A Dream of Kinship

Uncredited cover of the 1981 Pocket Books Edition / isfdb.org

A Dream of Kinship by Richard Cowper
Gateway/Orion, 2011 (eBook Edition)
Originally published by Gollancz, 1981
Price I paid: $3.99

They came to destroy! The treacherous Falcons, uniformed in the black leather tunics of the fanatic Secular Arm, descended on Corlay to burn and kill. Commanded by Lord Constant, ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, they were determined to crush the religious heresy of Kinship. But a new dream rose from the ashes… When four Kinsmen escaped the carnage of their beloved land, each helped to fulfill the miracle that had been foretold: the coming of the Child of the Bride of Time…..

from Goodreads

Three weeks ago, writer and Friend of the Schlock Syd Logsdon wrote about his experience in revisiting Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay. He pointed out several things that I’d missed when I read it, and revisiting it through his eyes made me want to take another look at it myself. I thought long and hard about how to do that, even considering the possibility of writing a second review, but instead I decided to move forward a bit and take a look at the sequel.

It’s been about five years since my last visit to the Seven Kingdoms, and I was afraid that I’d forgotten so much about Corlay that A Dream of Kinship wouldn’t make any sense to me. I’m glad to say that I was wrong. I did re-read my own review, along with Mr. Logsdon’s, and just for kicks I dug up Joachim Boaz’s recent one too. All that helped me get back into the groove, and I had no trouble reacquainting myself with Cowper’s fourth millenium.

Fun fact: I am having a hard time spelling “Cowper” today. My fingers just won’t do it. So far I’ve managed “Cowpwer” and “Copwer” and “Cwopwer” and heaven knows what the future holds.

This book kicks off by introducing us to a character known only as “The Magpie.” I’m having trouble remembering if he was in the previous book or not. When we first meet him here, he’s an old friend of several of the characters that have come down from Corlay, so I don’t know. It probably doesn’t matter.

The Magpie begins the tale on his way to Corlay, on what is now the Island of Brittany, where the Kinship—the religion begun in the first book—has set up a monastery and school. He’s on his way there to find Jane, who was pregnant at the end of the first book, something that seems to fulfill some kind of prophecy. Once there he delivers a set of pipes belonging to Thomas of Norwich, who died at the end of The Road to Corlay and is the father of Jane’s child.

The Magpie has also come with a warning. The Kinship is under attack from the established Church. I felt like the Church in the first book was more of a vague and unnamed Catholic pastiche, but here it’s explicitly the Church of Rome.

The jacket copy that I cited up top tells us that the persecution is coming from a “Lord Constant, ruler of the Seven Kingdoms,” but don’t let that fool you. It’s not correct in any way. Constant is a Cardinal, and I while I think he’s the spiritual head of the Seven Kingdoms, he’s balanced by the civil leadership, at least for now. As the first half of the book unfolds, we learn that a lot of his motivation for hunting down Kinsfolk is less about maintaining the True Church and more about extending the worldly power of said Church via a scapegoat.

Some plots are forever topical. 😢

(Oh wow, WordPress supports emojis!? This changes everything.)

The Magpie isn’t a member of The Kinship, but he does take a protective stance toward it. Mainly it’s Jane that he’s protecting, but everybody else comes along with that because he’s a good and decent guy. As I was reading, I became aware of how much I enjoy that particular kind of story hook. There’s probably a catchier name for it, but I’m referring to the Group of Idealists Protected By Someone Who Isn’t One of Them. Sometimes those idealists are pacifists, which makes it all the more important to the plot that they have some sort of protector, whether they know it or agree with it or not. Sometimes that protector is reluctant. Sometimes they’re saying they’re just in it for the money. Whatever the case may be, I like it. I struggled for a while, trying to figure out why I like it so much, and the best I can tell you is that it’s because it is the plot of Billy Jack.

Like Jane, The Magpie has huesh, which is what this book calls psychic or precognitive powers. He’s come because his huesh told him to. He thinks that Jane is in danger.

Sure enough, it turns out that they’re all in danger. The Church sends a group of Falcons, Church soldier spies, to Corlay, where they massacre most everybody during a festival. The Magpie, Jane, and a woman named Alison all escape. While on the run, Jane has her baby, the prophesied Child of the Bride of Time.

