Jo Walton’s Lifelode is currently the topic of discussion at the Tiptree Book Club, which is how I came across it. It’s published by NESFA Press, and is not widely available despite being on the Tiptree Honors List for 2009.
On the surface, it looks like a fairly straightforward fantasy — people living a village life in a non-technological age with a little magic and some conflict with other people fomented by gods. It’s even been called a “domestic” fantasy, perhaps because the most prominent character is a woman whose “lifelode” — vocation, purpose in life, way of being — is to keep house, and because the details of that housekeeping are so beautifully and comfortably drawn.
But it’s a lot more complicated than that, not least because, as Walton explains in the FAQ at the back of the book, it may look like fantasy but it has science fictional underpinnings.
For starters, time is different in this world. It runs more slowly in the east, where the gods live, more quickly in the west, where the cities are. The way Walton has structured the story — moving back and forth among different time periods and even shifting between present and past tense — makes this clearer.
For another, the people of the manor house in the village of Applekirk do not live precisely as the lords and ladies of other fantasy worlds. The lord, Ferrand, is the hereditary ruler, but he lives with his wife, Chayra (a potter), his sweetmate Taveth (who keeps the house), and Taveth’s husband and Chayra’s sweetmate, Ranal (who farms). They have assorted children, and occasionally take lovers outside of their group.
This is one of the features that drew the eye of the Tiptree jury and it certainly added to my enjoyment of the book. While you see similar things frequently in science fiction, both in human and nonhuman societies, I can’t think of any other traditional fantasy that plays with the usual societal rules of love and marriage. It’s nice to read a fantasy in which the gender and marriage rules aren’t just a version of medieval Europe.
I also liked the imperfections of the gods in this story, imperfections that imply the gods don’t quite understand human beings as well as they might. Could be I’m just tired of omnipotent perfection in my holy beings, but the idea of powerful and flawed appeals to me.
This is, for the most part, a gentle book, though some terrible things happen. It’s not YA — not because of the sexual relationships, but because of the essential maturity and adultness of the main characters — but it has some compelling children in it, and is likely to appeal to readers from about 12 up.
But while it’s gentle and domestic, I wouldn’t exactly call it comfort reading. From the nature of time to the nature of relationships to the ultimate understanding that everything has consequences and some losses are too terrible to ever be forgotten, it leaves you with plenty to think about.
I’m trying my best to avoid spoilers, but I’ll be glad to provide them privately to those who agree with Sherwood Smith that it’s easier to read some books if you can prepare for what’s going to happen.
My novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.
My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.