Join Mab Morris on another retrospective, this time looking at the issues of racism in the covers of Anne Logston’s Firewalk novel, published in 1997.
There’s a lot I can say about this novel, and why I like it, and why it had an impact on me. It had an influence on my writing multi-cultures, but I always hated the cover. The cover displays a “normal” pale heroine holding a hawk in some fantasy court type dress. Excepting the dark hair, Kayli, the protagonist, is unlike the cover girl. The conflict between cover and character is stark. It is a great example of covert racism.
(Caveat, without knowing the author’s intention, and knowing that an author published by a publisher is not always in control of what the cover looks like, I’ll skip any personal attacks on her, and use this as a display of a societal norm that desperately needed changing when the book was published, and can still use work now).
Kaylie is an apprentice fire mage who is interrupted before she can perform her first firewalk—an important rite in her elemental magical order. Her father, the Bregondish High Lord, has no choice but to ask her to marry the rising High Lord Randon of Agrond as there is no other daughter available who could do so. It would help affirm a treaty he and former Agrondish High Lord had been quietly negotiating for months. Many people on both sides still see the other country as an enemy. An alliance would help both countries in the long-standing conflict with the country Sarkond.
It takes all her training to quietly accept all the reasons for choosing her for the match, and for what is best for her country. Her order values not having emotions betray either the practitioner, or the magic—especially as fire can destroy more than the apprentice or the mage.
The story is set up with personal, internal conflict about how to carry one’s self in the face of unwelcome change, but also puts Kayli into the arms of a stranger with no end of external conflicts of his own. He had not expected to be named heir, and the only reason he holds onto the right is to honor his father’s last wishes as to the treaty.
The conflicts Kayli experiences with her new husband are typical of the fantasy genre, but Logston tends to turn those challenges on their tail. It is the reason I like the book, and makes it well worth reading, but it is horribly let down by the covert racism of the cover.
When Kayli first meets her future husband’s half-brother and his escorts, she observes, “They were so pale, these Agrondish men, their skin barely gilded by the sun. Some were as familiarly black-haired as any Bregond, but others had lighter brown or even yellowish hair…. (p. 17)”. She notes the contrast of her skin tone as well. “Her skin, she knew would be dark gold against the dust-pale cloth of her scarf….” (p. 17)
When she meets her husband, she notes, “it might normal for Agronds to be so fair, but Kayli could not entirely shake off the impression that these pale folks looked sickly.” (p. 41) It is one of the starker references that Kayli isn’t the pale character on the cover. It gives the decided impression that she must be dark enough to have the Agrondish look sickly to her eyes. She also tends to wear riding pants, as the Bregondish are horse people, and even though she’s gifted with a hunting hawk, her preferred hunting method is a long bow. You can imagine Kayli riding with her thirty-nine braids (also not on the cover), a strong woman, trained at a high caliber for steadiness of thought not only because of her training in her magical order, but the training of a noblewoman of Bregond.
It is interesting to reflect that the cover couldn’t reflect that darker skinned character—one of my favorites—because the publisher must have wanted to sell to pale skinned folks. Yet it was the Bregondish culture set against a more typical Agrondish culture that caught my attention.
The differences in politeness do offer some of the conflict between Bregondish Kayli, her brother in law, the court, and sometimes even the husband that she comes to love. There are elements of the Agrond life that disturb Kayli—and rightly so—often portraying Bregond as the better culture. Think on this—the content has the darker skinned culture as the superior one. “[Kayli] laid her own scarred brown hand over Ynea’s slender white ones.” (p.91).
There are some things that might irk modern readers—like Brother Stevann being a lover of men as the reason Randon’s father ended his tutelage with the man, and Kayli being disturbed by both not training a man with magical talent, but also the man’s amorous choices. Was it a plot device? Was it the author’s own opinion? A sign of the times, as it was published in the late 1990s? I don’t know. Still, plot device or not, it remains startling, and probably more so to read as a modern reader (as it was for me then). And perhaps a gay character being startling to another character isn’t really much of a surprise for that time, especially considering the publisher couldn’t even deign to put an accurate depiction of a darker skinned heroine on the cover.
I’ll admit I was disgusted by the cover since I read the book 24 years ago. I do know that it must have seemed harder to sell books without any kind of whitewash on either the cover or sometimes even the content, disregarding that many of the readers wouldn’t have minded, and even celebrated a different culture as much as they would have loved the protagonist. It is one instance of the covert racism we grew up with, that some of us accepted, read, bought, and bought into. I bought the book, despite the external issue with the interior contents. But I loved (most of) the contents.
How many old fantasy, or speculative fiction books have this contrast, this covert racism, this conflict between a fabulous interior and an unrepresentative cover? And… are we doing better? I wonder, if she re-releases Firewalk again, if Anne Logston would have a representative Kayli on the cover? Would it reflect the amazing culture she crafted? Or would Kayli become yet more pale and white, if that were even possible, when she already looks as sickly as the culture she entered into?