I’m guessing the whole Bride of Time might have something to do with the weirdest part of The Road to Corlay, when there’s a sort of mental projection into the future subplot that takes place in our modern day. A guy named Carver got projected into Tom of Norwich’s head, where it was detected by Jane’s huesh. While all of this gets mentioned a few more times, it’s never resolved in this book, so I’m not sure what’s up with it.

She names the baby Thomas—making him the third Thomas in this series— and the plot jumps forward a few years at a time as he grows up.

We don’t follow this little group exclusively throughout the book. There are other characters with their own plotlines, usually nobles from the various kingdoms and their reactions to Cardinal Constant’s efforts to grab power.

I remember The Road to Corlay as a personal story, with a close-in kind of narrator. We saw the world through the eyes of just a few characters. It’s possible I’m mis-remembering that, but either way, it’s not the case with A Dream of Kinship. Book two has a wider cast of characters from across the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, but even past that, the narrative tone is a bit different. While there’s still a lot of wide-eyed wonder, it seems to be more about the history unfolding than a sense of place.

There are several instances where the narration breaks from the here-and-now and jumps to the future, but only in the sense of recounting some future history. A good example:

In the Eleventh Letter to Brother Matthew, looking back over an interval of almost seven years, Francis was to class it among the three great spiritual experiences of his life…

pg 164

There’s a lot of this, and in many books it bothers me. I’m not overly sensitive to spoilers, but this kind of narrative intrusion feels like a spoiler. Oh, we think, now we know that Francis makes it through the book, I guess.

In this book, it did bother me the first time. It felt like it came out of nowhere. But because it had established precedent, it didn’t bother me after that, and I found that I enjoyed these sequences where the book is laid out as a sort of history text.

Thomas grows up. He becomes known as Thomas of Tallon, in contrast to his father, Thomas of Norwich, and The Boy What Started It All, Thomas of York. Another fun fact: I keep wanting to call him Thomas of Tallis, which is maybe not a coincidence.

Thomas grows up in idyllic conditions in his little fishing village, often in contrast to the historical events going on around him. There are attempted invasions, schemes, and religious purges across the Kingdoms. Cardinal Constant dies around the midpoint of the book, after which the religious persecution starts to slacken a bit.

Around the age of 16 or 17, Thomas is called away to Corlay, which has been rebuilt after the massacre at the beginning of the book. He begins his training as a full-on Kinsman. Like the other Thomases in this series, he is a skilled piper, and his training is to help him realize his full potential.

That full potential turns out to be something otherworldly. Like the original Thomas of York, this Thomas has the ability to use his music to soothe, to inspire, and to heal. He’s also got the huesh, or something like it, which makes it so that he can be in the right place to use his abilities. It’s because of this that he meets Alice, who turns out to be a princess of the First Kingdom, but Thomas doesn’t know that when they first meet.

He finds that out on his final day at the school, when he plays a song that utterly amazes everybody and sings to their souls and so forth. It’s one of those “three great spiritual experiences” referenced in the quote from page 164 earlier.

So Thomas of Tallon goes out into the world with his gift. He’s assigned to a church not far from his hometown, in the First Kingdom, which is incidentally the kingdom that Alice is a princess of. Specifically, she’s the youngest sister of the current king, Arthur, who is a spoiled, frail child.

This last section of the book reminded me a lot of A Song of Ice and Fire. Arthur is a Joffrey-type without anybody to rein him in, so he’s just kind of nuts. Also, there’s a lot of sexual menace in this section, which kind of bothered me, but again, it wouldn’t be out of place in George R.R. Martin. It did feel out of place here, though.

Apart from the fact that the book uses this sexual menace to help identify Arthur as a demented and evil individual, which totally wasn’t necessary and any other method would have done just fine, the darkness does do a good job of contrasting itself with the idealistic light of most of the rest of the book, and in turn that opens the door for the idea that maybe not everything going on here is good and great and wonderful.

The gross part comes in when Arthur captures his sister and forces her to perform in some kind of horrible burlesque. I say “forces her to perform” but really she’s drugged and tied down naked and it just gets worse from there. It’s not explicit, but it’s verging on it, and the whole thing was unnecessary to either the plot or characterization. There were other ways of showing that Arthur is evil and broken, and it turns Alice into a woman in a fridge so that Thomas can come to the rescue and learn about himself, which he does.

Thomas saves the day by playing a song that melts Arthur’s brain. Alice’s other brother, Peter, takes over the throne, and there’s some celebration, which Thomas and Alice miss because they’re doin’ it. It is, however, between rounds of doin’ it that Thomas has a huesh attack and has to run home.

