Geraldine Harris’ Seven Citadels
Yoon Ha Lee has mentioned this quartet of books several times over the years, reminding me that I loved them as a kid and prompting me to re-acquire the series to see if it holds up. (The four volumes are Prince of the Godborn, Children of the Wind, The Dead Kingdom, and The Seventh Gate.) My recollection, at a distance of nearly thirty years, was that it had amazing worldbuilding and an ending that kid!me had kind of a “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?” reaction to, but which I suspected was actually kind of amazing in ways I didn’t properly appreciate at the time.
Reader, I did not misremember.
Plot summary first: the declining empire of Galkis is under threat from without and from within, and their only hope is for someone to go on a quest to free their prophecied Savior from a prison whose seven keys are in the keeping of seven sorcerers (well, five sorcerers and two sorceresses). This is 100% unabashed Plot Coupon territory, a reason for Prince Kerish-lo-Taan, his half-brother Forollkin, and the companions they pick up along the way to roam through nearly the entire map collecting inventory items until they have the full set . . . but two things significantly mitigate the cheesiness and predictability of that plot. The first is just what it means in practice for them to be obtaining those keys, and the second is how it all resolves in the end, which is not at all what you might expect (hence kid!me’s reaction).
Before I get to that, though, the worldbuilding. When I bought copies of the books, they were shockingly short; the longest is still less than 250 pages. How much setting richness, I wondered, could possibly be squeezed into such a small space?
The answer is, a truly startling amount. Every place Kerish & Co. go is palpably different from the others, in environment, in mood, in customs. No “Planet of Hats” approach here, where everything gets one distinctive feature and the writer calls it a day, nor even the world-and-a-half setup where each place feels rich because you can map it to a real-world analogue; the cultures absolutely complex and original, whether it’s the decaying theocracy of Galkis, the serf-powered mercantilism of Lan-Pin-Fria, the parochial tribalism of the Erandachi, the matriarchal courtliness of Seld (where the Queen of Seld invites her guests to dine inside her future tomb), or any other place.
And what I particularly noticed and liked this time around was that none of these places are special or right. Galkis, as I said, is a theocracy: according to their myths (and those myths appear to be 100% true), their god Zeldin married a mortal woman, Imarko, and their descendants, the Godborn, have ruled Galkis ever since. The Godborn legitimately have magical powers, though very few of them know how to use them nowadays, and one of the first things you see in Prince of the Godborn is a child being subjected to a magical test meant to determine if he truly is a pure descendant of that line. But other lands have other myths, and more than once, we see their myths being true, too: in Gannoth, where the Crown Prince rules on behalf of a King who ascends the throne by dying, you see the new Crown Prince ritually channel the spirit of his dead father to deliver a series of oracles. In the Five Kingdoms (where they say their goddess Idalla was betrayed by Zeldin in favor of Imarko), men keep their souls outside of their bodies in the form of wooden statues — and although our protagonists think at first that this is just superstition, it appears to be literally true that the statues change in response to the owners’ actions. Yes, the Godborn are special . . . but so is everybody else.
And being special doesn’t make you good or right. One of the key narrative strands here is how badly the Godborn have failed Galkis, as individuals and as a caste. Not only that, but Kerish reflects on how badly the Galkian social structure has failed the Godborn: it requires them to be remote, superhuman figures to the general populace, denying their humanity and fallibility, in ways that don’t do anybody any favors. None of the places he visits are flawless utopias; the one that comes the closest, Ellerinonn, is run by a benevolent dictator who has made a peaceful, enlightened society . . . at the expense of denying his people full autonomy over their lives. Every place has problems, and every place’s problems are different.
The books also include stuff that is, for lack of a better word, gratuitous. But I don’t mean that as a criticism: while it’s true that we don’t need half the details that appear throughout, to me they’re a feature rather than a bug. That applies most particularly to the weird-ass underlayer to the setting, wherein the entire human species appears to have migrated from another continent off to the west, displacing some truly alien non-humans (who may, themselves, have also originated on that other continent). Why the heck is that in here??? I have no idea; it only crops up in fragments here and there until you get to the final sorceress, and even her situation could have been redesigned to not incorporate that element. But it is here, and all I can think is that Harris found it cool, so why not. (I wonder if she ever planned to write more about it.)
