1975’s The Broken Citadel is the first volume in Joyce Ballou Gregorian’s Tredana young-adult portal-fantasy series. The series is Gregorian’s only published fantasy of which I am aware, no doubt because the author died shortly after the third book was published.
Intrigued by the library she glimpses through the windows of a long-empty Victorian mansion, eleven-year-old Sybil “Sibby” Barron breaks into the house. Her visit to the library is a short one. When she exits, intending to rush home, she finds herself on an unfamiliar seashore on another world.
It’s a world rich in ways for naïve young women to die horribly, so it’s all for the best that the first people Sibby meets are Leron, Mara, Gannoc, Dansen, and their guide One-Eye. They are a band of kind-hearted adventurers on a great quest. Sibby joins their party.
The Deathless Queen of Treclere rules her city-state with powers mortals cannot match. Nevertheless, Prince Armon of Tredana assembled and led a great army against the Deathless Queen. Alas, his forces were not deathless and were quickly obliterated. Armon himself was briefly reanimated by the Queen for purposes on which we will not dwell save to observe that you cannot spell necromancer without “romance.”
This is a high-fantasy world in which dreams are meaningful, if sometimes hard to interpret. The Deathless Queen knows, for example, that her daughter will prove the death of her. As any prudent parent would do, she has imprisoned her daughter Dastra on an isolated island, alone save for a servant1.
Guided by dreams and omens, Leron and his party believe that if they quest north, they will find the means by which to rid their world of the Deathless Queen. Surely, this can only mean that they are to retrieve Dastra, the only daughter of the Deathless Queen known to be in that direction. The only daughter of the Deathless Queen known, period.
Dastra is glad to be rescued. Indeed, she is so determined to be free of her prison she neglects to mention that she has a loyal servant, whom she leaves behind to face the Deathless Queen’s wrath. Dastra is astonishingly beautiful and also spoiled and self-centered. How she can help the adventurers depose her mom is unclear.
Having retrieved Dastra, the quest should be smooth sailing. In fact, thanks in part to misreading omens and in larger part to human folly, the quest to rid the world of the Deathless Queen is only beginning. As Sibby and her companions discover, virtually everything that could go wrong will go wrong.
Indeed, it will not take too long before the party is scattered and Leron himself is a prisoner of the Deathless Queen. It will fall to Sibby to save the day. But what can one eleven-year-old do to confound the Deathless Queen herself?
This would have been a great choice for my series of Because My Tears are Delicious to You reviews—except I only learned of the series’ and its author’s existence earlier this year. The copy I tracked down is the 1983 Ace paperback, which means I got to enjoy the full glory of Kirk Reinert’s cover. Presumably, that’s Dastra in the battle-nightie.
Dasta, by the way, is worse than I make her sound, a very special combination of useless, spoiled, and grasping chancer with a keen eye for a socially advantageous marriage (although prospective husbands should be aware she is unlikely to wear widow’s black for long.).
The author does her best to denote the otherworldly nature of her fantasy realm through vocabulary. Her skills were not quite up to the task, but points for trying.
Although Sibby spends quite a long time in the other realm, she does not miss her parents (an issue addressed towards the end of the book). This is not due to any particular ill-will. She does not hate them. She’s just not that fond of them. For reasons I will not relate, it is unlikely her parents miss her. Still, it’s somewhat unusual to have this issue even addressed in this sort of fantasy.
The setting is a standard high-fantasy secondary universe of this era: a handful of cities, each with its own monarchy, separated by vast wildernesses. The north is ice covered and the south vaguely reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. The sparse population can be explained by the fact that this is a world with living gods, gods whose intervention in mortal affairs often take the form of divine WMDs. Given that intermittent divine wrath and perennial human foibles, civilizations have a tendency to ascend quickly and then just as quickly collapse into ruins. Indeed, the map at the beginning of the book notes four ruins and two cities.
Where the book stands out is “consequences.” Sibby is in no way equipped with plot armour in this book. Her brushes with death are often accompanied by serious injury, injuries not to be magically healed (healing magic seems to be scarce in this world). (She acquires a number of disfiguring scars.) Nor, as she is somewhat horrified to discover, are the people around her provided with plot armour. Just because she momentarily forgets about supporting characters once she is finished with them does not mean that those characters will not suffer consequences for having crossed paths with her.
Gregorian’s prose is, alas, mostly functional and the plot raises questions unanswered in this book. The book rises above the standard secondary universe fare by showing us normal people tackling a grand task as though they were the demigods of old and not mortal humans. We see character growth as the surviving characters realize they are not figures from myth, but mortal beings tackling both cutthroat mundane politics and dangerous divine entities2.
The Broken Citadel is out of print.
1: Why not kill Dastra? Because that would bring this world’s version of the Furies down on the Queen and even she cannot stand against them. Which does suggest a way to weaponize Dastra: get her to vex her mother to the point the Deathless Queen tries to strangle her daughter. Perhaps that is why irritating Dastra was imprisoned so far from her mother.
2: Imagine a group of Basic Roleplaying characters pitched into a high-level D&D campaign.