Jane Yolen's The One-Armed Queen is a sequel of sorts to her absolutely amazing Books of Great Alta: Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna. The central figure and title character is Scillia, daughter and heir of Jenna, the White Queen of the Books of Great Alta. Jenna adopted the one-armed baby girl at a battle of the Gender Wars in White Jenna. She also has two younger biological sons, Jemson (Jem, Jemmie) and Corrine (Corrie).
The story of The One-Armed Queen begins fourteen years after the Gender Wars, which is the name given by historians to the events of The Books of Great Alta. Much has changed in the island country of the Dales --- although it is still ruled by a foreign king whose ancestors came from the mainland, Garun-Across-the-Sea, Carum Longbow is more accepted and even loved than any of his predecessors. Part of this is due to his skill and fairness as a ruler, but a greater part is due to the heroic deeds of the Gender Wars that earned him his throne, and the fact that he shares power equally with his partner, a native queen: White Jenna, the legendary Anna, believed to be an avatar of the Great Goddess Alta of the Dales and a figure hailed by prophecy in both Garunian and Dalite myths and legends. As mentioned before, these myths and legends are skillfully interwoven with the story and history of the Gender Wars in The Books of Great Alta. Fourteen years later, day to day life is still one of hard work in the Dales, but girl babies are no longer left abandoned on hillsides, counted worthless as a result of the Garunian invaders' patriarchy. Scillia is a moody adolescent, and her brother Jemson is sent away to be fostered by the Garuns, who send a prince of their own in an awkward semi-hostage situation that brings about a temporary, awkward peace between the mainland and the island folk but ultimately results in tragedy.
The One-Armed Queen is less about myth and magic than its predecessors, and more about politics, which is perhaps why it's less fun to read. It was written nearly ten years after White Jenna and didn't feel nearly as inspired by a long shot, which probably didn't do much for the magical quality of the text. This book is an epilogue to The Books of Great Alta, even though its plot largely overlaps the ending provided in White Jenna. It leaves a lot less to the imagination than the earlier books, which is a bit disappointing as well. My first response to reading it was to pretend The One-Armed Queen never happened, because it seemed to detract from the goodness of the books which came before it, which stand on their own as stories. White Jenna and Sister Light, Sister Dark could both work on their own, although the former begins kind of abruptly where the latter left off with a bit of a cliffhanger. This is not as true of The One-Armed Queen. It reminded me a bit of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow, a retelling of the events of his famous Ender's Game from a different perspective --- enjoyable, but ultimately not as good as the original work. The first half of The One-Armed Queen echoes the epilogue of White Jenna which tells a glorified history book or fairy tale happily ever after ending to the story of White Jenna, her dark sister Skada, and the king Carum Longbow. Of course, the ending wasn't an ending for everyone involved, nor was it as simple and pretty as that. The shift of perspective in The One-Armed Queen makes that immediately apparent.
A large part of the problem of The One-Armed Queen is that Scillia's not a very sympathetic character. She's kind of a whiny little princess, in the worst sense of the word, although everybody tries to cut her slack. The problem is that no one, the reader included, can help but compare her to her famous, legendary mother. Jenna's character was forged in times of great trial and tribulation, whereas Scillia's life has been a lot more stable and boring, even tedious in places. So she's not as exciting as her mom. No big surprise.
Yolen returns to the style and form of The Books of Great Alta, splicing the myths and legends of the Dales into her main plot. In the earlier books, these gave the events of the Gender Wars a heightened sense of significance, although at times they felt a bit divorced from the reality of what was happening to the characters. In The One-Armed Queen, the gap between reality and myth is painfully apparent, and the story doesn't have the sweeping momentum that allowed me to accept this discrepancy in Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna. The scholarly controversies about the history of the Dales are back again, but this time they feel much more one-sided: the author in question is the daughter of the historian quoted in The Books of Great Alta, attempting to complete her father's work and restore his academic reputation. We know her agenda from the very beginning, and so her writing lacks the hilarious pseudo-objectivity that made her father's analysis (all too often not even wrong) so amusing to read.
Close reading of The Books of Great Alta foreshadows the events of The One-Armed Queen:
Then Great Alta said, "There shall be one of you, my only daughter, who shall be thrice born and thrice orphaned. She shall lie by a dead mother's side three times yet shall herselve live. She shall be queen above all things yet queen she will not be. She shall carry a babe for each mother, yet mother them not. The three shall be as one and begin the world anew. So I say and so shall it be." (White Jenna, 34-5)
but despite the fact that the later book contains all the elements I enjoyed in The Books of Great Alta --- mixture of myth, legend, story, and history, it seemed to me to lack its predecessors' momentum and magic.
Yolen, Jane. The One-Armed Queen. New York: A Tom Doherty Associates Book. 1998. With Music of the Dales by Adam Stemple.