NB: The following entry does include spoilers.

AKA

This series is also sometimes referred to as the "Middle Kingdoms" series, from the books' setting. The Middle Kingdoms — Arlen, Darthen, Steldin and North Arlen — are so named because they were located in the middle of the world as men knew it, bounded in the north by a great sea, to the west and south by great ranges of impassable mountains, and to the east by desert.

The Author

Diane Duane (1952- )

The Books

  • The Door Into Fire, 1979 (a revised edition published in 1984 is considered by Duane to be the "polished" and definitive version)
    This was the author's first novel, garnering her the nomination two years in a row for the World Science Fiction Society's John W. Campbell Award for best new science fiction/fantasy writer.
  • The Door Into Shadow, 1983
  • The Door Into Sunset, 1992
  • An as-yet unpublished fourth book, The Door Into Starlight, but due (keeping my fingers crossed) in 2002 by Meisha Merlin Books

Additionally, two omnibus editions are planned, the first — The Tale of the Five: The Sword and the Dragon — containing The Door Into Fire and an updated version of The Door Into Shadow; and the second — The Tale of the Five: The Lion and the Door — containing an updated version of The Door Into Sunset and the long-awaited concluding volume, The Door Into Starlight.

The Tale of the Five is a series of epic fantasy, a tale of Light vs. Dark. The Door Into Fire introduces us to Herewiss as he plans to come to the aid of his lover, Freelorn. Freelorn has been exiled from the land where his father, the king, died before he could officially install Freelorn as his heir. With Freelorn away, a usurper, Cillmod, has taken the throne. This first book, though, is more about the history of the relationship between Herewiss and Freelorn, and Herewiss's current search for a "focus," a unique physical object that will allow him to channel the power of the "Flame." The Flame is a living magical essence that all people possess to at least a small degree, but that some women in each generation possess in greater quantity, enabling them to perform miracles. Herewiss is the first male in a thousand years to be born with an immense amount of Flame, but he is unable to use the same foci that women use. In this volume, we also are introduced to Sunspark, a fire elemental who is rescued by Herewiss and becomes bound to him of its own will, and Segnbora, a warrior in Freelorn's retinue whom we learn has a problem similar to Herewiss's. She was born with such a great amount of flame that she was unable to use a focus; each one she tried exploded from the sheer amount of power.

The Door Into Shadow, the second book, is Segnbora's tale. It follows her own emotional journey of self-acceptance as she unwittingly becomes the repository of the memories, thoughts and prescience of generations upon generations of dragons, who came to the Middle Kingdoms from another world when their own star became inhospitable to life. In order to incorporate these memories, she must open herself to all the buried memories of her own life, including an episode of child abuse she has long repressed.

In The Door Into Sunset we follow Freelorn's resolve to win back his throne, not from his own desire for power, but because the health of the lands are tied to their rulers in religious and metaphysical ways that go beyond the symbolic. The ruler of the neighboring kingdom allies with Freelorn, Herewiss, Segnbora and the dragons, and Sunspark to assist in this task. We also see how this story is an important turning point in the overarching battle between the light and the dark, as the Shadow (an aspect of the Goddess itself) is behind not only the usurpation of Freelorn's throne, but the attempts to prevent Herewiss and Segnbora to come into their own power as well.

Important Characters

  • Herewiss stareiln Hearn stai-Ealorsti kyn'Earnesti ("Dusty" to Freelorn), prince-elect of the Brightwood, sorceror and the first male in a thousand years with the power of the Flame, seeking for a way to focus it
  • Sunspark, a fire elemental
  • Freelorn stareiln Ferrant stai-Healhrasti ("Lorn" to Herewiss and "Lionchild" to Eftgan), prince of Arlen, true heir to the throne upon which the usurper Cillmod sits
  • Segnbora d'Welcaen tai-Enraesi , swordswoman who also bears the power of the Flame
  • Hasai, a dying dragon, who contains the essence (all the subsumed memories, thought processes and, if you like, souls) of his ancestors
  • Eftgan datheln Arienn ie kyr'Bort tai-Earnesti, Queen of Darthen
  • The Goddess
  • The Shadow

Opinion

This fantasy series is remarkable for several reasons, including the following:

  • Duane's skill at writing believable, sympathetic, complex characters, including male and female humans; an aspect of their Goddess (sorrowful, even, over Her own errors) who personally visits — and makes love to — every creature before its death; a fire elemental; and an entire lineage of dragons;

  • The inclusion of loving opposite-gender, same-gender, bisexual, polyamorous and even interspecies relationships. In the Middle Kingdoms (the setting for most of the action) there is complete equality of the sexes, and while one has a duty to reproduce (though this makes it sound too clinical; having children is not seen as a burden, but a joyful responsibility), after one has done so one is free to love whom one chooses, regardless of their sex. No assumptions are made by others about the sex of your partner(s), nor are judgements made about them on that basis alone.

  • A rich background, including complex but beautiful and well-explicated theology and multiple mythologies, languages (though Dracon does remind me a great deal of Rihannsu/Romulan, another of Duane's constructed languages), and excerpts from "historical" texts.

  • A writing style that can smoothly move from the poetic to the irreverent, and every stage in between, as appropriate.

A couple of favorite excerpts:

  • (at a unique wedding that is simultaneously a political event strengthening two kingdoms, a recognition of a spiritual bond among a group of people, a religious ceremony, and a civil union):

    "The seven... took the vow, to share bodies and thoughts as pleasure and trust prompted, to live for and with one another and their children, to love while life lasted, though liking may come and go, and to do right by one another, as the Goddess would were She marrying in (which of course She was)."

  • (the Goddess):

    "Her face was profoundly sorrowful, her eyes shadowed as if with guilt. 'The death [of the universe] is inevitable. But we have one power, all men and beasts and creatures of other planes. We can slow down the Death, we can die hard, and help all the worlds die hard. To that purpose it behooves us to let loose all the power we can. To live with vigor, to love powerfully and without caring whether we're loved back, to let loose building and teaching and healing and all the arts that try to slow down the great Death. Especially joy, just joy itself. A joy flares bright and goes out like the stars that fall, but the little flare it makes slows down the great Death ever so slightly. That's a triumph, that it can be slowed down at all, and by such a simple thing.'"

  • (Segnbora and Herewiss, on their mutual inability to find a focus — a unique physical object specific to the individual — that would permit them to access the Flame, a living magical essence, they both possess):

    "I was going to reach inside minds and really understand motivations — not just make do with the little blurred glimpses you get from underhearing, all content and no context. I was going to untwist the hurt places in people, and heal wounds with something better than herbs and waiting. To really hear what goes on in the world around, to talk to thunderstorms and soar in a bird's body and run down with some river to the Sea. I was going to move the forces of the world to command the elements and be them when I chose. To give life, to give Power back to the Mother. To sing the songs that the stars sing, and hear them sing back. And they told me I'd do all that, and I believed them. And it was all for nothing..."

    "If you had it, you know," he said, trying to find a crumb of comfort for her, "you'd probably just die early." He had tried to make a joke of it, an acknowledgement of shared pain. But she turned to him, and looked at him, and his heart sank. "Who cares if you die early," she said very quietly, "as long as you've lived."

If You Like This Series, You Might Also Enjoy...

  • Gael Baudino's Strands of Starlight series, which offers a goddess similarly present, interested and active in Her creations' lives.

  • Tanya Huff's The Fire's Stone, set in another world where bisexuality is relatively commonplace and unremarked.

  • Duane's own Young Wizardry (most often found in the "young adult" or unfortunately named "juvenile" sections of your bookstore or library, these, like much work in those genres, have a strong appeal for many old adults, too) and Ailurin Wizardry series. Set in our own recognizable world and in more contemporary times, they explore the same theme of Light versus Dark, but from different perspectives. The protagonists of the Young Wizardry series are three teenagers and pre-teens, while those of the Ailurin Wizardry series (The Book of Night With Moon, To Visit the Queen), in an interesting twist, are cats.

  • Fiona Patton's Branion Realms series, which also feature positive same-sex relationships, as well as the premise of a living magical essence that lives within the ruler, being passed on to the heir at the ruler's death (and not always passing easily).

  • Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint and Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series, featuring more positive gay male relationships in well-written fantasy settings.

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