Ariah by B. R. Sanders. ★★★★1/2
Ariah is a fantasy bildungsroman, the coming of age story of a young elf in a predominately human city. It’s intensely character focused and uses it’s fantasy setting to address issues of gender and sexuality. It’s a story about home, love, identity, and family, and I’m not sure my review will be able to do this book justice.
The story opens with Ariah arriving in the big city to live with a mentor, Dirva, and learn how to control his magical powers. Ariah is a mimic, which means he can learn languages easily and mimic other people’s voices, and more importantly a shaper, which means he has the ability to sense other people’s emotions. However, Ariah often gets lost in other peoples feelings, losing any sense of himself or what he wants.
Ariah has always abided by the rules of his culture and never questioned the possibilities of other ways of life. The first real challenge to his way of thinking is when he accompanies Dirva on a trip to his hometown because one of his fathers is dying and lives with his brother Sorcha. Ariah’s bisexual, but same sex relationships are strictly against the rules of his home culture and he has difficulty admitting that there are other elements in play in his and Sorcha’s relationship besides friendship.
Many different types of relationship norms are presented in Ariah. There’s Ariah’s home culture, which shuns anything outside of a married, heterosexual, monogamous relationship. There’s the culture Dirva comes from, where polyamorous and same sex relationships are more more accepted. Finally, there’s another that has no concept of gender at all, attaches little importance to sex, and believes that sexual and romantic relationships shouldn’t be with the same people. In sum, Ariah is one of the queerest fantasy books I’ve ever read. It’s Tiptree nomination was wholly deserving.
There are a lot of different racial and ethnic groups in Ariah, and I still don’t have them completely sorted out in my head. There’s different types of elves, different cultures the elves reside in, plus the Qin (are they the only humans we see?). Ariah is an elf living in an empire dominated by the Qin. You see the effects of the oppression Ariah lives under, but the narrative doesn’t dwell on the lurid details, instead focusing (as always) on Ariah’s emotional state.
There’s little in the way of the sort of plot you find in most fantasy books. As I said before, this book is entirely focused on and driven by the characters and the relationships between them. Reading Ariah was an incredibly immersive experience. It was so easy to keep promising myself that I’d read only one more chapter and to read far more than I’d intended when I sat down.
If you’d ask me before reading Ariah, I would have said that I dislike coming of age novels. I have trouble describing why, although it might be that I had too many I disliked forced on me during in middle school and high school. But I loved Ariah. It has a few flaws – the ending felt slower than the rest of the book and I wished I had a clearer picture of all the different cultures and races of elves – but ultimately I think it’s one of the most memorable fantasy novels I’ve ever read.
I think there’s a lot more that could be said about this book than I’ve said here. I still struggle to describe it and why you should read it, but you really should. If I haven’t convinced you, I suggest reading Foz Meadow’s review (FYI contains spoilers) on the Tor blog.