Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Picaresque in "The Tales of Einarinn" 2

Kaler observes that one of the picara's chief desires is for knowledge, and the power and/or autonomy that go with that knowledge (9). This knowledge is not always “formal education”: the picara “scorns learning” (Kaler: 9), and Livak clearly finds the searches of scholars and mages for ‘arcane’ learning, baffling; she considers that “wizards are dangerous because their concerns are exclusively their own. They will be looking for something, travelling somewhere, after someone to hear his news or just to find out who his father was, don’t ask me why” (TG: 28). Livak also considers mages to be ruthless in their pursuit of knowledge: “Whatever they want, they’ll walk over hot coals to do it, and if you look handy, they’ll lay you down and use you as a footbridge” (28). She considers that “the scholarly mind [is] a complete mystery” to anyone who is not a scholar, and they cause her exasperated thought: “Saedrin save me from wizards and scholars” (TG: 63, 102; SO: 165). On the other hand, as she acknowledges, “information always ha[s] value too”, and Livak is sufficiently intrigued by what Shiv, Geris and Darni are doing on the Archmage's behalf to consider finding out more, in case she can profit from the information somehow (TG: 78).

Although the picara "scorns learning" where that requires an "acceptance of responsibility" for managing a household, and where "the feeding of others is a full-time job” which means a "hampering of [the picara’s] autonomy", she does pursue "an informal education in her skills as thief [and] con-artist", and she masters skills in disguise and deception (Kaler: 9). Whilst the latter skills often carry "a taint of magic", the picara’s powers are usually the "development of natural abilities rather than gifts from the supernatural" (Kaler: 9). In this respect, Livak, like the picara, has natural skills in disguise and deception, and she is very observant of both her surroundings (TG: 67, 119, 154-155, 170, 172), and other people (25, 157, 160), but she does nevertheless learn various of the lesser Artifice charms,(N7) such as charms to hide tracks (405), to protect herself from the Artifice used by Ilkehan (411-412), to prevent the Sheltya from reading her thoughts (GF: 489), to help protect Allin’s mind from Artifice as she does elemental magic (AE: 192), to intimidate a captive and get him to tell the truth (242), to make herself unnoticeable as she follows someone (327), to ease someone’s pain (335), and to locate missing objects (383). Livak also occasionally allows wizards to make her invisible or unnoticeable (TG: 169, 324, 377; WG: 29), but this is only when the situation really warrants it from her point of view.

