The Grey Mane of not at all boring

by Sören Heim

Still searching for unorthodox fantasy, Sören Heim found Joy Chant's The Grey Mane of Morning slow - but in the end very rewarding.
Before writing a review I find it useful to ask myself: What kind of book is this? What does it actually "want"? The book, mind, not the author, for her or his intent I couldn't care less. So, to what end is a book composed? – that's what I want to know. At least in the first step I think a work of fiction should be measured against its own standards. To break it down: Dances with Wolves can be rightfully criticized on the "textual" level for partly romanticizing Native American life, exactly because it is clearly not intended to. Lucky Luke, in which every character is meant to be a caricature, can hardly be criticized for applying that principle to Hiawatha, too. Well, it can, within a larger cultural context, but hardly based on the work alone.

A Novel of many facets

What kind of book, then, is Joy Chant's The Grey Mane of Morning, another largely forgotten piece of fantastic literature? Young adult fiction, I think. At least, the frequent but very implicit handling of sexuality and also the toned down depiction of violence in a generally violent surrounding is a strong indicator. A prototypical book about intercultural contacts and conflicts, about the relations between a colonizing and colonized people, especially sedentary and nomadic civilizations. And in that context: A book which tries to avoid and/or subvert most of the stereotypes accumulated within the last 500 years, sometimes in an even to exemplary way. A coming-of-age novel, at last, accompanying several young characters while they try to find their role in a first very stagnant, then rapidly changing society.

Grey Mane tells the story of the nomadic tribe of the Alnei, part of the larger, loosely connected, Khentor people, who follow wild horned horses called Davlenei in the summer, and in the winter camp out near the towns of the so-called "Golden People". The focus is on Mor'anh, son of the current Alnei-Leader, his friend Hran, Mor'anh's sister and Hran's would-be love Nai, and to a lesser extent on two of Mor'anh's sexual interests, Manui and Runi, as well as some protagonists of the (as it turns out not really that) Golden People. Khentor for some reason have to pay tribute to the Golden, and in the course of such an arrangement Nai is claimed - not quite rightfully, but seemingly not totally unjustly according to the customs that have developed between the two cultures - as part of the tribute and taken to the dwelling of the Golden People.

Anything but straightforward

For many authors this would be the beginning of a rather straightforward damsel in distress/rescue plot. Chant, on the other hand, is much more interested in developing the customs of the Alnei, in taking a look at the intermingling of patriarchal structures and matrilineal birthright. This makes women's decisions quite important within the tribe, as shown by Runi and most of all Manui, not only when it comes to choosing partners. It also leads to men accepting children from a pregnancy by another man predating their marriage-equivalent (Nai's destiny in the golden city, of which we only get small glimpses, is contrasted to that in having her child - presumably Hran's - taken from her and murdered, because obviously it doesn't look like Nai's new "husband").

We also only get small glimpses of the historical backstory of the Alnei, which is skilfully presented by means of "orature", especially from the mouth of an old man (conveniently also just called "the old man"). But although this device makes the Alnei feel very real, it makes it also quite impossible to understand how they ever could fall into dependence on the Golden People, who seem to have neither a technological nor a strategic advantage, as shown by the final confrontation which easily overthrows the oppressors. In the course of the narrative that makes it sometimes very hard to fathom why now of all things should be the time for the Alnei to discover their lust for freedom – besides the anger of Mor'anh, that is, who becomes chief in the second half of the book. Which seems to me make each of his predecessors look rather bad, since Nai's abduction is far from the first the tribes of the Khentor have had to endure.

A more simple answer, of course, would be "the Alnei rise, because if not, there wouldn't be a book to read", but to me that's not quite enough.

Stumbling into cliché while trying to avoid it

Generally, Chant does not always succeed in simulating a believable proto-colonial situation within her setting. That is, because Chant on the one hand tries very hard not to model her world to closely upon historic events, but on the other hand can't help but recreate some variation of a settlers vs. Native Americans theme. This is understandable: if you come up with some outlandish premises concerning this subject, it might very likely look like relativism, and Chant obviously wouldn't want that.
Anyhow – the result is that the otherwise intelligent interactions of characters and social groups, which usually don't focus on "good" or "bad", but on people, their worldviews and their actions, are sometimes harshly contrasted by kitschy romanticism, such as the following:
"... he was a horseman. Dismounted, distance and even direction confused him ... It was the mastery of horses that had made his people free of the Plain. The Davlenei made their lives possible, and lacking them they lacked all"
And the whole tribal structure of the Khentor in the end is very much ripped off the ideas badly informed Europeans might have about how the "typical Indian tribe" is structured. Also the usually subtly drawn differences between Khentor and Golden People, as well as the inhabitants of the southern "Cities", who Mor'anh encounters later on, from time to time are phrased in a strangely on-the-nose way:
"Lord Moran, say no more! And Jemaluth takes pride in being the city government by the laws of virtue! We are shamed.' … 'I do not speak to shame you. Your city has made the world wider for me. The tribe too can be merciless. There is a girl in my tribe … She is almost an outcast in our midst, because she is afraid to live the life of a woman. There is no place for her. Yet is it her fault?"
Still: If one reads The Grey Mane of Morning as young adult fiction, this might be ok. Although I'm getting the feeling that authors sometimes underestimate young readers, in exactly how explicitly concepts and conflicts have to be sketched for them.

