In L. Shelby’s 2014 Fealty’s Shore, the third and (probably) final volume in the Across a Jade Sea series, Batiya Dachahlra finally gets to meet her father-in-law. She has accompanied her husband, Chunru Dachahl Pralahnru, to his distant homeland, the vast and wealthy Changali empire—a powerful nation whose customs, laws and language are all quite unfamiliar to Batiya.
A powerful nation whose crown prince is none other than Chunru Dachahl Pralahnru, and whose emperor does not look kindly on the whirlwind romance between his son and heir and an odd-looking barbarian engineer with an unpronounceable name.
Of course, there’s an obvious way for the emperor to deal with his son’s inconvenient foreign wife. He can simply have her assassinated.
Batiya does not die at this time: the emperor is convinced not to kill his son’s pregnant wife. At least, not directly.
However conservative the emperor might be about daughters-in-law, he has great plans to modernize his empire. Crucial to those plans is adoption of the Southern custom of universal education. This bold decision has placed the empire on the brink of open civil war.
The emperor may be a powerful autocrat but for his commands to become action, every order has to pass through the hands of the scholars, the empire’s small and extremely elite literate class. General education means that literacy will no longer be the monopoly of a small and powerful class. At least some of the scholars are smart enough to understand the implications for their social status if the educational reforms take root.
And the scholars control all of the information that flows through the empire….
Having learned of the unrest among the scholar class, the emperor launches a bold gambit designed to draw his enemies out where he can deal with them decisively. And how better to do this than to inflame domestic passions by painting his son’s foreign wife as a key player in the reforms that threaten the scholars’ hold on power?
It would be a bit sad if the rebellious scholars and their cats-paws managed to kill Batiya … but however the game plays out, the empire itself will be saved. And isn’t that what really matters?
A note about e book platforms: I read this on my phone, because impatient. It happens there are maps in this volume, maps that use colour to assist legibility. They can be read on the Kobo but information is lost in the transition from colour to shades of gray.
The one off-note in the novel is Dachahl’s annoying sister, who exists to be the aristocratic embodiment of The Load, the member of the group who can be counted upon to scream just when silence is necessary. I suppose Batiya looks better by comparison, but that wasn’t enough to make me care for the character.
(For that matter, given the draconian chastity and anti-infidelity laws of the empire, letting Batiya’s womanizing brother wander around without a minder seems like an extremely bad idea.)
The previous books were narrated by Batiya (the first book) or Dachahl (the second); this third book is narrated by both. In the first book, both protagonists were finding their way through unfamiliar seas and lands. In the second book, Dachahl had to deal with the odd ways of Batiya’s homeland. In the third volume, Batiya has to deal, in her turn, with the lands and customs of her new family. While she may be able to gain some breathing space thanks to her husband’s high status, for the most part the empire is not going to change to accommodate Batiya.
There are many possible pitfalls awaiting authors of novels where white people, men or women, travel to some Asian (or as in this case, Asian-inspired) land. I was afraid that Shelby would resort to the Mighty Whitey trope. That is, a white protagonist who easily and quickly masters skills it takes the locals a lifetime to master, or teaches the locals Western mores and knowledge that they could in no way have figured out for themselves.
That doesn’t really happen here. Batiya has a talent for learning languages and she is a competent engineer. However, although she takes up sword training for reasons that are sensible at the time, she does not become a master swordswoman by the end of the book. She becomes a valuable part of the emperor’s scheme to introduce the Southern practice of public education, but the modernization program is the emperor’s idea, and it long predates Batiya’s appearance in the empire.
Batiya does get to use her engineering skills (yay!) and she does work out how to manipulate the class system of her new home: she emphasizes her rigorous education as an engineer, which makes her a sort of scholar. When her brother arrives, he is taken for a warrior-scholar, not for a plebian mechanic-thug.
Batiya and her husband also do their best to recruit loyal allies, whether it’s Batiya’s kin visiting from abroad or a young aristocrat seeking to make amends for his father’s attempt on her life. Choosing recruitment rather than paranoia, attraction rather than repression, turns out to work better than general carnage would have. Quelle surprise.
A pleasant light adventure, a solid ending to the series, Fealty’s Shore is available from Air Castle Media.