Livak recalls that she learnt her skills of deception, particularly that of nimble fingers, when she was “a penniless lass” in order to avoid becoming a prostitute, a “profession” for which she had “scant inclination” (AE: 325). In this respect, she has less in common with the picara, since they are usually prostitutes (Kaler: 112-135). However, Livak is not above using her sexuality to her own advantage, as she tells Aiten: “I would have let [the guards] stuff me six ways to Solstice if I thought it would get us out of here” (TG: 246). Livak will also “dress the whore to bluff her way into a [mercenary] camp”, but she prefers “not to lie down for [men]” unless she chooses to do so (SO: 63), and she prefers not to be thought of as Ryshad’s whore (Absent Friends, hereafter AF: 6-7). It is for this reason that she goes in search of AEtheric lore in the Mountains and the Great Forest: she wants to be with Ryshad, but his innate honesty means that he is reluctant for them to live on Livak’s gambling gains. She knows that he will not earn sufficient money as a Sworn or Chosen Man to give them freedom to do as they choose; additionally his vows as D’Olbriot’s man tie Ryshad to his service, which means Ryshad can never be his own master. Livak, therefore, heads off in search of Artifice lore, which she plans to sell to either Messire D’Olbriot or Archmage Planir (or both for preference), whilst Ryshad tries to make himself indispensable to D’Olbriot in order to earn a preferment, such as a post as an estate manager somewhere on D’Olbriot lands (GF: 56, 59; AF: 16). Livak’s search for AEtheric knowledge is linked to her quest for love, as Marlene Barr mentions (63); she is starting to look at the possibility of putting aside her adventuring lifestyle for a domestic lifestyle with Ryshad. Not the domesticity of her mother’s lifestyle, which involves cooking, cleaning, washing and bringing up children, but the domesticity of a long-term commitment to a man and a home of her own. Once Livak and Ryshad move to Kel Ar’Ayen, where they start to live that lifestyle, she begins looking for a means of paying her way, other than “the donkey work” she has been doing (AE: 11-12). At present Kel Ar’Ayen operates on a trade/barter system, so that, ironically, all the gold that Livak earned from her adventures in the Great Forest and the Mountains is sitting in a coffer beneath their bedroom floorboards, of no current use to her (11-12). Like the picara, inactivity does not appeal to Livak and since, as Kaler points out, the picara seldom thrives in a Utopian setting, where she is expected to work for her living (151), Livak is in a quandary. She has money to spend, but no means of spending it, and no skills besides her gambling ones, to earn trading credit (AE: 12). Then she comes up with the idea of becoming the colony’s wine merchant: she realises that if she buys up all the wine that arrives on the ships that are expected to sail regularly from Tormalin, she will be able to trade the wine for the things she wants or needs, instead of having to rely on Ryshad to earn them for her (12-13). Halice asks Livak whether she is just planning to take orders from the colonists to settle as and when wine is available, or if she intends to have her own warehouse and to do the job properly (32). When Livak admits she has not worked out the details properly yet, Halice tells her it is too good an idea not to follow through on and encourages Livak to think it out properly (32). Halice has known Livak a long time, and knows her well enough to understand that Livak will never settle down to life as a mere wife and mother, and she recognises that since there is, as yet, small chance of Livak persuading people to bet on the winner of a game of White Raven or the fall of the rune sticks, she needs something to do that will occupy her time and earn her either money or trading credit (12).

Kaler notes that while the picara “may be called a warrior for reasons of distinction, she is not truly a warrior” (150). Heroes or heroines who kill simply for the sake of killing do not tend to lead to reader identification, so whilst her “adventuring may lead to the death of the enemy”, this is never the ultimate goal of the picara (Kaler: 150). For as Kaler observes, if there are no villains, against whom would the picara “pit her intelligence?” (150) In Livak’s case, she usually pits her intelligence against those with whom she plays runes, White Raven or other games of chance (TG: 4, 8, 36; GF: 3-4, 11, 45), but on occasion she does pit her intelligence against an enemy – those who threaten her autonomy, such as Ilkehan in The Thief's Gamble; Kramisak in The Swordsman's Oath; the Sheltya and Eresken in The Gambler's Fortune; and both Ilkehan (through the pirates who are controlled by his adepts in Artifice) and Olret (after Ilkehan is dead) in The Assassin's Edge. In line with Kaler’s comments that the “picara is not essentially a warrior, but when she takes on a warrior rôle it is for a very specific reason for she seldom kills, and then only in self-defence, not out of aggression” (152), and that the picara “compensates for her lesser strength by using her brain” (157), thus avoiding violence where possible since her skill lies in “her confidence games, which offset the grim gore of the male war game” (159), Livak kills in cold blood only once, but even then it is in defence of herself and “our people”, as she calls the colonists of Kel Ar’Ayen (AE: 187). She realises that the only way that Kel Ar’Ayen is going to gain sufficient peace to prosper is if Ilkehan is taken out of the picture permanently, otherwise he will simply keep finding ways to bring chaos, death and destruction to those who inhabit the islands that he covets for his own people (AE: 214). Interestingly, it is a rare childhood recollection of her father who once spent all day digging out a pervasive weed in her mother’s small garden plot, that prompts Livak’s realisation that she and Ryshad, together with a very select group of others, are going to have to kill Ilkehan (214).

