I have very mixed feelings about Besieged. Overall, I’d give it a positive ranking, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the text does have issues. Quite a few issues, really. What does work is very good, and I can really give those elements a sterling review. But then there’s… the other hand.
Besieged is a big, sprawling political drama concerning a race called the T’en, the ordinary humans (here called True-Men or Mieren), and the “half-blood” population, apparently a result of interbreeding between the two, called the Malaunje. On the face of it, the whole dynamic looks like just another tussle between the Elves and the Humans: the T’en are a tall, beautiful, long-lived people with magical powers and an advanced, artistic culture, but are relatively few in number. The Mieren are plentiful, but are comparatively barbaric and superstitious. Rowena Cory Daniells does complicate the issue somewhat, however, by use of a strong and well-developed T’en societal structure that serves to make them memorable in their own right. Much of the story, in fact, is devoted to the T’en culture, which is all about complicated politics. The male T’en rival the females in a bitter war of the sexes, the individual “sisterhoods” and “brotherhoods” that make up both sides fight each other, and within the sisterhoods and brotherhoods individuals fight to control their contingents.
The vast majority of the story is told from the perspective of T’en and Malaunje characters. What few Mieren are significant are generally antagonists, making this very much a book about Daniells’s alternate culture. Happily, it’s not such a terrible place to spend some time: the “war of the sexes” thing could have gone so very, very wrong, but for the most part Daniells handles it with sensitivity and aplomb. The politics are fast-moving and believable, and to her credit Daniells does not follow the Frank Herbert School of Self-Consciously Convoluted Political Discussions. No one is reading a wealth of knowledge from the eyebrow flick following a dummy message in a head tilt occurring precisely seven eights of the way through a quadruple entendre. The maneuvering feels admirably grounded and believable.
The greatest strength of the novel, however, is unquestionably Daniells’s facility for suspense. Many readers in this day and age are looking for a novel that — rather than sitting passively and waiting for perusal — will simply grab their attention and hold it right through to the end. Besieged is such a novel, quick-moving and difficult to put down. The story is constantly engaged in some sort of twist or turn, and at least one character is always in dire straits. In that much, at least, this novel is a thorough success: it will pull most readers in.
The plot suits the suspense, as I’ve already intimated: it’s constantly changing and rapid in motion. The trouble with it, however, is that despite the constant motion there’s a bit of a sense for much of the book that we’re not really going anywhere in particular. The story covers nearly three decades of back-stabbing and scheming, and while it was easy to read I did find myself wondering once in a while if there was going to be a cohesive arc to all of this or if I was just reading the equivalent of a flashy week-to-week serial drama with no long-term plan (yes, I am thinking of LOST). Daniells does eventually get us to the Big Deal, but while in the midst of decade two, you can be forgiven for wondering exactly when or if the story’s “main conflict” amidst the sea of lesser issues was going to make itself known.
Now we reach a few of the more troubling issues. While Daniells’s “main” protagonists — Sorne and Imoshen — are fairly well-realized characters, she has a bad habit of giving the supporting cast attributes instead of individualized personalities. Tobazim, for instance, is an architect and a decent fellow. That’s about it. His lines of dialogue and personality quirks are pretty much interchangeable with those of Iraayel, Graelen, or a host of other male T’en and Malaunje. These figures all have distinct “problems” and “interests”, but it isn’t really expressed in the way they relate. Most of the secondary T’en seem to draw from a fairly narrow pool of personality traits (and unfortunately, the pool seems to have a real dearth of “witty” and “easy-going” but a tremendous surfeit of “earnest” and “dutiful”). Also, while a Spartan prose style and a comparative lack of standout imagery is par for course in this particular style of work, Daniells’s prose occasionally does dip noticeably in quality, and there are occasional grammatical errors.
As I said above, I would call this overall a good novel. It’s certainly gripping, and the main characters are compelling, but it must be admitted that the weak supporting cast, coupled with what is perhaps a bit of floundering for direction or simply a pacing problem, robs it of some of its power. I do want to be clear that the book is enjoyable, and quite diverting. It simply has a few troubling flaws.