The following entry may contain triggering material and spoilers for Fires of the Faithful and Turning the Storm, both by Naomi Kritzer.
No masters or kings when the Ritual begins;
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am human, only then I am clean
—The Journey of Gesu, chapter 5 verse 10-14
Oops, I meant
—Hozier, “Take Me To Church”
Eliana’s Song is a medieval fantasy that isn’t a trilogy, or a five-to-seven-book chronicle, and…doesn’t need to be longer than it already is. Although if you know any good fanfiction, link it me please! The first book is a moody, slow setup like a mystery. The second book clips along much faster, enjoyably zany, then goes far beyond the thematic expectations before pulling back to a satisfactory resolution. Despite the in-book world going to medieval Christan hell in a dystopian handbasket, the aesthetic makes a sandbox that I want to cozy in until I am buried. Magic fire is commonplace. Children of average intelligence can strike a spark with their mind. It takes a prodigy’s lifetime of study to be recruited into the Mage University as human weapons of mass destruction raining flaming meteors down from the sky, so most people just use it to light candles. This ability is also politicized as a gift from the Lady, a figure in the mythology of the Delia Chiesa (the dominant religion.) This Lady never features as a character, except perhaps by secondhand testimony of the deliriously dehydrated. Mythological figures from other in-book religions don’t feature as characters, either—refreshing for a high fantasy where demonstrably extant magics are so intertwined with religion. Secular customs of the nobles echo that of a Romantic era: costume festivals, masquerade balls, wines and cheeses, and coded messages in flowers.
The point of view character, Eliana, is a nerd. Rather than begin the story in the hero’s happy farming village home that is razed to the ground by warfare and their family is dead—eventually gets around to that, but—the story begins at an arts college. Bless her heart, the violin remains Eliana’s weapon for so much longer than medieval fantasy fans would expect. Eliana’s home of Renaissance Fantasy Italy is suffering from famine, civil unrest, clandestine politics, clandestine metaphysics, and religious warfare. But, never fear! Eliana has a fiddle!
…She’s good with the fiddle, okay?
We would be doomed, but everyone off to save the world needs powerful friends. Meet Flavia on the drums, Celia the lead vocalist, Julia playing second fiddle and terribly unhappy about it, and (my personal favorite character, but she doesn’t come back until the second book) Lia on the mandolin.
Anyway, here’s “Wonderwall”.
Religion, Culture, & Politics in Eliana’s Song
Kritzer has a BA in Religion, and authors of similar academic pedigree would be eager to pontificate, if the spectacle of historical fantasy didn’t already bait that. Eliana’s Song doesn’t take the bait. Kritzer has a story to tell, and fills this story with human beings. When it comes to artistic criticism of religion in real-life culture, Kritzer has no evident soapbox. Abuse of political power corrupts all forms of faith. There are honest, brave devotees of the Lady of Delia Chiesa; and there are the Fedeli, extremists and inquisitors who torture people to death. Among their most common victims are those converted to the Old Ways, a religion known as Redentore, that in this book is positioned like paganism but has the customs and mythology of Abrahamic faiths. Or, Abraham-ish: the twist on the story of “Gesu” the son of God and “Giudas” the betrayer (Jesus and Judas, come on) are on par with the better-researched forms of Anime Catholicism. Only after realizing this did I notice that Delia Chiesa is somewhat Wiccish by contrast, honoring the Lord as equal to the Lady, and so intertwined with magic that the Fedeli persecute people suspected of not doing witchcraft.
Eliana’s own conversion from Delia Chiesa to Redentore isn’t as simple as enlightenment. Like artists, she and her friends dabble in music influenced by the Old Way song styles. It’s forbidden, but it makes for aesthetic music, even politically-important music. When the Wiccish Inquisition (which I did not expect) show the worst side of this faith, Eliana dons the cross in rebellion, the same way perhaps that many girls Eliana’s age or younger would start wearing pentagrams.
She doesn’t know the creed. She doesn’t know the dances. She doesn’t even know the stories. She hasn’t undergone any Redentore initiatory rituals. Still, I can’t, as a reader, condemn Eliana’s conversion as shallow or insubstantial. This isn’t just because the dickweeds sharing Eliana’s birth religion tortured and murdered people close to her, of course, seeking a “rebound religion” is still not a good reason. Redentore music may come off as what’s “shiny” about the religion, but music is Eliana’s life, and the music was one of the only ways she could access the marginalized Old Ways. Of course, accessibility borne of appropriation is still not a good reason.
