U is for Katya Nar Umbriel

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Barbara Ann Wright’s The Pyramid Waltz is a charming lesbian adventure romance in a fairy-tale setting. Heroine Katya Nar Umbriel is a quick-tongued, irreverent princess who strolls around the castle in tight trousers looking bored and charming the pants/skirts off any woman who catches her eye — this rakish persona is an excellent cover for her real work, which is ferreting out threats to the throne and the lives of her family along with a band of roguish misfits.

Cover image for Barbara Ann Wright's The Pyramid Waltz. A gold stone gastle stands gleaming against the background of a reddish sunset. In the right-hand foreground is a CGI illustration of a woman with chunky shoulder-length blond hair and pale skin. She wears a short red coat over a long white vest with gold buttons, unbuttoned to show a bit of cleavage. Her hips are canted slightly,  her feet apart, and in her left hand she loosely holds a long thin sword.Our second heroine Starbride is a new courtier with red-brown skin and dark hair, who is less interested in the politicking and catty gossip of the court and more interested in the trade law of the kingdom of Farraday, since the people of her home city are being taken advantage of by Farradain traders. Unlike the world of Ash, women are free to marry other women and start families; they can wear trousers or gowns as they please, and daughters can inherit titles and estates and even the crown, depending on their place in a family’s birth order. It’s a fun premise and a sweet romance, though a little less sophisticated than I hoped. It hits that awkward spot where it’s too sexy for YA, but feels too juvenile for adult romance. (Fantasy NA? Is that a thing yet? Please tell me it isn’t a thing yet.) But despite the lack of refinement, the world of the text has a great many things to say about the ebbs and swells of power that are precisely what intersectionality was created to address.

Katya is second in line to the throne, but her elder brother the Crown Prince lives elsewhere with his wife and children so Katya is the nearest direct link to the King and Queen. (The royal family can’t be all in the same place, for reasons that only eventually become guessable.) She is constantly besieged by favor-seekers, opportunists, and those who offer false friendship to advance a hidden agenda; as a result, she finds it hard to trust the kindness of others, particularly new acquaintances. At the same time, she plays the role of rebellious princess and seductress to mask her work as head of the Order of Vestra, a small band that uncovers traitors to and conspiracies against the crown — Katya’s friendship or attention, when offered, is therefore often as false or calculated as the flattery she receives in return. Katya unhesitatingly uses against others the same tactics (persuasion, lies, flattery, evasion) that she considers unethical when used against her.

(Over the course of the novel, I started to feel perversely sorry for the courtiers as a group — they’re characterized as universally shallow and silly and rank-obsessed and trend-mad in a way that reminds me a lot of the baseline misogyny in fantasies like Game of Thrones, where Sansa’s girlish desire to be a lady with a devoted knight is negatively contrasted to Arya’s boyish desire to take fighting lessons and run around outdoors.)

Complicating this power dynamic is the fact that Katya bears the Aspect, which is roughly to say she can transform into a Fiend when provoked or when involved in certain rituals. It gives her enormous physical power (horns, fangs, super strength and speed, the whole demon bit) but it is terribly inhuman and its lust for slaughter is insatiable. The pyramid necklace she wears keeps it mostly contained, but there is always a risk that anger or fear or other strong emotions will break the pyramid and loose the Fiend, in which case lots of people will die. This is different than many fantasy or paranormal romances, where the beastly side of a shifter is usually within the person’s control and does not impact their personhood — with the Fiend, however, Katya-as-Katya is so lost that she doesn’t even remember what she does when she’s changed. The Fiend is decidedly Not Her on a profound level — which makes her to some extent its victim, though not as victimized as those she kills when transformed. Power in this metaphor is something inimical to humanity, something cold and malevolent that needs to be kept in check.

Starbride’s POV expands the terms of power, for Starbride comes from a colonized people. I’m going to quote at length:

She ignored the Nereems’ words on courtly life and studied the architecture and tapestries, the small statues, and the representations of the ten spirits that were everywhere. She knew them already, though she hadn’t grown up with them. Like all aspects of Farradain culture, they had seeped into her homeland like a creeping tide of marmalade.