On other occasions when Livak has had to kill, or be party to the killing, of others, it has been in the heat of a battle or some other life-and-death situation, such as when the party she is travelling with is attacked by Elietimm(N8) en route to Inglis (TG: 123-127); or when the party she is travelling with is attacked by Elietimm en route to Relshaz (SO: 79); or when bandits attack the party of Forest Folk with which she is hunting (GF: 227); or when the party she is with is attacked by Olret's men (AE: 484). At other times a death to which Livak is a party is a matter for grief or dismay, such as when 'Gren kills a man whom they have captured for information (245), or when the miller and his men happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in their deaths at the hands of Sorgrad and 'Gren (500). However, for Livak, the "one death too many" is when she is forced to kill Ryshad’s friend Aiten, whose mind has been taken over by Ilkehan’s Artifice so that he is no longer in control of his own body. Aiten attacks Ryshad and Livak notices that he is not countering Aiten’s attacks, he is only defending himself, and she realises that in order to save the lives of herself, Ryshad and Shiv, she will have to kill Aiten (TG: 409-410).

Earlier I briefly mentioned that “feminised quests” both allow room for friendships and relationships, and recognises their importance to female heroes. Livak demonstrates a high regard for the value of friendship: she only gets dragged into the Archmage’s schemes in the first place because she is running low on ready money as she waits for Halice to turn up to a pre-arranged meeting (TG: 3). When Livak hears of some “merchants” who are in the market for Tormalin antiques, she decides to top up her purse by stealing one from the man who had attempted to rape her some ten years earlier (TG: 6-12). Unluckily for Livak, the merchants are in fact a mage called Shiv, an agent of the Archmage called Darni, and a scholar called Geris, and a few days earlier they had tried to buy the tankard which Livak offers them, so they recognise it is not hers to sell. With this knowledge, Darni blackmails Livak into becoming their thief, promising her financial rewards for her assistance (TG: 28-29). Despite having her plans “completely ripped up” by Darni (TG: 32), Livak is able to send Halice both financial and medical assistance for the broken leg that has delayed their meeting (TG: 35-38), and as soon as she is free of Planir’s schemes, she goes in search of Halice (TG: 434-437). When The Swordsman's Oath opens, Livak and Halice are sharing a cottage together and Livak is still doing her best to look after her friend. She and Ryshad argue over Livak’s idea of freedom and her scorn for his vows as a sworn man. She tells him: “I’m loyal to my friends, not some canting words and a tarnished kennel-tag,” and she adds, “I value my freedom too highly” (SO: 58). Ryshad asks, “Freedom to die penniless in a ditch? No sworn man with an injury like Halice’s would be left hanging on the charity of their friends!” (58) To Livak, however, this is not an issue: Halice, Sorgrad and ’Gren are her surrogate family since she no longer has contact with her parents, and she has no problem with spending the money she earned from Planir in trying to make Halice’s life easier or a bit more comfortable (A Spark in the Darkness).

When Halice unexpectedly decides to join forces with Ryshad, Shiv and Viltred on their ‘quest’ to recover some missing Kel Ar’Ayen artefacts, Livak decides to go too, in spite of her initial reluctance (her heroic potential has left her after her rescue from the Ice Islands). Halice has made a bargain with Shiv: she will help him if he arranges for the Soluran healing lore that had been discovered the previous year to be used on her damaged leg, and Livak intends to see that Shiv sticks to his side of the bargain (SO: 61, 70-71). Kaler notes that:

the absence of a guiding mother or another protective female intensifies the picara’s isolation from most feminine support groups; because of her threatening sexuality, the picara never associates well with other women as equals. [... So] when the picara is deprived of actual parental guidance, she instinctively seeks another, older woman as her mother-figure or confidante (191).

