Friday, August 1, 2014

Closeup: Meeting characters in Jaran

I discovered Kate Elliott sometime in high school (I think via a friend's father, and I'm pretty sure Jaran walked off to college with me), and I have fond memories of wandering through used bookstores & book sales trying to fill out the Crown of Stars series.  I commented to a friend recently that Jaran is how I first fell in love with Kate Elliott & this inspired me to pick the book up again.

Re-reading, I'm struck by how the various characters are introduced, and wanted to take a look at how this contrasts with other characters in other novels.

Tl;dr - There's a LOT of world and culture building in the various characters that Tess meets when she first lands, even in quick thumbnail sketches.  Elliot highlights these details with descriptions of physical artifacts (clothing and accoutrements) and interactions between the genders.  She also plants the seeds for upcoming conflicts.


"Two young women sat on a padded bench by the huge overlook.  One, black-skinned and black-haired, watched the work below.  The second, looking pale and light-haired mostly in contrast to her companion, studied the words she had just typed."

Ilya Bakhtiian:
"A stream of words, incomprehensible, delivered in a steady, commanding voice ... A man stood on the slope above her. He had dark hair, cut short, a trim dark beard, and the look of a man hardened by many years of difficult life ... His shirt was scarlet and full, his trousers black; his high boots were tanned leather and fit closely to his ankle and calf. A long curving blade hung from his belt."

Yuri (Yurinya Orzhekov):
"The newcomer was a young man with bright blond hair and a cheerful smile. The smile emerged as he met them, fading into astonishment as he looked at Tess ... Unabashed the younger man swung down from his horse and came over to stand below Tess. He blushed a little - easy to see on his fair skin - and lifted his arms up to her."

Sonia Orzhekov:
"And soon after a woman whose broad, merry face bespoke a blood relationship to Yuri. She held a child in one arm, balanced on her hip ... she handed the child over to another woman and crossed to stand next to Tess ... She looked up at Tess and smiled. It was like water in the desert .... "I am Yuri's sister, so he has properly brought you to me ... Tess stared at her, at her blond hair secured in four braids, her head capped by a fine headpiece of colored beads and leather; she wore a long blue tunic studded with gold trim that ended at her knees, and belled blue trousers beneath that, tucked into soft leather boots. An object shaped like a hand mirror hung from her belt." [Note that the mirror is a significant object later in the story]

[After the men, most blushing, have walked by the women] "A young man with reddish-blond hair looked up as he passed Sonia and Tess, and winked. He had piercingly blue eyes."  Sonia: "'I want you all to know. He winked.'"
"A chorus up and down the line, answered her. 'Kirill!'"

"Two steps behind followed a fair, pretty young man who wore a profusion of necklaces in a multitude of colors that clashed with the garish embroidery decorating the sleeves and yoke of his scarlet shirt. Tassels of gold and silver braid hung from his boot tops.  Tess could not help but stare."
'He dresses -' She faltered.
'He'd like to be noticed. I suppose women might find him attractive.'" [Yuri]


Ilya and Sonia are the first man and first woman we meet and so Kate Elliott spends some time with them on the physical accoutrements of the culture.  Beyond that, Yuri, Kirill and Vladimir are easily and immediately differentiated members of Bakhtiian's retinue.  Ilya, meanwhile, stands both to introduce Tess (and us) to the Rhuian culture so his development takes a longer time.  Each of the other characters, however, also contributes to an understanding of the culture and seeds potential future conflicts.

Let's compare an early (non main) character from a few other series:
Burrich (From Assassin's Apprentice):
"'Here, Burrich,' Jason said matter-of-factly.  'This pup's for you, now.' ... Beside me, the man called Burrich set down his mug and glared around at Jason.
'What's this?' he asked, sounding very much like the man in the warm chamber. He had the same unruly blackness to his hair and beard, but his face was angular and narrow. His face had the color of a man much outdoors. His eyes were brown rather than black, and his hands were long-fingered and clever. He smelled of horses and dogs and blood and leathers."

Senzei Reese (From Black Sun Rising):
"A glass counter served to support several dozen books and the man who was perusing them. He was pale in a way that westerners rarely were, but Damien sensed nothing amiss about the coloring; despite its stark contrast with his dark hair, eyes, and clothing, it probably meant nothing more sinister than that he worked the late shift ...
The man lifted up his wire-rimmed spectacles as he noticed his visitor, then removed them; Damien caught a flash of delicately etched sigils centered in the circles of clear glass. 'Welcome,' he said pleasantly. 'Can I help you with anything?'"

Corson (From The Forever Hero):
"Corson paused outside the portal. As the chief engineering officer, he had the absolute right to enter any duty space on the ship, but he still hesitated. Marso had the kind of tongue that could strip flesh from bone.
He frowned, then squared his shoulders and keyed the portal with his own code, the one that overrode all but the captain's locks.
Corson saw the streak of blond, bent, and spread his arms.
Even at nearly two hundred centimeters and on hundred ten kilos, he was staggered by the impact and set back on his heels. But he refused to let go of the snarling figure that pounded at his midsection and sent kneecaps towards his stomach.
Corson shifted his grip into the patterns he had learned too many years before at the Academy and finally fumbled until he had immobilized the smaller figure."


What jumps out at me me contrasting the introductions in Jaran with some of the other stories is that despite generally shorter introductions, Kate Elliott manages to pack a lot of character depth and worldbuilding into each of her characters.  Granted that much of the "point" of Jaran is to introduce and examine a new culture (particularly gender relations and physical artifacts), Elliott also manages to plant seeds of future conflict within only a few sentences.  

I'm also struck by how many supporting characters Elliott brings into her series.  Granted I'd originally pulled out Gardens of the Moon and finally discarded it because the mysterious introductions of so many actors is much of the point, Jaran contains many more supporting characters than the other books I quoted from.  Because the introduction of these characters helps to develop the setting and theme of the book, rather than simply complicating the narrative, adding additional characters enhances the novel, rather than simply laying out more threads to pull forward later.

But most of all I'm noticing all the promises that Elliott makes to her reader in Jaran.  (And a hat tip to Howard Taylor for introducing me to this concept).  Characters and in particular their relationships are going to sit at the center of this novel.  These characters will exist in a fully realized culture, characterized by it's physical artifacts and gender relationship.  Women in this novel have authority and agency.  The relations between men and women will be both romantic and platonic, and will be driven by strong and different motivations.  (It's clear immediately that a scene with Kirill in it will be very different from a scene with Yuri or Vladimir, for instance)

What I remember about Jaran, and am still loving on the re-read, is that Tess is thrust into an incredibly well-realized world, and I get to ride along with her.  What I'm noticing now much more than previously is how Elliott immerses me in the world, and the sorts of work each scene is doing.  Tess is moving through a big world, literally and figuratively, surrounded by a lot of people, each unique, and the things that they make, carry, and care for (including ever-present babies and small children!).  In many ways, it's some of the most immersive fiction I've read in a long time.

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