A Cork on the River of Destiny

A Heroine of the World — Tanith Lee

Heroine-of-the-World

In Tanith Lee’s 1989 A Heroine of the World, Aradia is a child of thirteen when the war begins and her comfortable world disintegrates. She is not much older by the end of the novel, but in just a few years, this former rich girl takes on many identities to survive: a servant, a war-bride, an emperor’s mistress. Among others.

Aradia’s parents, certain of victory, blithely ride off to war,
leaving Aradia with a cold, unsympathetic aunt. Aradia never sees her parents again. Her father dies in a cavalry charge, her mother in an exploding munitions dump. The conquering Kronians occupy the City where Aradia lives. The aunt commits suicide in despair.


Aradia hides among the servant girls. Her hopes of anonymous safety are dashed when she catches the eye of Flag Colonel Keer Gurz, an aristocratic officer of the occupying army. The fact that she is pre-pubescent does not deter him in the least. He offers her protection from worse men than he in exchange for becoming his mistress. When the war turns against the Kronians, Gurz retreats and takes his Ara with him.

He’s a rotter, but he’s not all bad. In his dying moments, after the collapse of his army, he marries Ara. She will be a respectable, well-endowed widow in Kronia, not a discarded camp-follower.

Not that her life goes all that smoothly after Gurz dies. Kronia is beset by enemies without and within. The estate Ara has inherited from Gurz makes her a target for fortune-hunters. She soon attracts the attention of the Emperor’s bastard son Kahrulan, who is truly, madly, deeply in love with her bank account. It will be of great help to his quest for the imperial throne. Ara, a foreign captive raised to the aristocracy, fears to say no to the man who will almost certainly be the next emperor. She cannot even bargain for marriage: she becomes his mistress.

Officer’s daughter, orphan, child bride, mistress; all these roles are forced on Ara. The one thing that she wants seems to be beyond her reach: her aunt’s former lover, a man who is barely aware that Ara exists. A man seen by all nations as the basest of traitors, career turncoat Thenser Zavion.

 ~oOo~

A Heroine of the World is difficult to categorize. It’s set in a secondary world, but it is not unambiguously fantasy (although DAW marketed it that way). There is fortune-telling. Ara thinks her god may have intervened in her life. In both cases, she could be credulous and deluded. Nor is this book an alternate history; Ara’s world resembles ours in some ways, but not in others. I would put this book in the same MISC pigeonhole as Studio Gainax’sTheWings of Honneamise anime.

I was expecting a more conventional book than I actually got, in part because Lee hands out a generous number of red herrings to the overconfident reader. Lee could have ended Ara’s adventures with a return to normalcy, but that was not the story Lee wanted to tell. Ara is not an indomitable world-conqueror, but a young victim of war and sexual abuse. While she does get to exercise agency, it is within very narrow limits.

Many readers will find Ara frustratingly passive. She is a shell-shocked thirteen-year-old who is still trying to come to terms with the loss of her parents and the end of the world as she knew it. She doesn’t conquer the world, but she copes well enough to keep her head on her shoulders.

I was also willing to cut her some slack for her idiotic romantic fixation on the unreliable Thenser. There is no way that is going to end well, given his taste for dubious adventure and political intrigue. Lee takes pity on the reader with a carefully timed happy ending. She ends the story just at the moment when the oddly-assorted couple has survived one life-threatening crisis and has not yet run into the next. Unsuspecting readers might be gulled by this authorial stratagem, but I knew better: unless Ara loses her illusions about Thenser, she can expect more suffering.

Readers may find Ara’s “cork on the river of destiny” tendencies frustrating. However, they may also look forward to the usual Lee counterweight: glorious prose.

As far as I can tell, Heroine of the World is long out of print in North America. A British edition can be purchased here.


Title

Missing or dead moms

Missing or dead fathers

The Birthgrave

1

1

The Storm Lord

1

1

Volkhavaar

2

2

Drinking Sapphire Wine

0

0

Night’s Master

2

1

Shadowfire

2

1

Death’s Master

3

3

Sabella

1

1

Day By Night

1

2

Silver Metal Lover

0

0

Delusion’s Master

1

1

Cyrion

0

0

Anakire

2

1

Sung in Shadow

1

0

The White Serpent

1

1

The Book of the Beast

0

1

Electric Forest

1

0

The Book of the Mad

1

2*

Lycanthia

0

0

A Heroine of the World

1

1

Total

20

17*


* Includes one uncle.


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