The world-within-a-world that J. S. Chancellor spins in her debut novel Son of Ereubus (first installment in her Guardians of Legend series), is a two-sided coin with the clear stamp of evil on one face, while the flip side glints with the luster of a near-angelic ethereality. This hypnotic dance of light-seducing dark and dark-romancing light revolves around the conversion, if you will, of Garren, High Lord of the Laionai, a ruler and a warrior of ruthless courage daunted by nothing except the fearless naivete of Ariana, whose loyalties are never in doubt but are, like his, as divided as the world they inhabit.
Stark brutality reigns on one side of that divide. The seat of power “reek[s] of sweat and grime” and more than a little gore. In Eidelon, a young man’s rite of passage is the taking of a soul, while a woman given in a chilling parody of marriage is rendered incapable of protest, her former allegiances juiced out of her, her private will severed from her body. One such “breeder” is chosen for Aiden, who
couldn’t imagine what the humans would be like to manage had there not been a command created to instruct them to do whatever was necesssary to survive. For most humans, that consisted of everday things like hygiene, eating and sleeping. He found amusement in not giving Sara the command until morning, when he knew that he would generally be out of his chambers for the day. He would laugh when he awoke to find her crumpled into a heap on the floor, her legs having given out on her in the night… When he did let her lie on the floor to sleep, she would be grateful, remembering the long, painful nights when she stood.
Hidden from that world, and only half-believed in, lives a race of nobler beings, ancient and mysterious, apparently even to themselves. Much of the Adorians’ history seems lost in the mist of fable and in the tantalizing persistence of beautiful ruins, while their future is wrapped in ambiguous prophecies.
It is this patterning of light-within-dark, of soul divorced from body and of the impulse to rescue what might still be saved–even if in a compromised state–set against the pragmatism of retreat, of withdrawal from the inevitability of corruption and the contagion of evil–this flickering back and forth between warring tendencies–that Chancellor manages like a street magician dancing a black-and-silver coin across the backs of her fingers.
The evil in Son of Ereubus is unadulterated but not uncomplicated. Pious, totalitarian, greedy and self-interested, its masters are enslaved by it. The alternative it hates and seeks to destroy is the power of choice: the freedom to consider openly whether to exact retribution or to extend forgiveness. As Archorigen of Adoria, Michael becomes the chief spokesman for guarded absolution. For much of the story, his at first reluctant, then cautious, generosity of spirit seems to serve as the balance-point around which the novel will pivot, driven by the magnetic energy, the on-again-off-again, passionate and oppositional tension always throwing sparks between Ariana and Garren.
This is, after all, a love story, a kind of horror-stricken Beauty and the Beast in which the broader moral and societal implications of rehabilitation must be weighed in the balance with outrage and the righteous human need for retribution, not to mention the possibility of relapse or out-and-out malevolence masquerading as a new leaf.
When Duncan takes the stage, very near the end of Son of Ereubus, to expose not only Garren’s depravity (which we’ve witnessed from the very beginning) but the cost of it in wrenching human terms, we take the full brunt of Chancellor’s integrity as a novelist of purpose. She delivers a blow to the viscera before she offers her hand again–open this time–and hauls us to our senses and our feet to remind us that there’s business to attend to yet.
Guardians taps into regions of the heart where yearning and unquenchable faith still burn for evil men and good alike. We find nobility and perversity in equal measure here. The coin is tossed, set spinning by a sure hand in Son of Ereubus. My call is for a heads-up. J. S. Chancellor is a novelist to keep an eye on.
This review previously appeared in Berkshire Fine Arts.