All of this fits into such short books in part because there was a lot more tolerance back then for the narrative to just say stuff outright, in ways we’d find infodumpy today. But it also fits because Harris so thoroughly marinates her characters in their surroundings, very much building the story through the setting rather than placing the plot atop the world like the latter is a stage. In hindsight, I am absolutely convinced these books had a significant influence in shaping my preference for plots and characters that are deeply intertwined with the features of their worlds.
(The map is . . . not great, though. And the naming system could have been better, in that it could have felt like there was a system, rather than just syllables tossed around for fun. With a bonus salt-shaker of Z for anything related to Zeldin.)
But anyway, the plot.
I’ll give spoilers in a bit, but the part I don’t consider spoilery has to do with those seven keys. Once Kerish sets out on his quest, he learns that the keys the sorcerers hold aren’t just keys to the Savior’s prison; they also make the sorcerers immortal. So by taking them, he’s guaranteeing that those seven people — well, six; one of them’s a special case — will begin to age and die. That adds a whole moral dimension to the quest that is usually absent from Plot Coupon stories, as Kerish worries about the effect his quest will have on not just the sorcerers but the lands around them: Ellerinonn’s idyllic-seeming society, for example, is 100% dependent on the sorcerer that rules it, and may not survive once he’s gone. And while he’s able to get some of the keys by having a rational conversation with the holder, others require deceit or manipulation in ways that leave him wracked with guilt. (None of them require heroic battle, which is another departure from many Plot Coupon stories. Kerish is . . . not much use at heroic battle. The closest he comes involves him stabbing his half-brother.)
As a side note, I also find it startling to look at the ways that ideas about “kids’ books” have changed over the last forty years. Kerish is I think seventeen when he sets out on his quest, and nineteen or twenty when it ends; there is definitely a strand in here about him growing up from being a bratty, sheltered prince to somebody of greater depth and maturity. But apart from that (which could also go into an adult novel), there’s no real sense of this being “a story for kids,” except insofar as that’s who it got marketed to. Galkian internal politics, for example, are driven by factors like the Emperor being in constant mourning for one of his dead wives, the Empress resenting that wife for wrecking her relationship with the Emperor, various people scheming for power through adultery or manipulating who gets appointed to what position, etc. The external threat to Galkis is driven by religious resentment and one man’s bid to unify an otherwise fractured land by pointing everybody at an external enemy. I can imagine a version of this story being written now, but it would be profoundly different, more strongly filtered for a youth-centered view of the characters and the world.
(Also, the perspective is omniscient. That helps both with delivering exposition about the world and with making other characters, particularly Forollkin, something other than mere props to Kerish’s quest, but it’s a vanishingly rare choice nowadays. I hope it comes back more into style, since I think it offers a lot of benefits.)
Now, I will say that the structure of the plot is rather lacking — very much not helped by the divisions of the books themselves. Yoon and I have both independently speculated that maybe Harris wrote this as one continuous narrative and then chopped it up into volumes; it would have been a long book, but on the other hand it would explain why each installment just kind of . . . ends. There’s no sense of larger shape to the arc here, just Kerish interacting with each key-and-sorcerer plot, then transitioning through the journey to the next one, and the books ending more when they’ve reached their allotted page count than when they’ve reached a meaningful stopping point. Emotional growth happens here, but plot dynamics do not: the most thrilling and challenging key to obtain is the fifth one (followed by the second), and from a conventional perspective it almost feels like that plot runs out of steam in between the sixth key and the seventh. I don’t think that’s actually true; instead what happens is that the narrative begins shifting focus to its actual goal all along. But it explains why, as a kid, I never liked the fourth book nearly as much.
At this point I’m going to begin discussing spoilers. I was going to rot-13 them, but it would be a massive block of gibberish for people to cut-and-paste, so instead I’ll say that if you wish to avoid spoilers, skim down for the next line of bold text and just don’t read anything in between.
So, as a kid I felt betrayed by the sense that Kerish succeeds in his quest, but fails in what both he and I thought the quest would do. The fourth book gets remarkably dark, with the siege of Viroc, the forces of Fangmere and the Five Kingdoms overrunning southern Galkis, Zyrindella’s rebellion in the north of Galkis, etc. Wasn’t the Savior supposed to, y’know, save Galkis? Yes . . . but not like that. Which is where I think these books firmly transcend their Plot Coupon approach: you might guess early on (especially if you’re not a kid) that Kerish is the Savior and that you’re watching him grow into that role along the way, but I doubt most readers would guess that his job as Savior is to be a beacon of hope and change to the Galkians either living as refugees in exile or under the yoke of their new rulers. Or that he’d, y’know, die alone in the desert on his way to that destiny.