List the facts, and Eliana is one big Redentore fluffy bunny. Follow her story, though—her perceptions and emotions, motifs accompanying life-changing events—and it’s just not like that. Kritzer didn’t give vapidity a heart. The heart was always there, by virtue of being a person. Against this, judgments of vapidity become evidence only of the accuser’s arrogance. How many fluffy bunnies have I condemned, who were secretly as clever, kind, and guileless as Eliana? Probably all of them—I’ve lost my chance by now to really ever know.
It’s hardly a simple thing, conversion. As she is Delia Chiesa by heritage, Eliana leads the funeral rites of a Delia Chiesa ally to the Redentore resistance who died in battle, rather than give this ally a Redentore funeral just because she was Redentore by then. By the second book, Eliana finds herself still praying to the Lord of Delia Chiesa, because of the difference in cosmology and philosophy. The D’Chiesa believe that the Lady is omnibenevolent and the Lord has a personal relationship with devotees expressed by direct intervention. The Redentore believe in a God of the whole universe who quit a long time ago, whose son was born to intervene once.
The key to counteract the negative side-effects of D’Chiesa witchlight lies in the musical traditions of the Redentore, which Redentore extremists use as a foothold to greater political power.
“If you strongly encourage everyone to attend Mass regularly, and have the priests keep track of who comes, you could identify the weak Redentore—”
“Or those who have injuries that make it painful to dance,” I said, “Or those who seek God’s presence on their own, or those who believe in the Emperor, and in our cause, but not in God! Are all these people assumed to be spies?”
It’s not only Eliana doing the syncretizing. The grandparents of Eliana’s generation carry on with old-fashioned superstitions such as crossing themselves (an originally Redentore practice)—although they would be disrespected for their unfashionable mannerisms, and are nominally D’Chiesa. Delia Chiesa attend funerals of Redentore friends. Redentore people celebrate Delia Chiesa festivals because their still-living friends are there (and also food, maybe dancing, and D’Chiesa is the dominant religion so everybody is joining the party, you can’t not, or why would you not, paaartyyyyy…) These temporary defectors of Redentore repent a week later—certain to join in again next year.
Among leaders of the Resistance, practicing both would allow either D’Chiesa or Redentore to claim these political faction leaders for themselves. The D’Chiesa and Redentore are then unified in their cause, which in the first book is to get out of the concentration camp (!) that the rich urban D’Chiesa put them in because they were poor farmers.
The complexity and nuance is masterful.
Oh, and some Redentore interpret the holy scripture as a call to human sacrifice. This gives Eliana pause, although her priestess at the concentration camp tries to convince her that those members are just distorting scripture. This priestess also takes care to assure Eliana that their resident mad prophet was just spouting random stuff because he’s stark raving mad, not because the Redentore God or the D’Chiesa Lady actually both hate lady-loving ladies…like Eliana. So, Eliana can chillax about it.
(Spoilers: No, our hero can not chillax about it!)
Gender & Romance in Eliana’s Song
Both the Lady of D’Chiesa and the God of Redentore are referred to in feminine gender. This didn’t strike me as empowering of the feminine on a systemic level, necessarily. Many of Eliana’s schoolmates still devolve into slut-shaming, whereas in the out-of-book patriarchal world I don’t sense that much cad-shaming going around.
Eliana also cross-dresses a lot. First, for comfort, then under the alias “Daniel” for espionage reasons, then she doesn’t stop cross-dressing and this sets a trend that becomes a political ‘problem’, and by the end she becomes Daniel again. He becomes Daniel again? It’s told in first person and gender issues are never explicitly pontificated, but I’d describe Eliana’s gender as wonderfully open to interpretation.
Eliana’s love interest—or one of them, the main one at least—goes by many names, and struggles with a substance abuse addiction. Because musicians. While that sounds tragic, the romance between them is. Jusht. Sho. Adorbs! Even when they quarrel, their barbs are spun of pink cotton candy filaments and toasted marshmallow fluff. Their courtship is framed in sprigs of fragrant wildflowers. (And grumping at each other as they launder the menstrual blood off their clothes, or one holding the other’s hair back as she vomits during withdrawal. Kritzer keeps it real.)
While Eliana’s orientation comes to be challenged into definition, as it overlaps with potential religious/cultural/political issues, Kritzer manages to keep it an exploration rather than a fight. Romance, like faith, is portrayed more as a human experience than a narrative that can ever be accurately politicized or pathologized.