“I remember Ys, though I have never seen her.”
The King of Ys is a historical fantasy — it is set in our world just before the fall of the Roman Empire and it mixes in the legend of the mythical city of Ys which was built below sea level on the coast of Brittany. Many of the characters in The King of Ys (Roman emperors, Christian saints, etc) are based on legendary and real historical figures and Poul and Karen Anderson include plenty of footnotes which explain the legend of Ys and the culture and religion of the 5th century.
In Roma Mater, we meet Gaius Valerius Gratillonius, a Roman centurion stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. Because of his loyalty to would-be-emperor Magnus Clemens Maximus, the commander of the Roman troops in Britannia, Maximus assigns him to be Rome’s prefect in Ys so that Gratillonius can keep it loyal while Maximus goes for the purple. Ys, though part of the Roman empire, has been left to itself for years because it’s spooky. According to rumors, Ys is ruled by nine witches who, among other things, control the weather to keep Ys safe from enemies intending to invade by sea. These nine “witches” are the God-chosen wives of the King of Ys who is a nasty tyrant. His nine wives use their powers to ask the Gods to bring them a deliverer — someone to challenge the king.
And so Gratillonius and his small troop arrive in Ys and soon he finds himself king. Along with inheriting the crown, Gratillonius gets the nine witch queens, too. As he sets out to reform Ys, which has suffered under the former rule, he has a lot of unfamiliar stuff to deal with: the responsibilities of a king, the different culture, a strange land and people, clashes in religious beliefs (he covertly worships Mithras who has been denounced by the newly Christian Roman Empire, and the Ysans worship three pagan gods), and satisfying nine wives who vary greatly in age, beauty, intelligence, and appreciation for men.
At first, Gratillonius balances all of this mostly successfully, and he begins to restore the prosperity of Ys. He is well-intentioned, but he can’t help but occasionally go wrong as his own beliefs conflict with his people’s and their gods’. One problem is that the Ysans believe that their gods will destroy Ys by flood if they are not obeyed. So, there is a conflict between the Ysans’ expectations of Gratillonius’s duties at their religious rites, his desire to keep alive the worship of Mithras, and his admiration for the Christian leaders he knows. The other big problem is that when one of his wives dies, the gods choose the replacement from the priestesses who are all descendants of the previous kings and queens and the gods don’t seem to care too much about age, mental ability, or consanguinity. So, not only are there nine wives, but their family tree looks more like an M.C. Escher drawing than a tree, and this kind of behavior isn’t congruent with the worship of either Mithras or Christ.
(But it does make for some interesting reading.)
The first two books, Roma Mater and Gallicenae, progress rather slowly and there’s not much action. But, by the end of Gallicenae, we’ve seen the ways Gratillonius has had to struggle to obey the Ysan gods, and we can be rather certain about what they’re going to throw at him next … and we know he’s going to defy them this time. And, we’ve seen some plot threads being developed (warriors preparing overseas) that are presumably being carefully set up for use in the next novel.
In the third novel, Dahut, things really come to a head, and the fallout is spectacular. The reader then realizes and appreciates how carefully the Andersons have planned and crafted this work from page one. Well done! The fourth book, Dog and Wolf, deals with the after-effects of the events in book three, develops the characters further as their lives have drastically changed, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion.
Besides being a fascinating and original tale with real historical feel,
The King of Ys is beautifully written:
The armies met south of the River Ruirthech. That was a day when clouds blew like smoke, low above the valley, underneath a sky the hue of lead. Rainshowers rushed out of them, drenched men, washed their wounds and their dead, passed away on the keening wind. All colors were dulled except those of blood and gold. Shouts, horn calls, hoofbeats, footfalls, clamorous wheels, clash and rattle of weapons, were somehow muffled. But blows fell as heavy and sharp as always.
My favorite parts were Gratillonious’s internal thoughts about his wives:
He gazed back. Over the years she had added flesh to flesh, though her frame was quite large enough that as yet she did not appear quite gross. Her features remained good in their heavy fashion and her hair was still a burnished red-brown. It was untidily piled on her head, like the raiment on her body. He had grown used to that… Well, she had her rights, and she was by no means a bad person, and a man ought to shoulder his burdens without whining about them.
And there is poetry — even whole chapters of poetry!
Would you know the dog from the wolf? You may look at his paw,
Comparing the claw and the pad; you may measure his stride;
You may handle his coat and his ears; you may study his jaw;
And yet what you seek is not found in his bones or his hide,
For between the Dog and the Wolf there is only the Law.
Near the end of the story, Gratillonious meets a young soldier who is in nearly the same situation he was in when he left Britain 25 years before. Shocked, he looks back and realizes that he’s not the same man he was then — he would make different choices now. Through love and loss, we learn what’s important — that’s a good story.