The year was… ooh, 1996 I think. I was still at university, wrestling my way through a degree in Slavonic Languages and Literature. I was in my fourth year, and by this point I had pretty much figured out that I’d picked the wrong subject to study, but rather than flushing four years down the drain I was determined to just get my degree. I hadn’t really thought about job prospects, probably out of an optimistic but fairly accurate sense that I could learn anything people would chuck at me. The goal was simply to get that degree out of the way.
As part of the degree students could spend some time in a Russian speaking country to soak up the local culture and language. I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, so when the choice was between three months in St Petersburg or one month in Odessa, I opted for the latter. Yes, I know St Petersburg would probably have been much more awesome, but I just really didn’t fancy it.
That one hot June in Odessa was an experience I’ll never forget, though probably for all the wrong reasons. I kept a diary, and every few years when I read through it again I’m staggered at everything that happened there. Bear in mind that this was less than ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and things were still pretty dire over there.
Anyway, whilst out there I met a few students from St Andrews University up in Scotland. They’d been there for nearly half a year, and were due to go home a week before me. One of them was a lovely guy, and within about three days I’d fallen in love with him. We agreed that I’d come and visit him once he was back home, and he later also introduced me to the online game which I later met my husband on.
The relationship never really worked out, and although we parted on good terms I’ve lost contact with him. However, at some point while we were still seeing each other he handed me a big bag of books that he’d read and enjoyed, hoping that I would now enjoy them. (As an aside, I’ve never understood how people only read a book once. I’m always re-reading books as well as reading new stuff and if I like a book I’ll never just give it away to someone. Maybe that’s just me, I don’t know.) Among these books was a pretty, yellow tome called Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn.
It was one of the first books I read out of the bag, and it has remained one of my stalwart favourites ever since. Looking through the reviews on Goodreads I’m actually surprised at how many one-star ratings it has, but that’s another one of those differing taste things I suppose. I think a lot of people dislike the heavily romantic angle in the book, which is of course right up my street. Personally I like the concept of Sunrunners, or faradhim, people who use sunlight (and, if sufficiently strong and competent, moonlight) to communicate and weave magic, and who have their own unique combination and pattern of colours to identify them to each other.
The plot of the book centres around Rohan, the Dragon Prince of the title, who wants to abandon the petty rivalries between the princes of the various realms, and the way in which High Prince Roelstra encourages this rivalry to his own betterment. Roelstra himself has the problem of not having an heir, because although he had a wife, she died after four daughters, and he is now on his umpteenth mistress with a total tally of seventeen daughters.
The rest of the plot is political intrigue, betrayal, some rather dark storyline involving rape and some less than honourable means to get the right result. Things aren’t black and white in this novel, which is interesting in a genre where shades of grey are often missing (a fault I’m guilty of myself).
This book is the first part of a trilogy, the followups being The Star Scroll and Sunrunner’s Fire. The next two books deal with a new antagonist in the form of diarmadhim, sorcerers who can pose as sunrunners, but are actually better equipped to weave starlight. I found these subsequent books equally engaging and engrossing.
There is a second trilogy centred around Rohan and his offspring, Stronghold, The Dragon Token and Skybowl. In this trilogy an all-out war sweeps the continent of the Sunrunners, and while it was still very good, it suffers very much from what I’ll now call the George RR Martin effect: so many people die that it got really depressing after a while. Rawn certainly did not have any qualms about killing her darlings in this trilogy.
I confess that I’ve read little else by this author. The only other two books I own are The Ruins of Ambrai and The Mageborn Traitor. They are the first two parts of a trilogy, but it sounds like the third part may never be written. It’s a shame, because it was another intriguing world concept with interesting use of magic, and especially interesting because its society is entirely matriarchal.
What I’ve taken away from Melanie Rawn is a love of romance in fantasy and a deep-seated appreciation of good fantasy names, even though there were many in the Dragon Prince series which were rather distracting. Rohan is of course the land of the horse lords in The Lord of the Rings, but there is also a prominent character called Walvis, which is the Dutch word for whale. Roelstra himself sounds like a Friesian surname to me. Still, I love names like Riyan, Ruala, Jahni, Moswen, Chiana, Ianthe, Miyon, Chaynal and Camigwen. In the second trilogy things got a bit confusing because people kept naming their children after other people. There is a Rohannon (after Rohan), there’s Sionell and Sioneva (after Sioned, Rohan’s wife). Then there’s Chayla and Chayly (both after Chaynal), Jahnavi after Jahni, and after another seven of those you get seriously befuddled about who is who and whose kid they are.
I suppose that at some point I should get around to reading the rest of Melanie Rawn’s work, but for now I’ll stick to re-reading my old favourites every now and then.