The Seven Citadels books are a YA fantasy series about the quest of Kerish lo Taan, an imperial prince, to find the prophesied savior of his disintegrating empire. A lot of it is very formulaic -- he needs to collect seven keys from seven sorcerers in seven different exotic lands -- and some of it probably only moved me because it was the first time I'd encountered certain tropes, e.g. using the sorcerors' weaknesses against them to convince them to give up their keys made Kerish almost as vulnerable as it made them. The main religion is modeled on Christianity to an extent which escaped me as a kid, and vaguely annoys me now. But I can see why the series appealed to me when I was younger, and some of it still does appeal. It does so because of Harris' adept use of wish fulfillment.
Fanfic readers coined the term Mary Sue
to describe a particular form of storytelling distorted by wish fulfillment; perhaps because fan fiction is so often character-centered, it's the characters who receive the most attention and criticism. But the same unchecked wish fulfillment distortion can be seen at work in other ways: the excessive prettiness
of some settings (as in a recent novella by Catherine Asaro
), or the excessive niceness
of some dynasties (as in Mercedes Lackey's
Heralds, who subscribe to liberal American values despite living in a feudalist monarchy, or as in Anne McCaffrey's
Pern prequels, where the the bad guys and the good guys had to have the same names as the bad guys and the good guys several thousand years down the line, which leads one to wonder why the initial settlers named their colonies after would-be tyrants and short-sighted fools).
It's this very distortion that frequently makes such stories attractive; it's this very distortion that frequently makes them impossible to accept. Where you place the line is going to depend on many criteria, not excluding age and what you're currently in the mood to read. The Seven Citadels
still falls on the right side of the line I draw, and I'm
very sorry it's out of print
[very glad it's now available in ebook form].
Harris' world is indeed full of extraordinary beauties and cruelties, but the details are intriguing, specific, and tailored to the societies in which they appear. (Okay, Harris does have an unfortunate weakness for trying to make animals seem exotic by decorating them with improbably colored fur.) The Galkian royal family traces their descent from the marriage of the god Zeldin to a human woman; their divine ancestry has given them an extraordinary beauty (including the obligatory violet eyes, in this case with gold swirls) and an ability to see through illusions, as well as a set of taboos which include looking in mirrors and bearing arms. The Empire at points reminded me of Japan, Rome, Egypt, and Byzantium, but Harris has combined her sources into a satisfying and self-consistent mixture. The foreign lands -- for all that they tend to be summed up easily -- also have some nice touches; in particular, interesting things happen with the barbarians whose souls are wooden sculptures which strangers are forbidden to view.
Kerish is bad-tempered and spoiled starting out--these are convenient faults for idealized characters, usually presented in an indulgent way--but in this case Kerish's actions have real consequences, and not everyone loves him for his bad temper. Harris makes good use of supporting characters, especially Kerish's soldier half-brother, Forolkin, whom Kerish loves, envies, and half-despises and who loves, fears, and condescends to Kerish in his turn, and the ugly, brilliant, and cynical dwarf Gidjabolgo, who keeps reminding Kerish that the beautiful can get away with more than anyone else--and who, of course, longs for beauty and power himself. [I have the uneasy feeling I'll be a lot more critical about the treatment of disability on my next re-read.]
With Harris' permission, one fan site
has published the epilogue
to the last book, which her editor asked her to cut from the published edition. The editor was right. Completists may find it worth reading, but it's bound to be both incomprehensible and spoilerish for people who haven't read the series yet.