I made a terrible mistake everyone. I had Kynship, the first book in the fantasy trilogy The Way of Thorn and Thunder by Daniel Heath Justice, sitting in the closet at my dad’s house for like two years and I only read it a few weeks ago! I had originally bought it for a course on gender, feminism, and Indigenous literature, but we ended up not covering it in the class, which is really too bad because I would have discovered this novel and Daniel Heath Justice so much earlier!
There’s so much to like about this book. It’s just phenomenal fantasy from a queer and Indigenous (Cherokee) perspective. If you like fantasy, you really cannot go wrong with Kynship. Although it’s published by a small Native press in Ontario, I found the whole series at the public library in Vancouver, so it’s not even hard to get a hold of! It’s the imaginative world-building, action, and suspense you can usually expect from fantasy, except with queer people, women, and (implicitly) Native folks at the forefront. There are also two-spirit / non-binary trans characters that straddle the gender worlds. What is not to love, I ask you?
I will warn readers who aren’t familiar with fantasy that this book is very much in a high fantasy tradition, which includes sometimes lengthy descriptions of strange (and fascinating) places, people, and grand events like battles, council meetings, and so on. People who don’t usually read fantasy (or science fiction, or other so-called genre fiction for that matter) often have trouble adjusting the way they read if they try to read something out of their comfort zone. I urge you to push yourself through that initial disorienting phase, and just think of it like this: it’s a bit of a hurdle to jump over to orient yourself to this new world. It’s just the same thing as reading a book set in a part of the (real) world you’re not familiar with, or a book written two hundred years ago. There are clues there to guide you, I promise! The effort is worth it! I know for some people, fantasy just isn’t their thing, and that’s cool, but give it try! I used to think I didn’t like science fiction and fantasy, and I was wrong.
What is really amazing about Kynship is that while the plot is clearly an allegory for colonization in the Americas, it really works on both levels. It’s an exciting, action-packed tale full of flawed and fascinating characters going on epic quests, but it’s also obviously a reference to actual past and ongoing colonization and a powerful critique at that. Sometime when an author has a political agenda and tries to create an allegory to depict it, the whole fictional side fails to work as an actual story, and then you have what should be an essay or something but is instead this kind-of-fiction that kind of sucks. This is NOT what Justice’s book is like. In this way, I think Kynship has a lot to teach readers who might not be educated about colonization, addressing it in an unusual and engaging format. Kynship’s successful allegory also makes it an amazing read for Indigenous readers (i.e., it’s not just telling them things they already know).
So, shall I tell you about this action-packed tale full of flawed and fascinating characters? I should emphasize that there are a lot of characters, something also typical of fantasy, and I sometimes had trouble keeping track of them. Luckily, there is a handy index in the back that lists characters and nations, and other terms from the universe of the book that you need to know. There are also two maps for reference, which no great fantasy novel is without.
The main character, in this volume anyway, is Tarsa’deshae (Tarsa for short) and she’s a bisexual former warrior whose destiny to be a Wielder—a kind of healer/priestess/witch with powerful and potentially dangerous powers—has recently been awakened. Abruptly ripped from her community because of her now marked difference, she begins a journey with her aunt, also a Wielder, to learn how to be what she has now discovered she is. This journey, however, is fraught with danger, because everything is changing for the different peoples in the once-peaceful Everland: Men (used here with all the sexist implications purposefully, I’m sure) are threatening their sovereignty, with an eye to their natural resources, offering promises in exchange for their land (sound familiar?).
Along the way Tarsa and her aunt meet all sorts of interesting folks, good and evil, and occasionally an in-between or an I’m-not-sure-whose-side-this-person-is-on. Tobhi, one such fellow traveller, also becomes a main character. He and his noble-maybe-not-so-noble steed Smudge—who is actually a deer with a mischievous mind of its own—provide some nice comic relief to the serious action (kind of like Gimli the dwarf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy). The three travellers eventually arrive in Sheynadwiin, the capital, for the most important council meeting the residents of the Everland have ever had: should they accept the treaty terms of Vald, a human leader, or should they hold fast to their roots and fight for their land?
I bet you can guess what they decide; of course, though, that’s only the beginning of the story. I can’t wait to read the second book and find out what happens next!