This is the Crown of Stars series by Kate Elliott.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve done one of my ~POC in high fantasy genre fiction~ posts, and I’m kinda surprised it took me this long to remember it-but this was also one of the series I lost in my divorce, so i need to repurchase all the books.
This is one of those series that people either love or hate.
Firstly, it is based on Medieval Europe very faithfully, in all the ways that many fans of this genre don’t like. Firstly, the Church rules the entire land with an iron fist. Religious authority supersedes secular authority most of the time. Heresy and splinter cults are a huge fucking problem. Secondly, there are people of color, especially in the nobility, because treaty marriages and whatnot. Just like Medieval Europe. Lastly, there is the ambiance of dirty smelly people, religious corruption, creeping superstition, witch hunts, and pervasive ignorance. Most people including nobility are like, straight-up illiterate.
And the reason why some people really don’t like it is the characters go through some unbelievably intense shit, and have realistic emotional reactions to what they endure. In other words, it’s fucking depressing, because the characters are fucking depressed and have PTSD.
Liath (pictured on the cover of Book 3 and 6), the mainest of main characters, is a young woman who is mixed-race; part white and part Aoi, who are your “ancient magic elves” people, and they are also Black people. Nearly all of her problems come from being hypersexualized by the people around her, constantly, and the victimization that results from that. The trauma that results from this is pervasive and doesn’t just “go away” as the books progress, in fact it pretty much shapes all of her decisions. She is painted as emotionally fragile and need of protection she doesn’t ever get; she is expected to get over everything, toughen up, and get things done, but she can’t. Many readers dislike this. She is also obsessive and seems to have some attachment disorders. She is extremely powerful but can’t function half the time. I think she’s great.
Another main character, Sanglant (pictured on covers of books 1 and 2), is the same mix as Liath, Aoi (Black/magic elf), and white. He is hypersexualized and hypermasculinized by the people around him. He endures degradation and some pretty…unfortunate shit. The repercussions of what he has gone through are also pervasive and he doesn’t just “get over it.”
Alain is the third main character, who is a “more traditional” high fantasy main character: teenage white boy, idealistic, well-intentioned, innocent, of mysterious and uncertain parentage, and desperately wants to find out who he “really” is. Also, maybe magic in certain ways. Happily, the things that happen to Alain are not “traditional high fantasy” things. Because this is not a traditional high fantasy world.
Things that happen in this series: disappointment, over and over again. The excruciating shattering of illusions. Characters plummeting off of pedestals you’re encouraged to try and put them on. Weakness and human folly. Scary, dangerous magic that doesn’t solve much of anything and may make things worse. Despair when one might expect happiness and snakes in the Garden of Eden. Suffering that does not lead to redemption, and instead just must be lived with.
Stronghand is a sort of sub-main character, and I think he may have been my favorite. He is not human. His perspective is delightfully alien and refreshingly bizarre. He is a kind of counterweight to the entire rest of the book.
In summation, this is one of the most unusual and unique fantasy series I have ever read. It manages to be somehow alternately-historically-accurate and completely subvert that at the same time. It’s ambiguous and doesn’t give you what you think you want, but it might give you something better.
I really, really want to re-read it. I think I may re-purchase it as soon as I get paid.