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We're excited to launch our Kate Elliott theme week with a review of Jaran by Mieneke, long time book blogger whose work you can find over at A Fantastical Librarian. Take it away, Mieneke!

cover of Jaran

In the future, Earth is just one of the planets ruled by the vast Chapalii empire. The volatility of these alien overlords is something with which Tess Soerensen is all too familiar. Her brother, Charles, rebelled against them at one time and was rewarded by being elevated into their interstellar system—yet there is reason to believe they murdered his and Tess's parents.

Struggling to find her place in the world and still mending a broken heart, Tess sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, one of her brother's planets. On the ground, she joins up with the native jaran people, becoming immersed in their nomadic society and customs while also attempting to get to the bottom of a smuggling scheme she encountered on her journey there. As she grows ever closer to the charismatic jaran ruler, Ilya—who is inflamed by an urgent mission of his own—Tess must choose between her feelings for him and her loyalty to her brother.

The main question I was left with after reading Jaran, was simply why aren't more people talking about this book? WHY? There is so much to chew on in this book, so much that is still relevant to genre discussions today, why is it hardly mentioned in that context? Also, why hasn't Kate Elliott received a World Fantasy Life Achievement Award yet? She should be on the list from now until she gets it every year! But that is a wholly different discussion and one that we should have elsewhere not in my review here. So with that said:

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Jaran is the first book in the four book series of the same name. And unlike Elliott's other books which are straight up fantasy, the Jaran books are usually filed under science fiction. And that description fits, though I have to say that for this first book, to me it seemed the perfect science fantasy story. Because while the larger frame is set in a galactic empire, the largest part of the story, the part where Tess is with the Jaran reads as if it is fantasy. There is a strict division between the off-planet storyline, which is pure science fiction, and the planet-side storyline, which feels like fantasy—or more accurately like planetary romance. I found this an amazing blend and it only saddens me that I didn’t discover this book about twenty years ago, because I might have realised sooner that I’m not actually purely a fantasy reader, I CAN and DO enjoy reading SF, despite being a girl in a world where SF is often portrayed as a boys-only space and sucking at hard science, which always made me fear that all the science in SCIENCE fiction would make the story whoosh right over my head.

A white blonde girl looking confused

Tess' storyline does contain science-fictional elements, such as aliens and hidden alien tech, but the Chapalii—as the aliens are called—are sufficiently humanoid that the Jaran don't get suspicious and the tech is explained away as magic or divine presence. In a way, Tess' sojourn with the Jaran reminded me a bit of Claire Fraser's stay in the past in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. Tess encounters the same sort of alienation mixed with belonging as Claire does amongst the MacKenzies. Tess has to be constantly vigilant to not reveal the existence of the technologically advanced world she comes from or to reveal the truly alien natures of the Chapalii. As for the latter, I'm amazed the Chapalii didn't give themselves away all on their own, as you'd expect that people changing colour based on their emotional state would make anyone suspicious.

They turned purple? Green!? Blue?!? Hmmm...)

Jaran societal structure is a fascinating construct, which subverts the patriarchy by giving women ultimate freedom and leadership, yet at the same time gives the power to determine marriage to the men, leaving the women without choice in who literally marks them his. It is a strange power dichotomy, as once the marriage is marked, women are then again free to choose their own lovers and whether to allow their husbands to stay in their tents. In other words, consent is key in Jaran custom, with the exception of the act of marriage. Of course, mostly women aren't marked against their will and when it happens, the results are rarely good or happy.

Even though Jaran society is matriarchal, it is no less structured and constrained than that of the Chapalii; you obey your clan Mother, remain within your clan, unless you're a man and marry into a different clan, your roles are relatively set—men are warriors, women are politicians and mothers, to put it very oversimplified—and the only way to live outside the clan and outside of familial bonds is to either pledge yourself to the gods and live at Morava or become outcast. In contrast, non-Jaran human society, the society Tess grew up in, has far looser familial or clan bonds and roles are more equal. For example, Tess is her brother's heir and there are a number of highly placed, powerful female figures at his court. Thus far, we've not seen enough of Chapalii culture to know about their views of gender roles, though they do live in strict castes and ranks, so one would assume their entire culture is rigidly structured. Something that is borne out in the intricate politics and games of fealty we see Charles engaged in. If the Jaran come fully into contact with the technologically advanced civilisations of Earth and Chapalii, it'll be interesting how to see how their customs and culture will be influenced by the differences we find in the other cultures.

