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The Ruins of Ambrai (Exiles #1), by Melanie Rawn
Melanie Rawn's "Exiles" series is a puzzle. A very long, frustratingly unfinished -- we've been waiting for the final book in the trilogy for over a decade (the second book, "The Mageborn Traitor," was released in 1998) -- puzzle.
The question central to this puzzle is, "Who is Collan Rosvenir?"
The book opens with Collan at some unidentified and likely preverbal age. He finds himself pushed to the ground by an invisible force as someone raids his home and kills his mother. The people who killed his mother later pick Collan up and sell him into slavery. During his servitude, it is discovered that he is both brilliant and musically talented. This discovery frees him from menial jobs and gets him an education, including training in music.
In Rawn's usual time-jumpy fashion, we follow Collan into his adolescence. At this point, a magician named Gorynel Desse arrives to take him somewhere else. That somewhere else ends up being into the care and tutelage of the greatest bard then living, Falundir. Then, on his eighteenth birthday, Collan is given an identification disk, the Name Rosvenir, and sets out to make a life for himself as a traveling minstrel.
The setting of the "Exiles" series is incredibly complex. I hope I can do it justice in just a couple of hundred words.
In the far future, a space ship filled with Roman Catholics who wanted to build a non-technological society landed on the planet Lenfell ("Lenfell" started out as the word "landfall," but has changed through the centuries). After the discovery that some of the colonists had latent magical abilities, the descendants of the colonists with magic in their genes interbred until a healthy proportion of their population were mages. The mages then split into two factions and proceeded to try to kill each other.
During the war that followed, much of the population of Lenfell died and many of the women who survived found their ova mutated beyond repair. The new society that evolved was female-dominated, and stratified into Bloods and Tiers according to the women's ability to bear healthy children. The fewer damaged children a woman produced, the higher her status, and the status of her daughters (Bloods were the families who had no birth defects in the generation when they did the count). As the story opens, it is more than 900 years after that war, which is now known as the Waste War. The battlefield, now known as The Waste, is still desolate from the effects of the battles.
The religion of Lenfell is based on a calendar of Saints. There were originally hundreds of Saints, one for each day of the year. In later years, the calendar was simplified to fewer Saints, one per week. Every citizen of Lenfell has a given name that is a variation on the name of a Saint. Some are named for Saints who were removed from the official calendar.
One of the major families of Lenfell was the Ambrais. The city where they made their home, also known as Ambrai, was the largest city on Lenfell. It was also the home of the Mage Guardians, one of the two factions of magic users on Lenfell, and also was the location of the schools for Healers and Bards. The First Daughter of the Ambrai Name (and thus the head of the family), Allynis Ambrai, had three granddaughters, Glenin, Sarra, and Cailet, by her First Daughter, Maichen. The city of Ambrai and its surrounds were destroyed by the government of Lenfell and all of the Mage Guardians were driven into hiding. After the destruction Ambrai, Glenin took her father's Name, Feiran, and lived openly in Ryka, the seat of government for Lenfell. Sarra and Cailet were given false Names and hidden. We follow the lives of all three granddaughters in this volume as well.
The other faction of magic users is the Lords of Malerris, who have long wanted to abolish the hierarchy of their society. They do not do this out of any belief in egalitarianism, but because the Bloods-and-Tiers system stands in the way of their reordering society in the way they deem suitable. They want to "weave" everyone into society where they deem fit without regard for where the individuals in question want to be. Once Glenin comes into her magic at adolescence, she begins training to become a Lord of Malerris.
A small but growing faction of the population of Lenfell are members of a group called the Rising, who want to oust Avira Anniyas -- the ruler of Lenfell -- and restore the Mage Guardians. Most of the characters we follow are members of, or otherwise involved with, the Rising.
Rawn did an excellent job with the creation of Lenfellian society. She manages to really show us a nearly fully-realized female-dominated society, in which women are expected to take care of the family financially and men are generally expected to be decorative and stay-at-home parents. I can think of one one instance in this book where I got the impression she made a misstep, and upon rereading I realized that I had misunderstood what the character in question said; Rawn had it right.