Subverted Subversion

There is a particular type of fantasy story that has at its core an elaborate religious or social ritual, the more shocking and bizarre the better. I mean things like His One True Bride by Darja Malcolm-Clarke, Break the Vessel by Vylar Kaftan, or The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto. The subtext of these stories is usually that the religious beliefs underlying the ritual are false, and that they oppress those that participate in them. The opposite type also exists, in which someone, usually an outsider, derides the poor local superstition and gets his comeuppance for it.

Kingspeaker by Marie Brennan seems to be one of this type, but its conclusion does something amazing with the trope.

(Mild spoilers follow.)

At the opening of the story we see the female protagonist being stripped of her own voice to speak with the voice of the King. This seems at first to be merely ritual–she still speaks, and even speaks to the king, though she insists that she’s only saying the king’s words back to him. At the novel’s climax, though, the king becomes psychologically unable to say what he needs to say, and in a crucial moment the protag decides to speak up without the king’s command.

But notice: the protag doesn’t speak up for herself, which would violate the ritual logic presented in the story. Instead, she speaks in the voice of the king, saying what truly are the king’s words, the words the king cannot bring himself to say. Right at the place where I expected to see the ritual subverted, it was instead affirmed in a dramatic and ironic way. I was tickled with delight.

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