The traitor spy trilogy / Trudi Canavan
The traitor spy trilogy is an exemplar of what is (to me, at least) a relatively new sub genre of fantasy. It takes many of the normal high fantasy trapping but redressed them in a more intimate, focused story. Instead of saving the world from the evil sorcerer, they’re saving the town, stuff like that. I enjoy it because it gives more room for the story to focus on character development and plot without having to devote as many pages to exposition describing all of the places the heroes travel. Karen Miller and Irene Radford’s books arguably fit that mold as well. I’d put the Imager series there too but Moddessitt doesn’t rely as heavily on the Tolkien via D&D fantasy tropes so the feel is very different.
It’s also a time when I’ll actively encourage to read things out of order. The traitor spy trilogy is the direct sequel to an earlier series by the same author. I enjoyed both, but I highly recommend reading this series before the other one for reasons I’ll go into below.
Brief plot summary
A healer finds herself in an uneasy alliance with her former bully. Her son discovers signs of what his late father might have been doing during the period he mysteriously disappeared. An underworld leader seeks to protect his family from a mysterious foe. A man must decide if his relationship is worth saving. A country struggles to maintain peace with an old enemy.
So how is it?
I was really pleasantly surprised. It’s a solid series with a diverse cast that is very much driven by its characters.
The biggest praise I can give it is how “mature” the older characters behave. (I was going to say “adult” but that has too many other connotations when it comes to fantasy.) Characters have relationship struggles that aren’t entirely predicated on the Hilarious Misunderstanding (or its cousin, Refusing to Listen and Automatically Jumping to the Worst Conclusion). People face their assumptions and sometimes change. Old grudges get reconsidered and adolescent squabbles don’t necessarily become adult feuds. Difference of opinion is not a sign of evil intent. It’s wonderfully refreshing and there wouldn’t be space for it in a more epic story without a massive increase in the page count.
Another thing to love about the characterization is age related. All too often in fantasy teenagers are indistinguishable from adults, and adults rarely act their age. This is endemic to fictional media as a whole. It frequently feels like 99% of interpersonal conflict in any given show or movie stems from a supposedly adult character throwing a tantrum. Considering the mailings I get from my Republican State House representative it seems like there are plenty of adults who do act that way, but it doesn’t reflect what is normally considered mature behavior nor my lived experience.* Even if it is atypical adult behavior, it’s nice to see patterns of interaction that more closely resemble my lived experience. This goes both ways: Canavan’s adults feel like real grownups but her younger characters also behave more like “real” young people.
*I’m willing to accept that my experience may be atypical. Other expats banned me from answering questions about American culture while I was in Japan because my perception of U.S. culture is apparently nonstandard.
I really can’t stop heaping praise on Canavan’s characterization, and I feel like a big part of my enjoyment was due to reading this trilogy first. It’s not that the earlier books are bad, but Canavan’s writing is vastly improved in the Traitor spy trilogy and because all of the events of the first trilogy are long past there’s a sense that these people existed before the book started and had a full complement of life experiences. It also helps to make the parental characters more well rounded.
I continue to praise the characters. I like that many of the characters have adult children but the portrayal is balanced so that neither parent nor child feels like an afterthought or a plot device to motivate the other. I like that there are LGBT characters and that they do face discrimination but that’s not all they’re there for. I like that characters in relationships make mistakes and the principals involve actually listen to each other when these things come up. I like that not everybody has the same ethnic or cultural background and that these differences are not just superficial (“these people wear red, but these other people are so different they wear blue!”) but at the same time there’s not a sense of ethnic and/or cultural determinism. (“Abcders love shoes and think that all V should N but Zyxers love sandals and think that only E should N”)
So it’s a good series and very readable.
It’s good for fans of the high fantasy series (Robert Jordan, Rothfuss, etc.) but its appeal outside of that is probably limited. It’s not exactly an action packed series so readers looking for something like Brent Weeks or David Dalgish will probably be disappointed. It’s also good train for people looking for fantasy novels that aren’t “young straight white man saves the world”. There are major characters who fit that mold, but the series does a good job of giving other characters equal time in the spotlight. There are characters who aren’t white, who aren’t young, who aren’t straight, and who aren’t men. Some characters aren’t two or more of the same thing, even! I realize that “not every heroic character is a SAWCASM” is a pretty low bar, but so few books seem to manage that that it’s worth mentioning the books that do.