September 12, 2006

A Disappointing Conclusion to the Trilogy

Listening at the Gate, by Betsy James, is the last novel in a trilogy.

Ever since she was young, Kat's life has been divided. She and her family are Leaguemen from Upslope; Downshore people, she is told, are wild natives with whom she must not mix, and Hill people are even less decent. Rigi are an ancient people who are part-seal, and are the stuff of both legend and nightmare. Kat's mother is a hill woman, and all her life, Leagueman's child Kat is ostracized and punished for this, and for the distinctive red hair that marks her Hill heritage.

Her father is cold to Kat and her brother, Dai, and when one fateful night, Kat rescues a Rigi boy from Downshore, his anger knows no bounds. Kat and Dai run away Downslope, where they find warmth and humanity from the native people, whose lives are really not so much different than their own. Kat discovers that the Rigi boy she sang out of the waves, Nall, is an outcast in his own village. He was "killed" by his father and his tribe, he has no identity because his sealskin was destroyed as part of his exile. He takes the name Nall, and chooses to live Downslope, in part, because he seems bound to Kat.

In the second novel, Kat realizes that she is so drawn to Nall, that she must get away. She fears depending on him, and he does not want her to. Instead, she goes to the Hill people, where she learns their ways. She is learning to "swim," as Nall would put it. But as a child of water, she is not at home in the Hills. She fails at one of their initiation tests, and realizes that all that matters to her is home, and Nall.

Finally, Kat returns to home, but changes have come. The Leaguemen have an undeclared war with the Downslope people, and she is rumored to have been kidnapped away from the headman, who has gone mad with power and brutality. People are dying. When Dai is kidnapped as a blackmail plot to return Kat to the headman's son to marry, she realizes that the Downslope people need help. She travels helplessly with Nall to listen at the gate of the world, to try and find sense and meaning in what is going on. They find instead that the Rigi are preparing to launch an all-out offensive against the people of Downslope and the Leaguemen. Kat finds out that Nall is both not whom she thought he was, and more than she ever knew.

This was a difficult novel to read. The first two books in the series told a story that was approachable, but the element of fantasy and heroism injected into the third made Nall bigger than life, aloof and frustrating. As a reader, I felt frustrated for Kat -- she gives herself to Nall only to find that he is not really a man, but a hero, someone unconcerned with little people or specifics. The war rages on around them, and Nall's heroism seems empty... He 'listens,' at the and hears nothing at the Gate of the World. He thought himself to be some sort of shaman, and now, finding that he may just be a mortal, he goes into a catatonia which causes Kat to drag him around and protect him in a way that sets her up as maternal. There is a predictable struggle between herself and another woman, which further eroded my respect for the characters.

I was not sure at times what the point of the novel or of the epic nature of their journey -- Nall had demanded initially that Kat learn to stand for herself, and not lean on him, yet he not only leans on her, he collapses, and then sort of hides out inside of himself in silence, and denial; lying by omission about not only his past relationship, but what he sees, hears and knows. The end of the novel resolves triumphantly, as the impending conflicts are resolved, and leaders emerge, but it's hard to trace how the novel arrives at its conclusion, or why the people choose Nall and Kat to lead them. As a stand-alone, this novel might actually fare better, since much of the storyline of the first two books is included synoptically, and the reader does not have the same sympathetic relationship with Kat as the lead character. The scope of the novel intended to be vast and deep, imparting some deeper lesson to its readers, but for me, it fell short. Still, I had to read it after reading the first two in the series, and felt some satisfaction with the story's ending. And, the cover art, as always, is truly beautiful!

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