This week I’m recommending a subtle story to enjoy during the languid days of high summer. Yes, Fantasy can do subtle; especially when the author in question is Caroline Stevermer. Her novel “When the King Comes Home” was published in 2000 with a wonderfully atmospheric cover illustration by David Bowers. I’m sorry to say that this book is currently out of print but cheap second-hand copies are easy to obtain. “When the King Comes Home” is set in the same invented realm (Galazon) as two of Stevermer’s other novels – “A College of Magics” and “A Scholar of Magics” but this story takes place hundreds of years earlier.
In Stevermer’s version of late Renaissance Europe there is a country you may not have heard of called Galazon. It was once the centre of an empire ruled by powerful kings, of whom the most famous was Julian IV. At the time this story begins, the reigning monarch is an elderly figurehead and the real power in the land is the prince-bishop of Aravis. In the rural northwest of Galazon lives the Rosamer family. They are hard-working sheep-farmers and wool-merchants but the youngest child, Hail, knows from an early age that she wants to be an artist. When Hail is fifteen, her father takes her to the ancient capital city of Aravis to become an apprentice to the famous painter Madame Angelika Carriera.
Hail quickly settles down in Aravis and gets on well with her fellow apprentices, except for the malicious Gabriel. During visits to the palace, Hail learns more about Galazon’s greatest rulers, Good King Julian and his beautiful Queen, Andred, and their Champion, Sir Istvan. Julian has been dead for over 200 years but people in Galazon still speak of how everything will come right “when the king comes home”. By the time she is eighteen, Hail has become a skilled painter and metal-worker but she is obsessed with the work of an artist called Maspero who served King Julian. When Hail copies Maspero’s famous “Siege Medal”, Gabriel persuades her that she has committed a serious crime. Hail flees the city to find her father, but on her journey she encounters a beggar who looks just like the surviving portraits of Good King Julian. This is a meeting which will change the course of history.
The beggar claims to be “a damned spirit” and wants a priest to exorcise him. When Hail and her family take the beggar to Aravis it quickly becomes a political matter. A ceremony carried out by the prince-bishop’s exorcist proves that the beggar is not Julian but rumours of the return of the Good King have already spread. Hail is held in the palace because she has acquired some dangerous knowledge. She knows that a sorceress is using ancient relics to bring back the dead and that the works of Maspero contain more magic than she ever imagined. When Hail does leave the palace again she will be exposed to the dangers of sorcery and civil war…
I originally became aware of Stevermer when I read, “Sorcery and Cecelia”, the first of three Regency Romance/ Fantasy novels which she co-wrote with Patricia C. Wrede. These delightful books, which take the form of letters exchanged by “Two Young Ladies of Quality”, are full of wit and charm. There is a vein of humour in “When the King Comes Home” but this story is deeper and darker than most of Stevermer’s work. For the first 70 pages it reads like a well-researched historical novel, albeit one set in an invented country. As an amateur painter, I found all the detail about an artist’s training fascinating but other readers may get impatient. Only a brief conversation about the possibility of fetching back dead people if you have something that belonged to them, suggests that there is powerful magic ahead. Stevermer takes time to make the country of Galazon and her heroine Hail Rosamer seem very real before the discovery of the man who looks like King Julian sparks off a series of extraordinary events.
All these events are seen through Hail’s eyes and “When the King Comes Home” is written as a first-person narrative. It worries me that many male readers may refuse to try this novel simply because the narrator is a teenage girl for most of the plot. Please think again. I promise this isn’t a “girly” sort of book and it could almost be classified as an Anti-Romance. The most important thing about Hail is not that she is female but that she is an artist with a true vocation. The novel explores the joys, pains and responsibilities of such a life-long vocation. The narrative is a sophisticated one because Hail is telling her story looking back from old age. This allows Stevermer to drop intriguing hints about the way that the history of Galazon is going to develop.
Hail is a distinctive and sometimes exasperating heroine. Intelligent but naive, she ignores good advice, talks herself into trouble, and does things her own way – whatever the consequences. A possible romance between Hail and a young officer never develops because she has different priorities. Stevermer conveys the poignancy of the “road not taken” in a few lines of ostensibly trivial conversation. With equal subtlety, Stevermer draws parallels between headstrong Hail and the ambitious sorceress, which Hail herself doesn’t seem to perceive. What distinguishes Hail from the sorceress is her compassion and her tenacious loyalty. She goes on helping two heroes who have been forced back from death, even when she isn’t rewarded by any kind of emotional response from them.
All over the world there are stories about great leaders who, after many signs and portents, will return in their nation’s hour of need. In Britain, this legend is most often told about King Arthur. The return of the true king or queen is also a popular theme in Fantasy fiction, generally featuring as a triumphant climax to thumping great epics. Stevermer on the other hand has used this theme to create a short, sharp novel which examines the way that some people try to exploit the real or imagined glories of the past to manipulate the present. This “return of the king” doesn’t go to plan, partly because the long dead heroes cannot engage with an era that is not their own. They are locked into their original behaviour patterns and relationships and little else matters to them. These walking dead aren’t the monsters of Zombie fiction but there is a deep wrongness about their second lease of life. “When the King Comes Home” is a book which doesn’t provide simple answers to difficult questions. Hail’s story has lingered in my mind long after more conventional Fantasy novels have been forgotten, so I commend it to you. Until next time….