So what is Jaran about, then? It turns out to be a science fictional romance story, as well as a tale of an epic journey, a clash-of-cultures novel, and a quite wonderful character study. I actually started the book a year or two ago, read a few chapters, and then put it aside -- not, if I recall correctly, out of any negative feeling for the book but because something else came along that I really wanted to read instead right at that moment. The last Harry Potter book or maybe a Guy Gavriel Kay book. Something like that. So I finally got back to Jaran, and in a lot of ways I didn't want it to end (which is nice because it's the first book in a four-book series).
Terese Soerensen (known as "Tess" to friends) is the sister of Charles Soerensen, a human who has been given a Dukedom over a number of worlds by humanity's apparently gracious conquerors, that Chapalii. As sister to a very important man, Tess has a number of responsibilities and obligations that she is less than thrilled about pursuing, especially after her fiance breaks her heart, so she decides to eschew her duties in favor of traveling to a world called Rhui, where she wants to bury herself in linguistic studies. But on her way there, she finds evidence of some kind of odd plot involving humanity's Chapalii conquerors, so she follows the evidence and ends up stranded in the middle of the grassy steppes of a vast continent. She soon meets the locals, who are human -- but who are not technological, and instead live a nomadic existence with the horse as their primary mode of transportation.
These people are known as Jaran, and the first one she meets is one of the most important of all Jaran, a man who wants nothing more than to unite all of the fractious, often-warlike tribes under one banner. His name is Ilya Bakhtiian, and he is unlike any person Tess has ever known.
Over the course of the rest of the novel -- and all of this set-up takes about twenty pages -- Tess will have to learn a new culture, travel across a continent by horse, investigate the doings of the Chapalii on a planet they're not even supposed to be on, come to terms with her own emotional pain, and work through her increasingly complex feelings for Ilya Bakhtiian. All of this makes for one of the finer "character-driven" stories I've read recently.
I suppose it's not much of a spoiler to note that Tess and Ilya do fall in love with one another, but the book is praiseworthy for the way it develops their relationship. Both characters are complex and flawed, and their relationship is full of strife and hardship. There were plenty of times when I wanted to slap either Tess or Ilya or both upside the head, and that's actually a good thing, as that means I had come to care about these people.
Elliott also displays a good gift for language, especially as she creates the recognizable, and yet alien, culture of the Jaran. They all tend to speak with unexpected cadences and rhythms, and the depiction of a matriarchal culture doesn't feel at all contrived as some SFnal matriarchies do. Many such societies end up seeming like regular old patriarchies with the genders switched, but Elliott avoids that trap in a number of interesting ways.
Here is a passage that I particularly admired. Here, Ilya Bakhtiian is talking to Niko, a wise elder, about his conflicted feelings for Tess and what those feelings may mean for his dream of uniting all the Jaran:
"Loving a woman and wanting a woman are not the same thing."
Ilya simply stared at him [Niko], perplexed. "Of course, to desire a woman only because she is pretty--"
"I am not speaking of anything so simple. Listen to me, my boy. When you came back from Jeds, you had found the path you were destined to ride, knowing that it would bring you fame that no other jaran had found before you. But the gods play this game with us, challenging us to strive for fame, and yet how many of us can ever hope to beat their players: the wind that never ceases, the deep earth, the rain that dissolves the ashes of the dead, the unbounded sky, and the silent stars. They play their game well. They have only to wait us out to win."
The rising sun laced hsi pale hair with silver. "Yet now and again, a man or a woman is born who has weapons against these opponents, one who can command quiet, who can see beyond death, one who can hold fire to the old ways and let them burn. You are such a man. You can change the jaran. You are changing them. You can leave this world with a name that will live forever. You can win that game." He fell silent. Two women spoke in low voices from the etsana's tent, too far away for words to be distinguishable. From the farther edge of camp, a man hallooed, and a child yelped and laughed.
"But you will die in any case, Ilyakoria. What good is everlasting fame to a man if he dies unloved?"
A wind had come up. It touched Ilya's hair, stirring it like a whisper.
"Love, Ilya. That is what we who are mortal have been gifted, a gift never given adn never known by the undying. The wind cannot love the plain, but I can love the plain, and I can love much more than that and be loved in return. Fame is something you want. A woman is someone you love."
(I'm finding, more and more, that I'm less and less interested in stories that don't have some component of a love story within them. This doesn't mean that I want every book to be a romance, but it does mean that books where love is not a theme are turning out less interesting to me. I'm not sure why this is the case, but it's something I've noticed in my reading lately in terms of the trends I've seen in my reactions to the books I've been reading.)