Unconventional without trying to hard

Minor criticism aside, Grey Mane is a fascinating read, not only for young readers but for everybody who wants to wander a little outside the too well-travelled roads of classic fantasy. Much more effectively than let's say Martin or Sapkowski, Chant undermines genre-conventions. She isn't hunting for effects either or boisterously signalling "see how innovative I am!" Chant is doing her thing, and it shows. While as mentioned in the beginning Grey Mane looks like a simple rescue plot with a big final battle between Alnei and Golden People, this battle just won't come and both civilizations are explored for their own merit. When with the second part of the book the people of the "Cities" are introduced, one would usually expect the former antagonists to join forces - instead Alnei and Cities slowly take up trade, and what admittedly is meant to provide the Khentor with better (albeit in the end not even needed) weapons against the Golden People is also bound to change Alnei and all Khentor lifestyle for ever and maybe even establish the tribes as a coming major historic force in the region. What Chant does with perspective here is ingenious – the vast, bewildering world we have up to now mainly experienced through the eyes of Alnei/Golden protagonists suddenly becomes very small, while a new larger world begins to emerge with new challenges, only ever so slightly foreshadowed in Gray Mane.

Is that Fantasy?

Finally, with a book that raises some interesting issues, there is one, not really touched upon within the book, I find particularly intriguing: Since I am on kind of a quest for rare specimen of especially artfully executed fantasy novels – is Grey Mane even fantasy after all? There are some incidents in which Mor'anh is possessed by his "God", but this could be well just his interpretation. Aside from this, nothing "fantastic" happens. Or should we just call it "parallel world fiction"? Then, since there is no primary world – parallel to what? Though the Davlenei are basically unicorns The Grey Mane of Morning is harder to classify than one would think. But it is definitely worth a look.

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Comments (go to latest)
If anyone of you is searching for unorthodox fantasy, anything by Frances Hardinge is your best pick. I've seen one book of hers, Verdigris Deep, reviewed here favourably, but I've no idea why her other books are overlooked. They are absolutely excellent, very unusual and besides, people concerned about the lack of strong female characters, explorations of social issues or ethnicity (Gullstruck Island - oh, what a book!) will find them right up their alley.
Arthur B at 16:58 on 2016-01-31
Confession: we've veered away from reviewing her stuff after Verdigris Deep because Kyra, Dan and I know her in real life and found it potentially difficult to get sufficient critical distance.
Yeah, I've figured as much, actually)) In one of his articles on NaNoWriMo Dan hinted that he knows her, I think.
Sören Heim at 19:22 on 2016-01-31
Since I don't know her and didn't even know of her, I'll put her on my reading list. Thanks :)
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2016-04-25
Or should we just call it "parallel world fiction"? Then, since there is no primary world – parallel to what? Though the Davlenei are basically unicorns The Grey Mane of Morning is harder to classify than one would think.

From Arthur's review of another book in the same world, it sounds like there is, indeed, magic in the setting, so it's fantasy. Even before I saw that, though, I wouldn't hesitate to classify this as fantasy, from your description. In the States, at least, any story that features a world which is clearly not Earth but is populated by humans and other Earth-creatures and has pre-19th century levels of technology* in it gets bundled into the “fantasy” category. Even if they don't include actual magic, they tend to tell the same types of story in the same types of setting as other fantasy.

*I believe the pedantic term for this class of book is “secondary world fantasy.”

For example, large portions of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones have nothing to do with dragons, the Others, Valeryan steel, or the magic of the Red Priests and the assassins, and the other supernatural flourishes you get from the series. Yet if you cut out those non-magic portions and made them their own story, it would still be classified as fantasy because the type and style of the story they're telling and the trappings of the setting they're working in are so similar to “traditional” Medieval fantasy. Another example would be Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastard series where, at least in the first two books, the story and the setting are what makes it fantasy rather than the magical elements, which for the most are kept to the background.

I'll put Hardinge on my “maybe read at some point” list, too. Ditto this book, because the postcolonial themes sound quite interesting.

Arthur: we've veered away from reviewing her stuff after Verdigris Deep because Kyra, Dan and I know her in real life and found it potentially difficult to get sufficient critical distance.

You could always put up the Ferretsignal and farm those reviews out. Perhaps I'll be inspired to write up one of her books if and when I do end up reading them.
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