2018’s For a Muse of Fire is the first volume in Heidi Heilig’s Shadow Players secondary-world fantasy trilogy.
Aquitan’s armies suppressed Le Trépas, the mad monk terrorizing Chakrana, then occupied Chakrana. They are there, they declare, to ensure that Chakrana’s boy king Raik Alendra will peacefully ascend the throne. In the meantime, Aquitan is benevolently guiding Chakrana to true civilization, which is of course Aquitanian. This means suppressing the bad old ways, such as monasticism. The result: civil war.
It’s a good time to flee Chakrana, as Jetta and her family are planning to do. They are travelling players; they fear running into Aquitan soldiers or perhaps freedom fighters and bandits (who are not always clearly distinguishable). Not only that: Jetta needs medical treatment available only in Aquitan.
Jetta Chantray and her family are a theatrical troupe, but their players are sticks and leather. The family puts on shadow puppet plays. They have a special edge, in that Jetta is a necromancer and adds magical oomph to her productions (she’s the sole puppeteer). Necromancy is forbidden, but needs must. She’s the only puppeteer in the family and magic is the only way to keep the family fed.
They plan to raise the money for emigration by playing at the upcoming royal wedding. King Raik Alendra will soon come of age; he is affianced to Theodora Legarde (beauty, genius, daughter of General Legarde). Shadow plays are all the rage and the Chantrays have a good chance at being chosen to perform.
Too bad that the Chantrays have the bad luck to arrive in a town when a rebel force is attacking. The occupying Aquitans suspect the performers of complicity. Suspicion is tantamount to proof for the edgy conquerors. The Chantrays must flee to evade arrest.
The price of Jetta’s medical treatment is simple: it will cost her everything she treasures.
Among other things, this is a skillfully done study of a family discovering how much they will sacrifice to survive: piece by piece, they abandon everything of value while trying to dodge between Aquitan and rebel forces.
Aquitan/Chakrana is inspired by France’s history in South East Asia. I’ve learned to value the perspective of the colonized when reading epic tales of imperial ambition; the history I see now is nowhere near as sunny as the standard accounts of grand empires that I was taught when a school-kid half a century ago. Why it is almost as though people do not want to be subject to foreign governments that ban their religions and use them as revenue sources for a nation half a world away.
The Aquitans are utterly convinced they are doing Chakrana an enormous favour; the Chakranans beg to differ. Does resistance make the Aquitans reconsider their plans for Chakrana? To quote Sinclair “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
The Chantrays have a very distressing tendency to cross paths with major players in the struggle for Chakrana (a tendency that is just coincidentally plot-convenient). The theatrical impresario who helps the Chantrays avoid impending arrest isn’t just a rebel ally; he’s a bastard son of General Legarde. Jetta’s mother was one of the victims of the mad monk whose butcheries led to the Aquitan invasion.
This book reminded me of Cart and Cwidder. Perhaps it is that both focus on travelling players. Perhaps it is that both feature people dragged quite against their will into high-level power politics.
You may well like this book as much as I did. Be aware, however, that this book is only the first part of the story. Discovering how it all plays out will require purchasing the rest of the series. Now all published and available.