I recently finished the first three books of the Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks. They are grave and thoughtful books about violence, personal responsibility, and friendship in an occupied land where magic works in unusual ways. The issues that are dealt with are serious, and I feel I owe the books (and author) the respect to say both what worked and what didn’t in the series.Others have mentioned the completely gender neutral nature of society in the books and how refreshing it is in contrast to real life and almost all other fiction. This was one of the highlights of the series for me. Again and again I found my preconceptions — that I didn’t even know I had — upset as a character introduced as simply “a farmer” or “a soldier” turned out to be female rather than male. The assumption of the books is that there are no inherent gender differences; aggression, parental instincts, emotional sensitivity, physical prowess or lack thereof — all are equally distributed between the sexes. It’s not clear if it’s a result or a cause, but the professions are completely integrated as well.
Sometimes I could sense a bit of strain in this world building. There is a moment in Earth Logic when the Sainnite lieutenant-general (and later general) Clement considers the idea of female soldiers taking leaves of duty to have children and bolster their dwindling population – and tosses it aside as completely absurd. Given the alternatives and how long the Sainnites have had to think about the problem, I didn’t find that realistic. But the gender neutrality worked very well 99% of the time.
Even more appealing to me was the theme of nontraditional families, mostly unrelated by birth, but tied by history, loyalty and love of various kinds. The most obvious example is the communal household centered around Zanja and Karis, but casual references throughout the books imply that most families in Shaftal are similarly fluid in nature. There was a moment that really got me in Earth Logic when a Shaftali woman, upon being told that Gilly can handle Clement’s finances when she’s away, asks, “Is he your brother?” We, the readers, know that Gilly and Clement are of different ranks and come from different countries, and though they have shared a long and close alliance are far from being the traditional (to us, and to Clement) relations of brother and sister. Clement’s reaction is to pause, and finally answer, “Gilly is what I have.” She seems to be realizing something important about their connection that she never grasped before. Perhaps that family can be what you decide it is? That form follows function? That loves trumps convention? It isn’t spelled out, and is all the more moving for it.
I also enjoyed the style of narration – at times the unfolding of events really moved along in a concrete, yet crisp and original way reminiscent of Elizabeth Lynn or Marks’s writing group compatriot Rosemary Kirstein. The introduction of new points of view was also very effective. Garland the cook, Clement the soldier, and Seth the farmer were welcome and well-realized complements to Zanja as windows on the story. (In fact, I really missed Garland in Water Logic. He showed up from time to time, but was no longer a viewpoint character. I want more heroic chefs!)
I did have some serious problems with the books. The largest of them was the ease with which seemingly insurmountable problems were overcome with magic. The first example cropped up before page 60 of Fire Logic, when Karis found Zanja on death’s door and completely healed her broken back and infected sores, even making her some new toes to replace the ones that had been hacked off by torturers. I was surprised by this turn of events. Most of the fantasy I read is very particular about life balance and the costs of working powerful magic. To have such a profound act performed easily and with no negative repercussions just didn’t seem right to me. If it had been the only instance of deus ex machina “cheating”, I wouldn’t consider it a real flaw, but it was only the first of many. We also had Karis’s recovery from smoke addiction, single-handed eradication of the plague, and astonishing use of the one remaining plague-carrying flea; Zanja’s hunches that lead her to at least two very important books and voyage through time that turned out perfectly for all involved. I could go on. There are a few examples of terrible events in the books that are not miraculously reversed (the massacre of Zanja’s people, the deaths of minor characters like Annis and Damon), but the main characters – despite a lot of temporary torment – in the end seem to be invulnerable, and worse, unchanging. I consider this to be a major weakness in a work of fiction. It prevents me from fully engaging with the story because I expect that no matter how bad things get someone will wave a magic wand (metaphorically) and make it all better. Nothing seems fully “real”, in the narrative sense of real.
My second difficulty with the books is partly related to world-building, and partly related to structure. The series is called “Elemental Logic” and the characters with magical abilities are all associated with one of the classical Greek elements of Fire, Earth, Water and Air. Traditionally, these four principles complement one another in an interdependent cycle of give and take, so I assumed that the books would explore how they are manifested and balanced in the fictional world. The author seems to have had this intention, as Medric clearly states at the beginning of Air Logic, “When, though informing and contradicting each other, the elements are in balance, then they become stable, and then we have strength.” However, with three books written, that balance has not been struck. Description of the various elementals’ strengths and weaknesses are scattered throughout, but almost all of the character development has been reserved for earth and fire, and there seems to be a clear preference for these elements in the narrative. Five of the main characters are fire or earth bloods; the two air bloods (Norina and Mabin) get much less attention and are portrayed as inflexible and unpleasant; and water elementals are uncomfortably like noble savages when they infrequently appear. If I were personally invested in tarot or astrology, I might find this even more problematic than I do. As it is, I am frustrated at the incompleteness and bias of the narrative, and wonder why the author chose this cosmological framing device if she didn’t plan to give each element equal time and attention.
My last big problem with the series is a sort of evil twin to the nontraditional family theme I liked so much. I would imagine, in a society that is so open to invention in personal relationships, that we’d see a lot of variety in romantic entanglements. The Elemental Logic series is different from most fantasy works in that there are many same sex couples featured throughout. In fact, they clearly outnumber the heterosexual couples. That’s transgressive. But… where are the bisexuals? Where are the poly folks? Where are the people who don’t fall in love at first sight? And, even more mundane, what about the unhappy relationships? People who aren’t made for one another or completely loyal? (I guess I can think of one such couple: Norina and J’han. However, their strife all seems to be laid at Norina’s feet because she’s one of the problematic air bloods.) On many occasions I found myself frustrated at the lack of diversity in this area that would seem so promising given the way the society was presented.
All in all, I have found the series to be involving, but frustrating. I’ll be interested to see if the fourth (and presumably last) book in the series addresses some of my concerns. At the very least, I hope it gives the air bloods some kind of image buff. They could use some love.