The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

The premise of The Warrior Heir is that feuding groups of magical people, Weirlind, live among us, constantly vying for power. Wizards are the most powerful of these people, both magically and through an enforced treaty somewhat reminiscent of both colonization and the caste system. In order to keep the chaos under control, fighting is done indirectly, such as killing enemy underlings, amassing slaves of lesser Weir such as Enchanters, and – most importantly – through the ritual Game, in which every House that can acquire a Warrior sends that Warrior forth in a fight to the death according to the Rules of Engagement; the victorious side holds the reins of power until their Warrior is defeated in the Game. Wizards, Warriors, and other Weir are born with a stone behind their heart. These stones are closely linked with each Weir’s innate abilities, and can be recognized and classified.

Not surprisingly, this Game system (and the resultant abduction or assassination of opposing Houses’ Warriors) has caused a dearth of Warriors, to the point that the Game has not been held for years. Enter Jack, a Wizard born without a stone. To save his life – or more bluntly, to experiment – a White Rose the healer-surgeon surgically gives baby Jack a Warrior’s stone, and medicines to dull his Warrior senses so that the Red Rose cannot find him.

Jack grows up perfectly normal, until the day he forgets to take his medicine.

Dum da da dummmmmmm.

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I was impressed at how normal Jack remains throughout his adventures. Despite his increasing senses, strength, and training, Jack is a believably home-grown, raised-by-a-loving-(minus-the-divorce-part)-family with typical interests and friends (and enemies) boy next door. He cares for his mother, aunt, and friends and reacts to situations the way I might expect a decent teenager to react. Albeit crazy, magical situations, of course. Here is a hero-in-training who doesn’t lose his humanity, his heart, or his upbringing to become some untouchable hero. Jack is vulnerable, admirably so.

Mind you, there are a few instances of “innate knowledge” coursing through Jack’s veins that caused me to raise an eyebrow:

Jack thrust the blade into the ground momentarily and lifted the scabbard with two hands. It was mounted on a light belt of cleverly wrought linked metal. It was designed to fit two ways, about the waist of over his shoulder, as a baldric. Baldric. Where had the word come from? Somewhere inside him, a door to knowledge had opened. (p. 106)

But there were very few of these instances, and from the way they are handled in the text I suspect that this is the author’s way of adding in bits of swordy knowledge (just for the fun of it? I can understand that) that might not otherwise fit in the narrative. Most of Jack’s knowledge and ability comes through hard training, which is emphasized throughout the story. I appreciate that.

Along with this reasonable look at the work that goes into acquiring proficiency as a warrior is a correspondingly level-headed look at social relations. Jack’s friends, Will and Fitch, have backgrounds, families, and quirks (assets and problems) of their own, which add convincing depth to their characters and the relationship between the three of them. Ellen, the new girl at school, felt life-like: she is confident about her skill on the soccer field, comfortable with herself and with her friends, and just a wee bit uncertain about her relationship with Jack, especially before it really is a relationship.

Now, let’s talk about death and killing.

Hastings strode onto the field, eyes glittering. “You did an excellent job in that last bout,” he said. “An excellent job. Now, why couldn’t you follow through?”

“I don’t want to kill anybody,” Jack explained, shrugging his shoulders. He’d never expected to be apologizing for it.

“This is your gift, Warrior,” Hastings snapped. “Killing people. Get used to it.” (p. 193)

That’s another reason to like Jack: he really doesn’t want to kill anybody. He doesn’t even want to beat up the local jerk who’s been hassling him since soccer tryouts. The warrior training? Sure, it’s a matter of survival, but for Jack, life and death struggles aren’t quite real to him. The exhilaration of learning something new and difficult, both physically and mentally, is much more present to him. It’s fun. Which is kind of a problem, because Jack doesn’t know how much danger he is in, but is also a strength. And it gives modern practitioners of martial arts another way to relate to Jack.

“Susannah was a warrior, but she was a pacifist.” (p. 313)

We’re also given a warrior who is even more determined on non-violence than Jack: his great-great-grandmother, Susannah. Susannah is described as looking “as if she were just about to break into laughter” (88) in an old photograph, a skilled rider, a beautiful woman, and (the precise passage I want eludes me) vibrantly full of life. She is (or was) absolutely set against killing: a unique ancestral heroic figure.

I’m curious as to what will happen next. Off to the library!