Elizabeth Willey got better as a writer with each of her three interrelated novels about Argylle, and I am sorry that there aren’t more of them. The Price of Blood and Honor is the third in publication order, although it is the middle book in terms of the internal chronology. It picks up right after the end of A Sorcerer and a Gentleman, about a generation before The Well-Favored Man.
Prospero has lost his bid to topple the Emperor Avril in their native realm of Landuc. Avril has forced an oath from Prospero to give up sorcery, destroy the books that contain his learning, and yield his lands. All of this is the price of sparing Prospero’s daughter, Freia, and Prospero himself. But the old wizard still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Dewar, one of the possible titular characters of A Sorcerer and a Gentleman, surprises most of the cast by revealing he is Prospero’s son by the sorceress Odile, and he has sufficient power to ensure the emperor holds up his end of the bargain. Further, he copies a significant part of Prospero’s library in the few days before the elder conjurer has to fulfill his oath, ensuring that the knowledge is not lost. Before the war, Prospero also made over most of his lands to Freia, so that what the emperor can confiscate directly is not a great loss. Most important, Prospero’s newly created realm of Argylle and its Spring of immense magical potency remain unknown to the emperor and all who owe fealty to him. But the emperor has tricks, too. He offers Freia betrothal to his heir (who is flamingly gay in a society that seems to acquiesce in same-sex relations but depends on hetero relationships to perpetuate its rulers), an offer that cannot be refused. Wheels turn.
One of the pleasures of the first part of the book is seeing how crisply and deftly Willey shows her characters’ actions. Relations among them are complex, as they would be among real people. Freia and Prospero each love the other beyond all reckoning, and bear great burdens for one another, but they are burdens taken either unwittingly or unwillingly, and the two of them talk past one another a great deal. They are often at loggerheads, and ultimately each wants the other do be or do something that they cannot and still remain themselves. That is a price of blood as much as the ransom that Prospero pays to Emperor Avril.
In the previous books, Prince Gaston — brother to both Prospero and Avril — has been distant, mostly off stage as a symbol of rectitude and the law, a servant to the emperor but not servile, not indefinitely malleable even in imperious hands. He comes into his own about a third of the way into the book, as Willey shows him capable of great kindness, a kindness that stems directly from his correctness, even as genuine warmth remains something he has to consciously enact. People puzzle him, slightly, but he knows the right things to do, and he does them. Gaston also rules in Montgard, and although Willey does not show a great deal of how he runs his realm, what she does depict offers an alternative to Landuc’s bloody intrigues and the high-handedness that Prospero uses in Argylle.
Willey’s people change, too. Baron Ottaviano of Ascolet, who first appeared as a bit of a meathead and counterpoint to smooth and sorcerous Dewar, grows into a role within the empire that almost matches his ambitions, but also a doting father. Like many men, he cannot quite believe that his wife does not want to enter his world entirely and that she might have attachments that predate, and might even outweigh, her bond with him. That’s a bit unfair to him, as he has been willing to meet the Countess Luneté of Lys more than halfway. I found myself liking her far less in this book than I did in A Sorcerer and a Gentleman. Did the character get away from Willey a bit? Is the Countess regretting a marriage contracted at an early age? Had Otto always been a vehicle for her ambitions? Is her distance a reaction to a guilty secret that sets up the book’s one unmitigated horror? (Which is not handled as well as other parts of the novel; it’s a solid book but not without problems.) Did Willey simply mean to show that sometimes it is fathers who dote and mothers who are relieved when the child is elsewhere, and this inevitably changes how the parents relate to one another?
And her people make mistakes that arise from their character. Dewar speaks disparagingly of Freia as part of flirtatious banter with the emperor’s heir, not realizing that she could hear every word of the conversation. Those words come with a great price in both blood and honor. Prospero is often exasperated with his daughter and fails to recognize her desperate need when he is preoccupied, raising the price further. Freia, too, is unable to tame her nature for the sake of the people she loves. She cannot be other than she is, though it exacts a great cost.
Like A Sorcerer and a Gentleman, The Price of Blood and Honor is more than just one kind of story. There is courtly intrigue, there is romance, there is redemption on a mythical level, there is deep magic. The stories of Argylle and Landuc, of Ottaviano and Luneté, of Dewar, Prospero, Freia and Gaston all continue well beyond the bounds of the book. If there had been a fourth book of Argylle, perhaps Willey would have shown what was happening to the Countess of Lys, whether the Emperor Arvil was able to maintain his realm despite his lack of sorcerous prowess, how the Spring in Argylle came to be tamed and channeled for the land’s prosperity. The ending of The Price and Blood and Honor resolves the most important questions raised in the book’s pages, and on re-reading it just now I think it is better than I thought the first time I read it, even though it arrives quickly and the last quarter of the book does not match the pace of what preceded it. There was much more to be said about Argylle, and Willey was getting better and better at saying it. The rest, alas, has been left to readers’ imaginations.