily life as it does on epic battles, I would also highly recommend it as it is a line Walton walks exceptionally well. It was a breath-taking reread adventure.