Tess is amazing. I loved her storyline, not just because I loved the Jaran setting, but also because I liked her development from uncertain graduate student to a woman making her own choices and reluctantly choosing to shoulder the responsibilities she's never asked for: being her brother's heir and to help lead the Jaran people. She's a keen observer and can be quite funny in her observations. The way she easily formed connections with those around her was lovely. My favourite of the friendships she forms is the one with Yuri. Here are a man and a woman who loved each other deeply yet platonically—Yuri was literally her brother from another mother. And her easy bond with Yuri is a stark contrast to the feelings she has for her blood brother, Charles.

Of course, the central relationship in this story is that between Tess and Ilya. On the one hand, I loved the romance between them, on the other it made me distinctly uncomfortable. Because Ilya is a dick to Tess half the time and then soft and charming the other, a dynamic that set off alarm bells all around. Ilya is your card-carrying, prime example dark and brooding hero and while he definitely had redeeming qualities, his actions near the end of the book made it hard to not overlook those. To be more specific, I'll have to go into some spoilers here, so if you want to remain unspoiled, please skip until beyond the spoiler tags.

Ilya almost moved beyond redeemable, when he tricked Tess in riding down the Avenue at sunset, thus binding her to him in marriage for eternity. I mean, I know women have no say in who marries them in Jaran culture, but one would assume that a culture that holds consent so highly, the fact that Tess was completely unaware of the consequences of that romantic ride, would be a huge taboo. And he never actually apologises for it. Even if Tess loves him and eventually seems to forgive him for what she rightly sees as a betrayal, to me it felt as if this issue between them went largely ignored and Elliott kind of conveniently set it aside. Then again, this is the first of four books, so it might come up again in the next book.

A similarly strange breaching of custom was Yuri's not being cremated in an honourable warrior's pyre, thus setting his soul free from the wheel of rebirth. Tess couldn't bear the thought of never being reunited with him again in a next life and Niko complies, yet no one seems to consider what Yuri would have wanted, they all take for granted that he would want to remain with Tess. It's not necessarily that I disagree with this decision; I think Yuri would most definitely want to stay with Tess—in fact, I bawled my eyes out when Niko took Yuri away—but it felt odd that there was no discussion or thought for whether this was right. In fact, from the way the act was concealed later on, one would assume that they aren't entirely sure whether everyone would approve or understand.

Despite the things found above between the spoiler tags, this story was amazing. And again, I have to say: “JARAN, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?" Kate Elliott does not write short books, quite the opposite in fact, but I blazed through this one like it was a slim two-hundred page novel. I completely fell in love with this world and its characters and I'm so glad there are three more novels to enjoy in this setting. Kate Elliott is a hell of a writer and I'll follow her wherever she writes. Which leaves me with my now standard closing sentence for any Kate Elliott review—just GO READ THE BOOK, you can thank me later.

Other reviews

Renay's review of Jaran (spoilers), The Book Smugglers Readalong of Jaran (hella spoilers), yours?

Other Posts in this Series

Giveaway! Court of Fives & Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott
Robot Pals and Revolution: A Passage of Stars by Kate Elliott by Renay
"The History of the World Begins In Ice" — Cold Magic by Susan

Mieneke van der Salm works as an information specialist at a university library. In her free time she aims to create her own library at home and, together with her husband, raise two little geek girls. She blogs about her reading adventures at A Fantastical Librarian and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2014. You can find her on Twitter at [twitter.com profile] pallekenl.

Date: 2016-09-08 06:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
"The main question I was left with after reading Jaran, was simply why aren't more people talking about this book? WHY?"

My exact reaction :)
Love this series. And Elliott revealed in her last newsletter that the next book may actually be forthcoming. SO MUCH ANTICIPATION!!


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