Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Review: All the Hidden Paths by Foz Meadows

Treading similar political and emotional ground to the first story, and defying narrative conventions to remind us that people are fundamentally people, and that change is an incremental thing.

The sequel to A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, where nobleman Vel is sent to marry across the border, but on the eve of the move is discovered in flagrante with his - male - lover, and so goes to marry the brother of the intended betrothed (and political shenanigans ensue), All the Hidden Paths sees the same protagonists (and a bonus third) head deeper into Tithena, and its politics, as they are called to the capital. There, they must discover who's been trying to attack them and why, as well as hope their fledgling relationship can stand up to these new stresses, as well as the lingering hurts of the first book.

I've seen a number of reviews discuss this book, and highlight specifically what they consider a flaw - that the story "artificially" recreates some of the parameters of the first book so we can essentially redo the same plot and the same character dynamics over again, rather than have to take things in a new direction. However, I disagree.

At the end of the first book, our protagonists are married and have feelings for each other, but have known each other only a handful of weeks. There is camaraderie, lust, fellowship and romance, yes... but there's not a longstanding relationship and trust and reliance. They care for each other, they want each other and they want to work together for the good of their marriage and their situation. But they don't know each other, not fully. And this is much of the crux of the second book, and of the issues many reviews I've seen have had with it. Because this lack of knowledge that Foz Meadows takes such pains to remind us of, leads them to doubt. Not the good intentions of their husband, no, but the strength of their still-new relationship. Of course they have doubts! One of the two protagonists, Vel, is brilliantly portrayed in the first book as having pretty severe anxiety. Of course he's worried his husband is going to find him annoying, or care about other things ahead of him. Of course he's worried that his lack of grasp of the politics of the country he's only just moved to is going to hinder them. It's who we've consistently been told he is, and honestly, they're perfectly reasonable doubts to have in the circumstances. Yes, they leave us with a reiteration of the dynamic of "oh god am I annoying Cae? He's going to get sick of my bullshit isn't he?". But to me, this is a strength. Just because they won in the end of the first story and are married and fancy the heck out of each other doesn't magically solve trauma and anxiety and self-esteem issues and the longstanding habits of existing in a culture where gayness is extremely taboo and so any relationships are fleeting and secret and dangerous and desperately fragile things. One hot guy from a culture that's a bit more open is not a panacaea, nor should it be, and it is, in my opinion, a great strength of the book that Meadows has not caved to the narrative inertia to make it so.

The other great part of this is giving us a new character from Vel's home country, and another gay, aristocratic man at that. In Asrien, we have someone whom we might assume, from his identical context, would approach things in a similar way to Vel - would have the same fasciation with Tithenai culture, the same disdain for their shared Ralian mores and homeland. But he doesn't. Despite all that his country does and thinks about people like him, Asrien cares about it. He prefers the food. He disparages Tithena and its way of doing things in moments he thinks he can do so. He hates what it has done to him, but doesn't hate it, and has not quite left it behind, in sharp contrast to Vel's wholehearted embrace of his new home.

Because we have Vel and a Tithenai man as our primary viewpoint characters, this attitude isn't taken well, but when you fit it into the broader context of the story, and of Asrien's behaviour and backstory, it's really well done, and a source of great sympathy for his character from the reader. Much like his approach to trauma and anxiety, Meadows has done a really great job of giving us the multifaceted nuance and complexity of how someone oppressed by their culture can feel all sorts of ways about it, no matter how inconsistent or illogical they may seem to someone on the outside. He gets that feelings are feelings and people are people, and consistently shows us that in all its variety.

