No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, May 15, 1995

Fate -- Mary Corran

Asher's childhood is spent in a small world, like most children; her parents are farmers, her playmates are the other children from the village and the manor house. Then the Grey Men invade the country, and everything changes. The Oracle says that Vallis, Prince Lykon's infant daughter, will save the realm - but Vallis has disappeared, and Asher grows to adulthood in a land crippled by heavy tributes and the presence of the hated invaders who now rule half of the known lands of Tenebran.

Fourteen years after the invasion, Asher has fled a repressive marriage and is living in the city of Venture and working as a senior clerk at the Treasury. Only recently have women been employed in such important positions, but it's good political sense; women don't have to be paid as much or treated as well as men, and anyway many of the men have been sent to internment camps. Asher appreciates her position. It gives her the chance to embezzle money for the women's underground - which helps women escape the city, and their male oppressors, and head north to freedom in the lands of the alien Saff.

Asher has another advantage; she believes she is immune to destiny. The people of Tenebran are deeply fatalistic; there is no religion, only a strong belief in destiny and in the cryptic rhymes of the Oracle. The death of Asher's twin brother when they were born seems to have cancelled out her own fate; she is free to act as she will. If she needed proof, it is supplied by her immunity to the magical wards and hexes which guard warehouses and strongboxes.

Then the Oracle summons Asher. She is horrified to find that it has a prediction for her - and more horrified to meet her childhood friend Mallory, now a wealthy merchant, in front of the statue of Lady Fortune. Clearly their fates are linked - but Asher has spent too long running from her past, and from destiny, to accept the Oracle's message graciously. She sets out to tempt fate ...

Fate describes a world with real people engaged in real moral dilemmas, asking - and finding answers to - age-old questions. Is gender destiny? Can an individual have free will and yet be destined to perform a particular act? Can men and women be friends in a society which oppresses women?

Mary Corran's City background is evident in the detailed structure of her society; the politics and economy of a country under the thumb of the invader are clearly and comprehensively described without lessening the roles of magic and fate in the lives of the inhabitants. More unusually, Corran manages to write a novel with feminist leanings which neither damns or apologises for the behaviour of men and women in a strictly patriarchal society. While some of her male characters seem at times to be little more than ciphers, it's made clear that this is simply Asher's perception of them. She slowly becomes aware of her bias: 'Because he's a man, I acted as if he had no feelings, or no right to have feelings. As if he were first a man and only second a friend.' Perhaps Asher's major insight is when she realises that much can go unnoticed unless one has eyes to see; this realisation is the crux of her quest, but it changes her in smaller, more personal ways as well.

Asher has a quest to fulfill, courtesy of the Oracle; but Fate is as much the story of her philosophical quest for meaning and understanding as it is the tale of the Oracle's prediction and how it is finally fulfilled. 'All I ever wanted was to have control over my own life', she muses at one point. By the end of the novel she is left with more questions than answers; but she, and others, have a freedom that is new and wonderful.