Whilst there is no indication in The Tales of Einarinn of how Livak and Halice met, or if Livak actively sought out Halice as a surrogate mother/confidante, Halice (who is about six years older than Livak)(9) often seems to take that rôle. Halice points out to Livak that she “was the one who got you into your first game in a hiring camp”, and when she elects to remain on Kel Ar’Ayen at the end of The Swordsman’s Oath, Livak is "sad" and does everything she can think of to persuade Halice not to stay, but she also respects Halice’s autonomy and wants her to happy more than anything else (SO: 559). It is Halice’s presence on Kel Ar’Ayen that encourages Livak to suggest to Ryshad that they move there once he leaves Messire D’Olbriot’s service, and she returns from her trip to the Mountains and the Great Forest (The Warrior’s Bond: 520). Livak tells Ryshad that she misses Halice, and she is aware that Ryshad, after spending most of the summer in assisting Temar in Tormalin, will be wondering how Temar is getting on in his rôle as Sieur to the colonists, so she suggests that they go and make themselves useful on Kel Ar’Ayen (520).

Kaler observes that "the problem of ending a picaresque tale is simplified by having it not end" (58), and it is true that so far McKenna’s picaresque The Tales of Einarinn have generated four novel-length sequels to the original novel The Thief’s Gamble, one published short story sequel to the series (The Wedding Gift), an as-yet unpublished short story prequel to the original novel, and four other "filler" short stories,(N10) three of which are so far unpublished (the only published "filler" story does not feature Livak). However, McKenna has also begun a second series of four books, set in the same secondary world, but featuring mostly new characters. It should be noted though, that some of the "minor" characters from The Tales of Einarinn have had larger rôles in "The Aldabreshin Compass" series, so although the possibility of future tales in the first series remains, it seems unlikely that McKenna will drag her major characters out of their pleasant retirement, for unlike the picara, Livak has found a measure of peace and reconciliation (Kaler: 2).

I have tried to demonstrate that whilst McKenna’s Livak has a great potential for heroism within her, she is far more of a picara figure than she is either a romantic heroine or a lady hero.


7. Artifice is an older, less showy, but often more powerful form of magic than that wielded by mages such as Shiv and Usara. It uses chants/charms to produce its effects.
8. Ice Islanders.
9. Halice gives her age as 32 in The Swordsman’s Oath (72); Juliet E. McKenna, in an email (“exploration etc.”) to the author (24 January 2005), gives Livak’s age as around 15 or 16 when she left home, and since, at the beginning of The Thief’s Gamble, Livak mentions she has been wandering Ensaimin for about a decade, this would make her around 25-26 at that point.
10. I refer to them as “filler” stories because they fill in some of the backstory between the published novels.


Barr, Marlene S. Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987).
Brownstein, Rachel. Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels (New York: The Viking Press, 1982).
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973).
Christ, Carol P. Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980, 3rd edn 1995).
Edwards, Lee. “The Labours of Psyche: Toward a Theory of Female Heroism.” Critical Inquiry 6.1 (1979).
—. Psyche as Hero: Female Heroism and Fictional Form (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1984).
Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1976).
Heller, Dana. The Feminisation of Quest Romance: Radical Departures (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).
Kaler, Anne K. The Picara: From Hera to Fantasy Heroine (Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991).
McKenna, Juliet E. The Thief’s Gamble (London: Orbit, 1999) [TG].
—. The Swordsman’s Oath (London: Orbit, 1999) [SO].
—. The Gambler’s Fortune (London: Orbit, 2000) [GF].
—. The Warrior’s Bond (London: Orbit, 2001).
—. The Assassin’s Edge (London: Orbit, 2002) [AE].
—. The Wedding Gift (Aberdeen: Einarinn Ltd., 2003) [WG].
—. Win Some, Lose Some ts. 2004 [WS, LS].
—. A Spark in the Darkness ts. 2004.
—. Absent Friends ts. 2004 [AF].
Paul, Lissa “Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows About Children’s Literature”, Signal 54 (September 1987).
Pearson Carole and Katherine Pope Whom Am I This Time? Female Portraits in British and American Literature (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).

(c) Michèle Fry 2005. (This essay first appeared in Vector, May/June 2005)

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