The Well-Favored Man by Elizabeth Willey

A friend whose taste I respect recommended The Well-Favored Man to me, and, while I didn’t bounce off of it, I didn’t respond with quite the enthusiasm we both thought I might. She zipped right through it and has, I think, re-read it again in the meantime, while I dawdled the weeks away, and read several other books in the time between starting and finishing Elizabeth Willey’s debut novel.

In 2003, The Well-Favored Man, published 10 years earlier, was already being described as “Nice Princes in Amber.” That definitely captures part of the setup and the initial action of the book. The story centers around a magical and implicitly immortal family, the head of which created the realm they rule when he tamed a powerful source of magic. The source is hidden deep in the family’s castle; members who partake of the Spring gain the ability to travel between worlds, non-family members who attempt the Spring are destroyed; the family is dispersed through the multiverse, with some of them ruling their own realms. So far, so Zelaznyesque.

But where the royal family of Amber seethed with deadly conflict to take the throne, Argylle’s ruling clan seems to compete to stay as far away from formal power as possible. The original patriarch Prospero — and in a nod to that Prospero, he often speaks in iambic pentameter — has long since descended from the throne. He is still around as something of an irascible guide for his grandson Gwydion, the titular character and present ruler. Gwydion’s mother had preceded him on the throne until her sudden and mysterious death some twenty years before the story opens.

Argylle does almost rule itself, as one of the characters observes. The ruler mostly serves as a court of last resort. In one of the few scenes of governance described in detail, Gwydion resolves a dispute in a way that imposes burdens on both parties, by way of giving incentives not to kick things up to his level. In fact, Argylle rules itself so well that Gwydion can take long journeys by himself, and contemplate leaving the throne vacant or entrusted to a placeholding relative for months at a time. I found the lack of ambition among the royals curious, and the lack of usurping by the council of burghers unlikely.

The absence of politics and the relatively low number of people on stage in the medieval-esque court were two factors that kept me distant from the book as I read along. On the one hand, I can see that a royal family of sorcerers whose head quite literally created the world would enjoy great legitimacy. On the other, people jockey for position, power and prestige. They do that everywhere, as far as I can tell, and they do it in big ways and small. It doesn’t have to be murder and invasion, as in Amber. The jockeying can just as well be for the ruler’s attention, for personal favors, or any number of other aspects of position. Among recent novels, The Goblin Emperor was particularly good at showing the kind of constant conflict going on around a ruler.

Books like Wolf Hall have also reminded me of the large number of people required to run a royal household in a medieval setting. The members of Gwydion’s family eat well, they drink fine wines, they fight with swords and armor, and they pursue magical knowledge. With the technology as depicted in The Well-Favored Man, there would be vast numbers of people supporting all of these activities. Yet the impression that the book gave me was of the family members moving through their Citadel mostly alone. Gwydion mentions one manservant in particular, but there should have been hundreds of people bustling about, and even a story that focuses tightly on the royal family, I think, ought to give a sense of what’s happening in the background. Certainly the solitary hours that Gwydion spends would have been unusual, and his forays into the kitchen to prepare a casual meal or a pot of coffee even more so.

Two aspects of the book that my friend particularly liked were, first, the opportunity to spend time with a fantasy ruler who is relatively well-balanced, interesting in and of himself, and second, a loving ruling family that worked together to address problems, even while having personality conflicts. Gwydion is indeed well-favored in that regard. He is amiable, curious, and interesting. He’s young by his family’s standards, still learning the arts of ruling. Circumstances compel him to face an external threat to the realm, and his own needs bring about deeper investigation of what happened to his mother. These two move the story along, although it’s the inner search that takes up more of the narrative and proves more fruitful. The family teams up at first to face the external threat (they get their collective asses kicked) and then disperses, some healing, some hiding, some sulking. Gwydion navigates among them to find what he needs to protect Argylle, though naturally it is not what he thought he needed.

Elizabeth Willey wrote two other books set in this multiverse, A Sorcerer and a Gentleman, and The Price of Blood and Honor. My friend says they are each very different from The Well-Favored Man, and I am looking forward to finding out.

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