Friday, November 22, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Air Logic by Laurie J. Marks

The most compassionate of fantasy revolutions comes to a fitting close

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Air Logic is a novel that's been a long time coming, finishing off a quartet of novels by Laurie J. Marks that began back in 2002 and whose third volume came out over a decade ago. I haven't been waiting nearly that long - I read Fire Logic back in 2016, and finished Earth Logic and Water Logic last year. However, this series captured my heart, and I've been following the progress of this final instalment for quite some time. I'm so glad that Small Beer Press has brought it to completion, releasing some very pretty new editions in the process. Enough attempting to sell books by their cover, though - how does this final volume match up to the rest of the quartet?

Air Logic picks up where Water Logic leaves off, in the aftermath of the declaration of peace between the people of Shaftal, a sparsely populated and cold country that has spent the past two decades under occupation, and the Sainnites, the colonising army who have been effectively abandoned by their own homelands and living in increasingly precarious circumstances. At the heart of this new political dawn is Karis, the ex-drug addict and blacksmith who is now the G'Deon, or leader of Shaftal, and her motley found family of mystics, ageing warriors, defected soldiers-turned pacifist chefs and objectively horrible magic children in the middle of their judicial training, but she's under increasing threat from a rogue group that doesn't recognise her authority, and their powerful magic leader. A hunt to neutralise the threat of this group turns into a hunt to reclaim some of their lost family members, as the rogue witch deploys increasingly terrifying measures to take Karis and her forces down.

Shaftal is one of those fantasy worlds that just has something a bit special going on, and there's a lot that goes into that. Its big, queer, multi-adult family structures are a particular delight, justified by the subsistence farming structure required to stay alive in the land. So too is the feeling of time passing, of seasonal difference and of generally "lived-in-ness" that the characters' lives exude, even as political elites. But the central attraction is the Elemental logic system, which manifests differently with different characters in a way which nevertheless defines their personalities, outlooks, talents and ways of thinking about the world, and how compatible they are with the other people around them. Fire witches, like Karis' wife and born "boundary-crosser" Zanja, work on intuition; earth bloods like Karis herself offer straightforward, grounded thinking; rare water witches can move through time and have a profoundly different outlook on causality; and air witches tend to embody full rationalism without empathy. Because this is "Air Logic", its the air witches who take centre stage here: whose most magical members are trained as Truthkens, empowered to enact the law and pass judgement on wrongdoers through their ability to detect lies but universally disliked by the people around them and frequently cast out or killed by their own families for their additional ability to control and manipulate the minds of others. Its a system that's never fully explained, and defies easy characterisation, and yet Marks' talent is such that the constant references that characters make to their elemental alignments, their meanings, and their explanatory powers, never feel forced or ridiculous - its just another element of this particular fantasy world.

The resolution of Zanja and Karis' plot was never going to be a straightforward narrative affair, and it wasn't going to be resolved through anything resembling a traditional plot. Instead, the journeys of Zanja - who spends a lot of this book, as in the previous volume, off on quests that make very little sense to anyone else - and Karis, and the other Shaftali and Sainnite characters picked up along the way - feel meandering on the surface, although there's plenty of danger and tension in how the rogue air witch - uncovered as someone with intimate access to the family and the ability to strike very deeply indeed into the heart of their relationships - operates. What the quests do, rather, is give all of the characters -including some new faces, such as vengeful mother Chaen, who has joined the rebel movement at the behest of her Air Witch son - the chance to spend enough time together to figure each other out. Because, despite the ingrained differences in thinking across the "logical spectrum", and between the Sainnites, Shaftali, and other minority groups, the central thesis of the elemental logic series is that peace, in a meaningful positive sense, is possible, especially when people have to work together to survive. There's one or two beats which veer into deus ex machina, specifically where Water Logic gets involved, but on the whole the combination of simple short term objectives with the underlying huge task of peace building makes the latter topic, never easy to build a narrative around, into an effective undercurrent to the volume.

Of course, all of this relies on the strengths of the characters to make it work. In this area, Air Logic would benefit from being read as the culmination of a whole series reread, as a lot of the particular quirks and backstories are hard to dive into cold. There's a wide range of both established and new points of view, divided by chapter, although the lack of strong differentiation between different characters' "internal" voices is one of the few missed opportunities for really understanding how the logic system really affects them all. Still, the range of characters are interesting and the new voices - Chaen; the air witch Anders and his cohort, all in training with adult truthken Norina; and rich scion-turned-rebel Tamar, who finds himself in terrible company for most of the novel - fit well into the story as a whole, bringing the different aspects of Air Logic and its contrast with the Fire Logic which many of the main characters embody into effective relief.

All in all, Air Logic is a fitting conclusion to a series that does something beautiful and unusual with its epic fantasy premise, turning into something both gentler and rawer than any other series of international war and resistance that I've read. Packed with queer characters living their complex and unknowable truths in a difficult fantasy universe, this is a series which deserves to be firmly on the list of innovative fantasy classics for years to come.

Rating: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Marks, Laurie J. Air Logic (Small Beer Press, 2019)