Allusia allowed Farraday into their land over one hundred years ago, to the mountains where the pale-skinned outlanders harvested the crystal to make pyramids. Some of the Allusian warlords had traded with them; others who attempted to drive them out were crushed by their army. The remaining Allusians organized to meet the Farradains on equal footing, learning more about these people, about their laws, but there was always more to learn. One hundred years hadn’t solved all their problems. (Kindle location 296)

Starbride has come to the Farradain court at Marienne because her mother would like her to find a well-connected lover to ease the trade burden on the people back home in Newhope; Starbride herself means to do research on the law to help her people, rather than offer herself up as bait to induce someone else to do it. She has a meet-cute with Katya while trying to find the library, but the more they talk and the closer they become, the less Starbride is inclined to explain her people’s problems to the princess: “Allusia has to fight its own battles. We can’t expect Farraday to solve all the problems it creates. [Ed note: why, precisely?] If we lean on them to do everything for us, we won’t know how to do anything for ourselves. We won’t even know when we’re being taken advantage of” (1172).

I have several problems with this approach  — the first being that Starbride quickly finds that what Farradain traders are doing in Newhope (something like price-fixing?) is illegal under Farradain law. Now obviously this is a bullshit move on the traders’ part, but what it tells the reader is that Farradain trade law has become the standard even in the Allusian capital. This is as clear an illustration of an imperial situation as I have seen in my recent reading. It is the threat of the Farradain army that makes this imposition possible and sustainable — so while Starbride’s urge to learn the law is all well and good, this will do nothing to eliminate the military threat that maintains the social imbalance. Her bootstrappy assertion that Allusians have to learn to cope on their own similarly ignores the nature of colonization and creates the illusion that Allusians and Farradains are operating on equal planes of agency. They are not, and we know it in the text: Starbride is ridiculed, fetishized, and Othered by the Farradain courtiers, who more than once refer to her as “exotic.” Eventually, she reveals the situation to Katya, who not only says that she should definitely have been told (on account of the illegality) but who instantly comes up with the idea of offering law scholarships for students from Allusia. Though this does further entangle Allusia and Farraday in the imperial machinery, it does so by including Allusians as actors and so must be counted as something of a win.

Not that Allusian culture is entirely free from problematic elements — they have a servant caste with something like a lifebond pledge. There wasn’t enough detail for me to explore, but it reads like a very cultish, benevolent slavery and I wanted either more or less of it than I got. More, because then it would be more than a throwaway, and less, because then I wouldn’t have to be occasionally squicked out by the casual way Starbride’s maid offered to sacrifice her life to save Starbride’s — like all the time, in casual conversation, in hypothetical poisonings, just constantly. It was weird.

The imperial legacy of Farraday, rather underexplored in the text considering how troubling a dynamic it is for the romance, dovetails with the sinister origin of the Umbriels’ power base: more Fiends. Every Umbriel within three removes from the throne has an Aspect like Katya’s — because centuries ago, an Umbriel ancestor bound the great Fiend Yanchasa beneath a giant pyramid and saved the kingdom. This was only possible by taking some of the demon into himself and his children, and the royal family has continued performing the binding ritual (the titular Pyramid Waltz) every five years, adding later descendants and children as needed. Yanchasa has become legend rather than fact in the minds of the common Faradains, so the Umbriels have to hide the monstrous sides of their nature from the population they rule over, even as they induct spouses and children into the ritual and give them their own Aspects to (hopefully) control. It is obviously in the kingdom’s best interests to keep the great Fiend imprisoned, but the Umbriels assume royal power is the reward they earn for being the Fiend’s jailers — even though this reward is not consented to by the populace, and in fact there are many who would object.

Needless to say, I am uncomfortable with this status quo. Which makes for a really fun read, until the threads start to unravel. Some pretty major spoilers to follow.

Ready? Let’s begin.