Thomas’s closest childhood friend, whom everybody calls Witchet or just Witch, has taken ill. She’s been in the book up to now, I just forgot to mention her. She and Thomas were close, and at one point she gave him a cryptic message to the extent of “if I’m ever lost, promise you’ll come look for me.”

By the time Thomas gets home to Tallon, she’s dead. In his grief, he begins to play his pipes, and finds himself in some kind of shade-world. There, he finds Witchet and brings her back to life, making her the second fridge-woman in something like thirty pages.

The book ends with Thomas renouncing his status as a Kinsman. He’s something else, he’d decided, and he needs to figure out what that is. He learns his true status as The Child of the Bride of Time, and while nobody has yet told us what that’s supposed to mean, I suppose that the next book will hold the answers to that.

There’s a lot going on in this book and I feel like I didn’t cover a lot of it. That’s okay. I want you to read this book for yourself. Preferably after reading The Road to Corlay, but whatever. You do you.

Like its preceding volume, the book was beautifully written. Maybe a touch less so than Corlay, but that could also be a matter of expectations. With the first book I had no such expectations. It was a complete surprise to me how much I liked it. With Kinship, I had a better idea of what I was getting into.

The book is so dense with both story and symbolism that I fear there’s so much I’ve missed the significance of. I know that happened for sure with Corlay, and now I’m wondering what I’ve missed here that I’ll learn about reading someone else’s review in the future.

I think that, after I read the third and final book, A Tapestry of Time, I’ll come back through and re-read the whole series, just to see how well they tie together. At the least, I think that five years was too many between these first two, and I don’t intend to wait that long before I get to book three. I’m excited for it.

While I had a few problems here and there—chiefly the gross scene and the fact that it’s so cliché to have some kind of evil Catholic Church stagnating society or whatever—there’s a lot to like. I like that the religion following the White Bird of Kinship is distinct from Christianity, but definitely flavored by it. This series is far from a sort of sci-fi retelling of The Reformation, which would have been easy to do, but it’s also clearly written with that history in mind. It’s also clear that as we move into the third book, it’s becoming clear that Kinship isn’t, perhaps, a completely perfect movement itself. We already have worries that it’s moving into the same direction as the Old Church, with monasteries and a hierarchy and so forth. The religion is barely a couple of generations old at this point, and already we have some characters who were around at the beginning talking about how much better it was in the early days.

These two books are probably the best two that I’ve encountered because of this blog. I know that everybody’s tastes are different, but I do encourage you to seek them out if they sound appealing to you. My meager summations do not do them justice. They are rewarding books, and I can’t wait to revisit them again.

5 thoughts on “A Dream of Kinship

  1. FYI, regarding the Magpie. When Jane, in Road to Corlay, had originally set Thomas on his quest and was about to return home, she was set upon by two men who were well on their way to rape and kill her when the Magpie rescued her. He stayed with her, on and off, through the rest of the book. My memory isn’t better. It’s just that you read it five years ago and I read it five weeks ago.
    I mention this partly because that near rape scene was disturbing, like the scene you describe in Kinship. Also like the time traveling scene, it felt out of place. That may be because Cowper describes a world of such kindness and beauty, that when he shows us the flip side, it is particularly unwelcome. Of course, if it were all “a book of verse, a cup of wine, and thou”, there wouldn’t be a story, but I find that I tend to treasure the beauty and push the rest out of my memory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That rings a bell, now that you mention it. Not a loud bell, though. I really will need to go back and read it again.

      A little darkness here and there is okay with me. I can appreciate that the world of Corlay isn’t all unicorns and bubblegum. What bothers me more is that Cowper’s favorite trope to show that darkness was rape. I’d even forgotten about it in the first book, but now that you’ve reminded me of it, it’s particularly galling that he went down that path twice in two books when he had so many other ways to tell us that bad things happen. Horse thieves would have worked fine.

      It’s weird to think that the threat of murder would somehow be more literarily acceptable than the threat of rape. I suppose that’s just what the 21st century has done to my thinking.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it is the 21st century, and that’s fine by me. Heinlein called a perfume name Justifiable Rape. He couldn’t get away with that today, and he probably wouldn’t want to.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your review has me wanting to read these books. But the cover image you posted first made me think: Han Solo is terrible flute player!

    Liked by 1 person

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