Every semester I hold preliminary conferences with my writing students. I ask normal teacher questions–what do you hope to work on, what do you feel you’re good at–and take notes to help me comment on their work when it starts coming in. In my first years of teaching, I also asked, “What’s something you read and liked recently?”
“The Great Gatsby,” they’d say, or, “We read As I Lay Dying last year.”
It’s perfectly possible to like either of those books, although I’m more of a Tender Is the Night girl myself. But the way they watched me as they said the titles showed me that I needed to be more precise. “What do you read for fun?” I ask them now. “Like, actual fun. What do you read when you’re sick?”
They murmur something shy about Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, or glance sideways before asking, “Have you ever heard of Naruto?” And once that started happening, I saw the chance to do something more important than learning about their “taste” or their “influences”: I could help them see that no pleasure is guilty. Talking with my students helped me to respond both truthfully and proudly when someone asks, “What’ve you been reading lately?” These posts will imagine that you’re asking me that question about once a week.
Seven Citadels, a four-book series by Geraldine Harris (Prince of the Godborn, Children of the Wind, The Dead Kingdom, The Seventh Gate), is a quest story.
The Godborn, hereditary rulers of Galkis, are descendants of a god and a human woman. Galkis is in political and spiritual trouble; a prophecy suggests that one of the Godborn can free its savior, locked in a seven-gated prison whose keys are held by seven sorcerers scattered throughout the realms of this world.
So far so familiar: even little Kate, at age 10 or so, recognized this structure, partly from reading fantasy early and often and partly from watching cousin Ethan play Legend of Zelda. But I probably took these books out of the Scoville Memorial Library fifteen, twenty times, and when my sister–a librarian who understands the importance of our earliest stories–asked me what I wanted for Chanukah, I got her to track them down for me. She was able to find the first, third and fourth in the series, and I’m almost to the end of The Dead Kingdom right now.
I’m rereading not just to recapture the magic, although there is magic and plenty of it: the in-story magic that makes shit that can’t happen happen, and the “magic” of some of the most luscious and enthused world-building I’ve ever read. The story’s world, Zindar, contains multiple realms that differ widely in terrain and culture, and descriptions from hillsides to hairdos are rich, detailed, atmospheric and often original. There’s a degree of, “What would make these people seem weird and exotic to one another?”, and some received and tired ideas about gender and sexuality and what “nomads” are like. But Harris has put thought into cultural consistency and complexity, and the ways individual people inhabit or defy their culture’s options and attempt to shape their destinies provide a major engine of plot and character.
There’s also power and what people do with it–and do to hang onto it. The sorcerers who hold the keys are immortal while they do so, and what they do with their time as well as their power varies widely. We see other rulers making decisions of ethical complexity; it’s not just saints and tyrants. (Of people out of power, at least in their own culture’s terms, we see very few close up–lots of crowds–until the fourth book.) Kerish-lo-Taan, the titular prince, is tapped for this quest partly because his royal siblings have disqualified themselves through their own choices.
The quest is also a coming-of-age story. When we meet Kerish, he’s a palace brat–the emperor’s favorite son–about to turn 18, and his first major move is cutting open his half-brother Forollkin’s face with a whip. The brothers are the two point-of-view characters, but we really only grow with Kerish. When other characters change, we mainly see the “before” and “after” versions. The exception is my favorite character and he’s probably Harris’s, too; his name is Gidjabolgo and on the off-chance that you want to borrow these books from me, I won’t tell you anything else about him.
It’s a conversation between Kerish and Gidjabolgo that reminded me why I’m rereading these books now. They’re about to go to THE SCARIEST PLACE, the place that all these powerful and wise people are like, “Really, don’t go there. We don’t.” And they’re nowhere near through–there’s two more sorcerers to confront, if they make it. Kerish says, “I wish there was only one moment of choice and that everything was over, one way or another. I have chosen but I need help to do even the things that I desperately want.” Although these are kids’ books (chosen by Charles F. Reasoner, Professor Emeritus of Childrens’ Literature and Reading, NYU, as “particularly suitable for young adult readers, both in and out of the classroom!), a better evocation of being an adult who wants to keep the world from getting shittier, but doesn’t always know how, I haven’t read in the years since I walked out of the Children’s Room of the Scoville Memorial Library and up to the circ desk with these books in my arms again.