A fully immersive epic fantasy with deep notes of character, worldbuilding and magic making for a wonderful and engaging story.
In a world of myth and magic, of prophecy, religious war, and twisty politics, Esclin Aubrinos, Arros of the Hundred Hills has a problem. The Riders, followers of a monotheism, The Burning One, very different than the diverse traditions predominant in the hills, riverlands and forest, have come in numbers across the narrow sea. This time, instead of raiding, they are in great numbers and seem set to not just pillage, but to stay and conquer. With such a diverse group of independently minded communities, keeping his friends and allies together to face the Riders is a challenge--and it may not even be enough to stand against their power.
This is the matter of Melissa Scott’s epic fantasy, Water Horse.
Water Horse is epic, mythic, and expansive fantasy in a mold that explicitly invokes for me, things like the First and Second Age of Tolkien, Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering, or Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series. This is a novel that stands in the space where there are deep and abiding personal relationships, realpolitik, and strongly passionate and drawn characters. It stands apart from the traditions of low magic fantasy like in Westeros and instead uses deeply rooted magics and powers and a world full of magic, heroism, clashes of arms, deep connections and abiding senses of place to provide a tapestry for the story.
So what is it all about? We are presented with the challenge of the Riders, who have upped their game and decided the Hundred Hills and the nearby lands are not just for raiding, but would make fine lands for conquest. This provides a next-level challenge to the wily Esclin and his allies, who are used to the normal back and forth of Rider problems, its so long standing and the cultural ties are bleeding over so much that believers in the Burning Eye are among his subjects at this point.
The whole Burning Eye and the monotheism of the Riders is just one element, one strand of magic in this novel. The novel has deep and intensive worldbuilding on so many levels, from language, to names, to customs, and of course magic. There is the Riders, but there is also the magic of the Mistress of Fire, and of the Wood, and other magical abilities which come to the fore. This is a complex and mythically rich magical world. The very title of the book, Water Horse, refers to a kelpie like creature, a symbol of Esclin's House, and the titular being does become important to the narrative on a number of levels. Scott has managed the trick of setting a great and rich stage of people and their customs and doings that follows the iceberg rule of fantasy and leverages it.
But it is relationships and people at the center of why this conflict is coming and what can and should be done, on both sides. This is not a novel of impartial, unseen forces driving communities and nations to conflict, it is people, personalities and their deeds The Riders are not invading casually, they have been given sign and portent to their new commander, their Lord Paramount, and defying a God’s sign and will is never a good idea. Too, Esclin, in trying to manage the people in his coalition has to be mindful of his relationship with them, and their beliefs, and even a prophecy. The conflict is never pieces on a Risk board in Scott’s novel, what people do and how they do it always feeds back to the characters and their relationships.
As mentioned above, relationships, both platonic and sexual, really drive the narrative. This is a novel where queer relationships are the norm, and the relationship between Esclin, the arros, and the smith Kelleiden is one of the center personal stories of the novel. w. Besides the relationship above, the bonds of relationships are an engine that is equal to plot considerations for making the story go. It is relationships, be it social and personal ones, or political ones, that prove to be levers for character actions, reactions and plot. It’s a nicely complicating factor for the lines of the overall plot and conflict as well. Sure, we are presented with the locals of the Hundred Hills and the Westwood, and the realms of the Riverholme defending against the adherents of the Burning One, the Riders. Sure, it seems like in the end it's a simple binary, Esclin versus the Lord Paramount, local faiths and beliefs versus the invaders. A casual reading might give that impression, but reading further and deeper brings things further.
Scott knows well to leaven the binary and complicate it. There are already adherents of the Burning One within the realms overseen by the Arros, and coming to terms with their worship and their power starts with the personal rather than the global, and those relationships make the “Burning One adherents bad, locals good” binary a non-factor. This is not to say that the characters themselves on both sides don’t feel this pull and tension. In the course of events, Viven Harper is captured by the Lord Paramount’s forces, and we not only learn about the limits of the power of a Harper, but also the binding of their oaths, to their harps and other entities, but how she has to manage her beliefs while in the midst of the army of adherents of the Burning One, who have their own ideas on what the Harper should and should not be able to do, and where her beliefs should be turned.
In terms of that, there is a wonderful set piece where the captured Harper, Viven, is made part of a solstice ritual that the Burning One adherents are performing. The Lord Paramount seeks to mold the Harper and use her power as part of the ritual; she naturally is resistant to lend any of her power in this cause, and yet,as a prisoner, is under severe threat if she is not seen contributing to the cause (something that later extends to the Rider’s army campaigns). But there is beauty and poetry and power that we the reader, and Viven herself sees within the solstice rite that her mortal enemies also have not only power, but beauty and culture as well.
This is not to say though that the Riders and the Burning Ones are not clearly the antagonists here. We don’t get any real sympathetic point of views from them, although there are sympathetic characters that interact with our heroes. And that is something I want to emphasize here about the novel. While we get to see the Burning One’s Riders for what they are in their complexity, they clearly are the aggressive invaders, the antagonists to Esclin and his allies resisting their attempt at invasion and hegemony. This is decidedly not a grimdark novel (not that I can imagine well what a Melissa Scott Grimdark novel would be). This is a novel of heroes, hard choices, ugly choices, but also heroism, people stepping up (and characters of all ages, too, from children to the eldertly) and wanting to stand up against a threat to themselves, their loved ones, their communities. This is a world not only of the aforementioned magic, and deep character, and rich worldbuilding, but it is also a world where people can be big damn heroes, people of all stripes. That is a positivist message for this day and age. While Scott puts her characters through hell (and that sword of damocles of a prophecy that Esclin suffers under and Viven’s captivity being just two examples), the novel provides a framework and exemplar of a story where heroism, valor, strength of character and rising to the occasion are not trampled and mocked, but can save a city, a people, a land.
Melissa’s Scott’s Water Horse is a rich and deep epic fantasy full of the deep worldbuilding, immersive writing, intriguing magic, and strong characters that I come to expect and crave in her writing. Just as importantly, the novel provides a framework and exemplar of a story where heroism, valor, strength of character and rising to the occasion are not trampled and mocked and denigrated as in some grimly dark regions of the Grand Duchy of Fantasy. Instead, in The Water Horse, they are virtues that can save a person, a city, a people, and a land. That's a message, and thus a book stunningly well suited to our times.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses : +1 for deep and memorable characters in an inclusive, queer friendly, engaging world
+1 for a positivist heroic viewpoint for its fantasy
Penalties: -1 A couple of metaplot beats don’t quite resolve entirely satisfactory.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 Very high quality/standout in its category
POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.
Reference: Scott, Melissa. Water Horse [Candlemark and Gleam, 2021]