With these two points, there's a lot of strength to the book to compare to the first - people, personalities and interpersonal relationships are always beautifully crafted and nuanced. Beyond that, Meadows has a fantastic way with descriptions, especially of food (I have some intensely clear ideas of what Tithenai food is like and I want to eat all of it) and of fashion. We always know what Vel, Asrien and Cae are wearing, its colour and texture and cut and not only does it make the novel deeply visual, but it adds to the characterisation. Vel particularly clearly thinks about fashion, and when we have his viewpoint telling us about it, it shows us more of him, more of how he looks at the world around him and presents himself in it, and more of how the culture of the world presents itself. It's unusual for a story to have such a neat grasp of fashion as social language, and there's a really great moment - only a snippet really - where Vel wonders what to wear to a foreign court he's never been to, how he makes the impression they need to make, and in that tiny bit of discussion we get a whole swathe of... not even context, but just the acknowledgement that the context exists, even if our characters don't even know it themselves. And I love it. I love subtle, thoughtful worldbuilding like this, and it's been an absolute strength in both books.

And, building on that in something not quite so present in the first - in All the Hidden Paths we do get some critique of Tithena, that felt, by that point, much needed. Cae loves his country and Vel has thrown himself into his adopted homeland in exile (understandably), and so in both of their views, it's been very easy to see it as a perfect, equalitarian utopia. But nothing is ever so perfect, and people are always people, and in showing us the internal politics of the court of the capital, Meadows has done some great work undercutting that perfection without completely bursting the bubble. We still understand why Vel likes it, why Cae cares about his home, but we begin to see the odd crack appearing, and revealing it to be just as realistic-feeling a country as the far more flawed Ralia.

Alas, not everything can be perfect though. While the world-building and culture-crafting is impeccable, the politics leave something to be desired. There's a lot going on in the last third of the book - and a lot of players we've never met before - and there's simply not enough time to get to know everyone and everything necessary to feel emotionally connected to it all. The shenanigans make sense on a logical level, the solution is comprehensible, but they don't have the gutpunch that the ending of the first book did, simply because we've not had enough time getting to know all the players to really care about them, outside of our viewpoints characters.

Some of this is simply a pacing issue - a huge early chunk of the book is spent on the road with not a great deal happening (beyond some perfectly decent character work for Vel and Cae and some dangerous occurrences), and so when we flip to court politics, there's a big tone shift and pace shift, and there's just not enough book to accommodate everything we need at the speed we might need it. But beyond that, the court politics is just much less close to our main characters - geographically and emotionally. It's not their home town, their family, their closest people anymore, and we feel that as the reader in how the characters approach the problems... and we feel the lack. We're just not invested in the same way. There's a lot of potential in what's there, but without the feeling to go with it, it just rings a little hollow by the ending. If we could have just spent a little bit longer, and known the people involved a little bit better, it could have been really wonderful.

There are also a few small but niggling unresolved threads throughout, things that were hinted at and then never picked up on. A character is remarked upon as strange several times, another character tells us that if we don't know they're not going to say it aloud... and then... nothing. Don't leave us hanging like this Foz! Another character is looked for, has their absence noted, is sought for by some, but never turns up and their absence again feels just a little odd. Is there going to be a sequel? Are these things we'll learn more about then? I don't know! I don't mind hints that stretch across books, but they have to feel like things that might get resolved, rather than just forgotten threads never quite tied off, and at the moment, all the ones I noticed felt like the latter.

That said, while there are flaws, they don't ultimately get in the way of what is, at its core, a story very truly about people in the best way possible. It's not quite as impactful or as bittersweet as A Strange and Stubborn Endurance but nonetheless All the Hidden Paths is also a story about healing and personal change in the wake of both acute tragedy and the long term harms of a stifling, oppressive culture. Its strength lies in how authentically Meadows portrays this, and how humanly - it's so easy to feel deeply for both protagonists, and even more so than its predecessor for Cae, who now has his own hurts from the events of that story. If you loved the characters in the first book and want to see them continue to struggle and grow together, the sequel is fulfilling and worthwhile, and I harbour a hope that there will be a third book to tie off all the loose ends, and give a fully satisfying series the close it deserves.


The Math

Highlights: authentic approach to mental health and personal growth, two main characters who are both absolute numpties in the best possible way, some really beautifully described fantasy fashion

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Foz Meadows, All the Hidden Paths [Tor, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea