Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Review: Master of Samar by Melissa Scott

Melissa Scott’s Master of Samar brings us a rich story of a secondary world Venice.

You can’t go home again. Or maybe you can, but you have changed, your home has changed, and your hometown has changed. This is what Gil Irichels feels as, as the last person in the once great House Samar of the city of Bejanth, he is summoned back to his ancestral home. But with a lover that many will not accept, and a profession others would also disdain, Irichels soons finds that his homecoming is even more fraught. Especially when a threat to his House, the titular Samar, turns out to be a threat to the city of canals itself.

This is the matter of Melissa Scott’s Master of Samar.

First and foremost, as you might expect from a Scott novel, are the characters. Our main character Irichels is an outsider to the city he comes back to, on two grounds. First, he is a cursebreaker, a magical profession that has a mixed reputation in Bejanth for reasons that Scott slowly dribbles out through the book. And second, he is queer. His relationship with his beloved, his heart, Envar, is one that in Scott’s world is frowned upon and the pair feel real and tangible prejudice for it. Joining Irichels and Envar are a variety of secondary characters, ranging from Arak, a bodyguard bound to Irichels and fiercely loyal, to Innes Manimere, the formidable head of her House, a House with, it turns out, a history with Irichels’ own.

The other strong element to this novel is the worldbuilding. This takes the form of two elements that, as the plot emerges and unfolds. First up is the city and setting itself. Samar is pretty explicitly and directly modeled on Renaissance Venice. This is a city where canals are more prevalent than streets. A city where every house has a “water door” exit to the canal system, useful for escaping when the authorities have come knocking, or just receiving deliveries of sundries. A city that is a precarious oligarchy of fighting and feuding noble families. A city that is an entrepot, one of the cities that “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”. As of the time of the writing of this review, I have still never been to La Serenissima in person as yet but my appreciation for the city and its variants in print and film, painting and photography have given me a foundation for what to expect and how Venice should feel.

Bejanth evokes that in spades. We do hit the beats you’d expect. Canals including fights and chases in the canals. Mucking around with secret doors. Political intrigue among the great houses for power and authority. Intimate small scenes in Bejanth Houses, dread secrets below the water line, and of course the halls of aristocratic power. A focus on art and beauty and wealth and it’s display, from having it to faking it until you make it, and the need to keep up appearances even in a decaying House.

It’s not a full on expy of Venice, though. There are elements of the city that aren’t really represented here. We never get a good sense of how Venice interacts with the rest of the mainland or its overseas possessions, colonies, vassals, friends, and enemies. There is stuff here about piracy but Bejanth never feels like the entrepot that historical Venices and many fictional Venices jazz on. Sure, Venice is the city on the Lagoon, a city of intrigue and adventure, but it is a city that is always connected to the rest of its world. It can’t help but be very interested in what is happening elsewhere. Venice is on islands, but Venice is no island. Bejanth, by comparison, diverges from the Venice model by being far more self contained and self interested, which I think is a missed opportunity with these missing elements.

The other half of the worldbuilding on display here, that makes up for the city that is missing from the aforementioned “missing elements” is the magic system. The magic of this verse is at the bottom a legal one, based on contracts with extradimensional entities for power, demons in name and indeed. You might enter into such a contract for power, or use such a contract in order to fight, say, a curse that has been laid upon you or other calamity. Just like legal contracts in the real world, the legal ramifications and ramshackle agreements can get rather dicey and messy.

Add into this people who can cut a swath through some of this, the cursebreakers and you can already see and have your wheels turning, I bet, how plot can arise from a city of trade and commerce on the sea, with demons and curses, and a cursebreaker coming back to his ancestral home. Scott makes good use of all of this in her plotting and backstory for Irichels, and Irichels’ backstory and the history of his House tie into Bejanth and the plot in a quite polished fashion. Scott is an excellent craftswoman at setting the stakes, the characters, making us care and bringing us through the plot in a page turning fashion.

Going back to the beginning of this review and Irichels and his beloved Envar, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of queernorm worlds. Queernorm worlds are secondary worlds (or future worlds from ours) where queerness is a completely and utterly accepted fact. There seem to be gradations to even that in books I’ve read. There are books where non heterosexual people are just accepted as who they are and who they love (or in the case of aro/ace characters, who they don’t). There are also books where it seems that everyone is queer and attraction isn’t a function of gender at all and you find characters attracted to both sexes.

As I read Master of Samar, one of the questions I kept asking myself was: could this have been a queernorm world? Would the novel have been better or worse if the author had gone in that direction. The problem of Irichels’ posterity is a real one, since if the last scion of House Samar is eliminated, the House falls, and the consequences (which as seen above and as the plot emerges is much more than just a personal problem). The previously mentioned prejudice that Irichels and Envar get for their relationship goes hand in hand with the tenderness found in their relationship and there is a real “us against the world” approach to their relationship. And it's clear that Irichels will do his duty even if his heart is elsewhere. A last heir of a House in possession of a decaying fortune must indeed be in want of a wife.

And there is something to be said for not only writing the worlds we want to see, but writing a world as it is to hold up a mirror to it. By not making the Samarverse queernorm, it gives Scott a chance to write a world that she can use to reflect and refract our own world, where queer rights, representation and acceptance are under threat and siege.

So, I am not entirely sure if the world of Bejanth could be queernorm or not. But I do note for myself as reader, reviewer and critic, ten years ago, I’d have considered this issue in fantasy worlds at all and would have accepted Bejanth as is. Maybe you can’t go home again after all, because in the end, you change.

Melissa Scott’s The Master of Samar, in the end, is an immersive and character driven city state fantasy whose strong use of contract magic, old secrets and the lies we tell each other and ourselves shapes the past, present and future of the characters and the city-state that they are bound to. It is an immersive and enthralling read.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Scott, Melissa, Master of Samar, [Candlemark and Gleam 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin