King's Dragon is the first book in Kate Elliott's seven book Crown of Stars series. I'm pretty sure I read the first few a longish time ago (this one was first published in 97 so there's a lot of scope for "longish" time here). And then I must've caught up with publication or something & lost track and never finished them. A mention somewhere (tor.com, perhaps?) reminded me that I vaguely remembered liking them so I should give the series another go. Glad I did, I really enjoyed this one - now I just have to decide if I'm going to buy them or get the rest from the library one by one.
(Please no spoilers for the rest of the series, I'm enjoying figuring this one out as it goes along.)
The world they're set in is not ours nor is it a one-to-one analogue of ours, but it's flavoured by English history - it partly reminds me of the Anarchy (the 12th Century English civil war), and partly of Anglo-Saxon England in the time of the Viking raids. There's a religion that's analogous to Christianity, with a saviour figure that died for mankind in some sense. A major difference is that instead of God the Father, there's Our Lord and Our Lady - and the two have equal billing. This is extrapolated through the society, women have a much better place in this world than in the analogous medieval England. In particular women can be biscops (analogous to bishops) and perhaps that's only women that can be, I'm not sure - the two we see most are. Women can also inherit titles & crowns in their own right with no questions about ability. They go to war as soldiers too. There's even a respected (although not mainstream for the kingdom we're in) strand of thinking that inheritance should pass solely down the female line because it ensures you know the heir is a true heir.
Inheritance to the throne is also interesting in that it requires fertility - when the monarch's children get to adulthood one will be sent out on an heir's progress for a year, and will only become heir if they get pregnant or get a woman pregnant during that year. The central political conflict in this book hinges on that - Sabella, the King's sister, went out on her heir's progress first but failed to become pregnant. Henry got a bastard son on his subsequent heir's progress and has inherited the throne. Now Sabella is raising a rebellion against him (as she finally has a child). Another of the conflicts in the book also has this custom as its starting point - the King's favourite child is his bastard son who proved his fertility, yet that son cannot inherit only the subsequent legitimate children can do that.
The characters whose eyes we see all this through aren't the major players in the political dance. Instead one of the central characters is Alain, a bastard child destined for the church. He's brought up in a village, by the man he believes to be his father, and while he yearns for adventure his path seems set. And over the course of the book it feels like it would've been a good path for him - there's something a bit saintlike about him (although he's also still a very realistic boy), he's paid attention to the teachings of the church & tries his best to follow them, particularly where compassion is concerned. But he gets caught up in the chaos of both the rebellion, and the raids by the non-human Eika. Being a bastard child he seems set to be The Chosen One whose origins aren't what they seem & one of the suggested "true stories" of his birth seems to be validated by events towards the end of the book. But I'm not sure that's the true answer - it feels like Elliott is doing something more clever to play with the trope than that.
The other central character is Liath. Her father is a sorcerer - magic is real in this world, and perhaps forbidden by the church depending on which bit of the church you ask. Actually that's something else I like about this story, "the church" is not a monolith - it has schisms & heresies & councils that decide on what's orthodox & what's not and so on. Anyway, Liath has been on the run with her father since early childhood after her mother died, and her story opens with her father's death. Liath doesn't have much coherent idea about who her parents are/were nor why they're on the run - but clearly someone or something was after them. I felt a bit like her father should've told her more because he should've realised his death was a high risk, but the justification of protecting her through her ignorance does seem realistic. Liath is initially sold into slavery, as she can't pay her father's debts (well, it's engineered so that this is the case). She's another Chosen One archetype and again Elliott isn't retreading the well worn path with this story - for instance when Liath meets a man who fits the mentor slot she doesn't trust him because of what's gone before. The Eagles, the branch of the King's army/messengers that Liath & her friend Hanna join, feel like a more realistic version of Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar. No telepathic spirit horses, no special mind powers and most importantly no sudden spiritual healing and family-formation to make up for the abuses of the joiner's childhood. But nonetheless there's something reminiscent about them.
There's a host of secondary characters as well, both male & female. All the characters in the book felt like people to me, but there's some that stand out as a second tier of protagonists. There's Hanna, Liath's friend who also joins the Eagles. There's Rosvita, a cleric who is perhaps an analogue of the Venerable Bede or Geoffrey of Monmouth - certainly now she's in her old age she's writing a history of the country. And there's also Sanglant, bastard son of the King, whose origins we know are otherworldly from the prologue. That prologue also sets up an expectation that he & Alain and Liath are somehow in opposition - agents of different otherworldly factions. But so far the pawns don't seem to be quite marching to their master's tunes. Again I think Elliott is setting up the "standard" tropes of epic fantasy and then doing something much more interesting with them.
And now I really want to know where the story is going. Best decide on buy or borrow first though! :)