Book Review: The Rose Throne

I enjoy Mette Ivie Harrison’s books, so when I was browsing the YA section at my library and found “The Rose Throne” (2013), I snatched it up.

What I discovered there was more than just another YA fantasy.

The books I have read by Harrison have been loosely based on fairy tales, and have also had greater underlying themes. “The Rose Throne” is no different.

Instead of a fairy tale, this one draws its surface structure from Tudor history. In the south, Princess Ailsbet is the smart, independent daughter of King Haikor, and her brother, Prince Edik, is quiet and easily dominated. The domineering king has been married for a long time and is openly having affairs; his court is a place of political maneuvering and intrigue. In the north, Princess Marlissa, known as Issa, is the only child and heir of the weak king who has always lived in Haikor’s shadow. Where Harrison alters history is in letting the girls — who are loosely based on Princess Elizabeth Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots — meet and influence one another in unexpected ways. Circumstances develop that bring them together as friends when Issa is betrothed to Edik in King Haikor’s effort to bring both kingdoms under his control at last.

Beneath that veneer of historical similarity, there is a lot more going on. This being a fantasy novel, there is magic in these lands. The weyr, as it is called, manifests itself differently in men and women.  Women have a “green” magic, working with the land and animals, encouraging growth and fertility. Men have a more aggressive magic, useful for hunting, fighting, and war. In the north, where Issa is from, the women’s magic is honored and revered, but in the south, King Haikor abhors it and won’t even allow it to be used in his presence. Thus, the south is slowly dying: crops won’t grow, and the people are starving.

There’s also a twist. Sometimes, people are born with the “wrong” magic; that is, men are born able to reach out to the natural world, or women are born with destructive power. Also, some people are born with no magic at all:  the pitied “unweyr.” Since the magic doesn’t manifest until puberty, you can’t be sure until your mid- to late teens whether you are “normal” or not.

This leapt off the page at me as an allegory for sexual orientation. And two of the major characters struggle with these doubts.

One of the things I love about fantasy and science fiction is that you can deal with important social issues in a less than straightforward way, and in doing so, you can side-step many of your readers’ knee-jerk responses. The movie “District 9” and the novel “The Lions of Al-Rassan” are some of my favorite examples of this, and of course “Star Trek” is famous for it.

And what blew me away was that Orson Scott Card blurbed this book. And loved it. “Another great story,” he says on the back cover, “from one of my favorite authors.”

Ever since the movie of “Ender’s Game” brought into the public eye the truth of Card’s longstanding negative feelings about homosexuality and marriage equality, I have struggled with my own feelings about him as a writer. “Ender’s Game” is one of my favorite books of all time; I have wept while reading many of his novels; and on numerous occasions, I have marveled at the depth of Card’s apparent compassion and his understanding of the human heart. How is it possible, then, that he can write the way he does and not understand the very essence of love?

Reading this book, I wondered:  How did he not see it when Harrison put it out in front of him, albeit in a different form?

Have you read this book? Did you feel this parallel? If you did, what do you think about Harrison’s take on it? How do you feel about Card’s blurb? Is he a hypocrite or in complete denial?

If you haven’t read it, read it. It was a terrific book and well worth reading on its own (although I had one small issue with the romance). Then come back here and talk to me about it in the comments!

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