Review: Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts (AWW Challenge #10)

Power and Majesty coverSometimes I’m such a numpty. I see a book in my stash that’s 500 pages long and I think “I want to read that but it will take aaaaaages. It’s so biiiiiiiiiiiig.” So I put it off and off and off, until finally I think: “Damnit. I will MAKE time.”

And then I read it over two weekends, in two massive gulps, devouring it like a starving thing, reluctant to put it down because OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT??!! Apparently, it’s not the size that counts, it’s the writing.

Power and Majesty is the first in a trilogy about the Creature Court – a group of people with extraordinary powers, who secretly fight a war in the night sky of the city of Aufleur. The daylight folk have no idea what’s going on each night (or ‘nox’), or the price they’ll pay if the Court loses.

At the start of the book, Velody is a 14 year old girl, come to Aufleur to seek a position as an apprentice dressmaker. On her first night in the city, she can’t sleep. Slipping away from her chaperone to the balcony of her accommodation, she witnesses a young man fall from the sky. Garnet finds her, recognises her innate magic – and with her uninformed permission, takes away her magic.

Years later, Velody is an adult, an accomplished dressmaker living and working with her two best friends, still ignorant of the Creature Court and its nightly war.  That’s when a sky battle goes badly wrong and Velody’s power is suddenly restored. She and her friends are drawn into the mad, dangerous and deadly games of the Creature Court and the war that’s killing them one by one.

That’s the basic premise of a book that is rich in detail. The world Roberts creates is an imaginative, delightful mix of an alternative Italy which could be a hundred years old or closer to our own times. But don’t rely on any idea of historical fantasy or modern alternative reality – Roberts had done something much more difficult and exciting. She’s taken bolts and cuttings of a world we know and stitched an entire, fresh new world out of them. Innovative use of language and a respect for the complexities of different cultures and times make the worlds of Aufleur and the Creature Court distinct and complete, where they are separate as well as where they overlap.

The characters are wonderfully complex and so very messed up. There’s darkness and light, betrayal and redemption, loss and triumph. Often simultaneously. No matter how strange the powers they have, or the lives they lead, every human, every sentinel and every mad bastard from the Court is a multi-faceted, very real person.

A big surprise for me was how much I enjoyed the frocks. Fiction in which the female protagonist is excited about shoes and dresses rarely does much for me. I care not a whit for shoes and dresses, generally. But Velody and her friends Rhian and Delphine aren’t just clothes horses. Dress and appearance are a powerful representation of power and status as well as creativity, not to mention the fact that these skills are the livelihoods of these wonderful characters. The mindset of creation, of stitching parts together to make a more wonderful whole, is an important underlying theme, too.

Velody being a dressmaker is an integral part of who she is – and more to the point, this part of Velody is an integral part of how she deals with the challenges and horrors of the Creature Court. Others who have come to the Court as children and have known nothing but the fight against the sky and vying for power with each other seem to know nothing but destruction. Velody, protected from that world by Garnet’s theft of her magic, grew to adulthood as a carer and creator. She works with her friends to create wearable art. The difference is vital and may be what will save both the Creature Court and the city they battle to protect.

While Power and Majesty is certainly not a vampire novel – I’ve seen it described as a combination of urban fantasy and court fantasy with elements of manga and goth (and none of that does it justice) – Roberts also makes innovative use of vampire tropes. There’s a lot of sharing of vital fluids: ingestion of blood from mortals to members of the Court and vice versa not only aids healing but has other effects which are important to the plot. In the Court, Poet’s ability to become hundreds of rats echoes the same ability Dracula has in some versions of the old story, but of course this ability to become an abundance of one’s power animal is a characteristic shared by the whole Court. It’s where the name comes from, after all. Some Court members become birds, cats or wolves.

So, here we have incredibly intelligent, creative, complex and colourful world-building married to fabulous, layered characterisation and engaging, tense powerplays, social interactions and politics in all levels of society. Add to that the fact that from one chapter to the next, I just couldn’t guess where we might be going. In a lot of stories, you can get the broad gist of what is coming next. Reading Power and Majesty, I honestly never had a clue. Who can be trusted? How will Velody react to this latest challenge? What’s going to happen to Delphine? Oh my giddy lord, what have you done to the sentinels??!!

It’s delicious, it’s exquisite, it’s exhilarating, it’s pain of the purest, most pleasurable kind to have no idea how it’s all going to work out, or what’s going to happen next, or who to trust, and sometimes even who to like – and to wanted to grab the writer’s hand and run headlong down that unknown path to find out!! No wonder I read it in those two big gulps. I couldn’t bear to slow down, and the grace of the writing led me down that magnificent path at a gallop.

So, after leaving Power and Majesty unread for a year, stupidly daunted by the size of it (because, as mentioned, I’m a numpty) I immediately upon finishing downloaded the next book, The Shattered City, to start right away. And that night sat next to a complete stranger in a Melbourne theatre and told her she should read it. Because she should. You all should. It’s terrific!