As a kid, I found his death horrifying. It’s still kind of horrifying now! But I can also see how much of this final book in particular is about preparing Kerish for his eventual role. Returning to Galkis, he begins interacting with the ordinary people that his previous life as a sheltered Godborn Prince kept him away from; he sees their feelings toward the Godborn, their faith in Zeldin and particularly in Imarko. The long time spent traveling with the troupe of sacred actors, which from a conventional perspective feels like a long and not especially tense delay between escaping Viroc and encountering the final sorceress, is deeply important for Kerish, most obviously highlighted by the moment where he steps into the role of Zeldin and gives the chief actor that moment of divine transcendence that has escaped him his entire life. Kerish is absolutely the Zeldin-Imarko bridge, neither wholly divine nor wholly mortal, and I love that. And then his own faith gets tested when Tebreega sends him out into the desert with the sole instruction to keep walking and not turn back: his decision to keep going through the wasteland after the point of no return is harrowing, but it is also (of course) the final proof that he will do anything that might help his people in their hour of need, no matter the cost to himself. Because of that, it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that when Imarko offers him a choice between going to heaven and returning to the world, he’ll choose the latter . . . but the glimpses she gives him of the lives people are leading because of his quest strike a beautiful balance between showing him the need for his presence, and giving him the sense that he’s changed enough things for the better that he can rest now if he wants. (It genuinely did make me cry.)
If there’s something I found dissatisfying on the re-read, it’s Gwerath, Kerish’s Erandachi cousin who joins them on their quest. The love triangle between her, Kerish, and Forollkin doesn’t play out with the standard dynamics, and I like that; what itched at me was the feeling that once Gwerath left her circle (another moment that proved the metaphysical legitimacy of other people’s beliefs, and that I did enjoy), she just . . . never found a place, never truly managed to be happy. We’re given every reason to believe that Gidjabolgo is right about the real nature of the feelings between her and Forollkin, i.e. it wasn’t really true love — yet Gwerath insists on staying with them (and gets killed as a result) because, as she says outright, she has nothing left except her love for Forollkin. She’s not a meaningless adjunct to their quest; she does help in important ways. But none of them add up to me feeling like Gwerath ever achieved wholeness in herself, from the moment she found out her Goddess was a sorceress onward. (Though . . . was that actually true? Yes, Sendaaka is the one who visited the Erandachi to reshape their society — but also Gwerath exhibited magical abilities that came from somewhere, and that somewhere didn’t seem to be Sendaaka. Since we never get an explanation of how sorcery or anything else magical works, it’s ambiguous.)
Basically, this is not a fantasy series that ignores women. They’re not hugely central for the most part, but they’re present and meaningful. Yet I walked away feeling that Gwerath was done a bit dirty by the narrative.
You can come back now if you were skimming!
The characters are an interesting bag overall, in that they’ve got very distinct personalities that do grow and change, but — due to the shortness of the books — you’re more invited to read into what you get than given the kind of deep exploration that I’d expect from a modern adult novel. The one I found most striking on a re-read was honestly Gidjabolgo, who fits into the slot of “malformed misanthrope” but (and this is crucial) gets to stay there. Although he does soften up a little over time, you still have to read between the lines of his cynicism and prickliness to spot it, instead of him getting a personality makeover as a result of his interactions with Kerish and Forollkin. The series even manages to fit in some philosophical comments on the nature of beauty, which I think is kind of important when your central character is the supernaturally beautiful descendant of a god. And Gidjabolgo’s interactions with the hideous sorceress Tebreega are great.
Some books of my childhood I re-read, smile at, and donate to the library. This series is gonna stay on the shelf. I’m even contemplating requesting it for Yuletide next year, probably asking for exploration of the sorcerers’ backstories (though if this series had any modern fandom at all, they’d be shipping Kerish/Forollkin by express mail). I really want to know more about the Ferrabrinth, the non-humans in that weird setting under-layer, but it would very nearly amount to original fiction, which wouldn’t really scratch the itch of wanting to know what Harris had in mind with them.
If any of you remember these, or wind up reading them as a result of my post, please let me know!