I knew by the third time dead uncle Roland’s name came up that he was probably going to turn out to be not-dead uncle Roland, and sure enough there he is, leading the rebellion. Roland had been leader of the Order in his day, and he had often been eager to use pyramid magic and mind-magic in ways not endorsed by his family or his teammates. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ is about the size of it — he was more concerned with his own right to information than to any other person’s right to anything (mental privacy, health, life). Katya has been warned away from similar impulses by her father’s pyradisté (pyramid-wizard) Crowe, just as he’d once warned Roland. But Roland’s near-death experience has led him to merge himself with his Fiend: “Roland smiled, and the features of his Aspect dropped over his face … But his expression didn’t lose its character, didn’t become the Fiend’s. He was himself, even with the Aspect” (5283). Note the ambiguity in “he was himself”: Roland’s lust for control has caused him to embrace the monstrous side of his nature to the point where all human affection and empathy disappear. All that’s left is the desire for power: “All I ask is a kingdom ruled the right way, my way … the people of Marienne will finally get a ruler they deserve, one who will protect and guide them by any means necessary” (5301).

Katya refuses — but in the course of the fight scene that follows, she has her own humanity stripped away by the rising Fiend within. By the time Roland escapes, Katya has imbibed far more of Yanchasa’s essence — far more demon — than is considered safe. Starbride’s newly discovered powers as a pyradisté mean she is the only one nearby who can help, but in her inexperience she takes away not just the extra demon, but all of Katya’s Aspect. This is presented, quite clearly, as a loss:

No Aspect. No Fiend. That which her parents had passed to her, that which all Umbriels possessed, gone. What did that make her? … No more Fiend, maybe no more Umbriel. How could she lead the Order of Vestra if she didn’t have what the original leader of the Order had possessed? (5584)

Considering the nature of the Aspect, it is tempting to snark back a reply that What that makes you, young lady, is safer to be around, but it is not so simple. The Fiend is the embodiment of both personal and political power. Many of the secret passages running through the castle are tuned only to those who have Fiendish elements, for instance — and what’s worse, it is not made clear how Katya’s cleansing (if you can call it that) will affect the way the great pyramid imprisons Yanchasa. I’m sure this is covered by the next two books in the series, but I could have used a bit more closure at the end of this first novel. As it is, we’re left with an unfinished thought on how much monstrous power one person/kingdom can contain without it consuming them.

{Minor note because it was just too good to let go unpraised: during one early scene Katya’s Fiend is unleashed and we get one of the best descriptions of violence I have ever, ever read: “She reached between his legs and clawed him from groin to chin, cutting through him as if he were warm pie.” Warm pie! I still squirm with delight to read it. GRRM eat your heart out.}

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Lately I’ve been finding and enjoying a lot of great sff that deals with colonialism and/or race relations in some way: for instance, Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo and Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

N. K. Jemisin, whose Inheritance trilogy fits in nicely with the above list of books, had a great post recently on confirmation bias and epic fantasy.

Wonderful author Malinda Lo recently posted her breakdown of diversity in the NYT YA Bestseller lists. She has pie charts for characters of color, characters with disabilities, and LGBT characters: the numbers are pretty stark and worth checking out.

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Wright, Barbara Ann. The Pyramid Waltz. Bold Strokes Books: September 18, 2012. Ebook.

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6 thoughts on “U is for Katya Nar Umbriel

  1. Thanks, Barbara! I really enjoyed reading Pyramid Waltz — I’m such a sucker for a rakish princess. 🙂

  2. I have this book in my mountainous TBR waiting for me to get my fantasy reading groove back. I’ve just finished ‘The Goblin Emperor’ so will look forward to reading ‘The Pyramid Waltz’ when the following books are out. I’ve realised lately that I need resolution so cliff hangerish books have slid down TBR mountain.

    I have just read another f/f fantasy ‘Daughter of Mystery’ by Heather Rose Jones that is Ruritanian with divine magical alchemy. I liked that the central relationship evolved and also enjoyed how it was balanced with the plot. The world building was very good and I liked the mixed reactions to the lesbian relationship and how the way it works in this world is foreshadowed.

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