Morgan Llywelyn,
The Elementals
(Tor, 1993; 2003)

In The Elementals, Morgan Llywelyn explores the elements of water, fire, earth and air in four loosely connected stories which span from the distant past to the perhaps not-too-distant future. Overall, there is a strong ecological message throughout the book, warning of the consequences of losing touch with nature.

The first story concerns water. The section begins, as each section begins, with a kind of prose poem that reflects the element. A small band of craftspeople have built a boat in anticipation of massive floods threatening their island, Atlantis. By the time the waters begin rising, they have sustained so many attacks from those who want a place on the boat that they now number three men and about fifty women. One of the women, Kesair, takes on a leadership role, getting them onto the boat and away before they are overrun, and not a moment too soon. While they are at sea, she organizes them and keeps them from despair.

Eventually, they make landfall on an island and settle at first near the sea. Kesair finds that the water, once a threat, draws her, and she spends whatever time she is not leading the community at the ocean's edge. She finds that it is difficult to be the leader, to always have people relying on her, and something about the water restores her. When it is time to leave the ocean for more fertile land in which to settle, Kesair follows the waterways to find green valleys and fields in which her people can thrive. Yet she carries with her a reminder of the ocean.

The focus then shifts to the element of fire and a tale of a harper in Minoan Crete. Meriones lives a comfortable life with a wife, Tulipa, who might be a bit of a shrew but to whom he is committed, and a position playing in the royal palace. When he is assigned to play for the goldsmiths, he befriends one of them, Hokar, and through his new friend becomes involved in helping a relative of Hokar's sell some slaves from the Islands of Mist. He has reservations about this, since his own grandmother was a slave from the Islands of Mist, but he is pressured into helping. One of the slaves, an old man with fiery eyes, remains unsold; it is said that he is a priest and magician of some kind, but he will not demonstrate his skill. He is taken away to be sold to someone on the mountainous island of Thera.

A heat wave descends. Tulipa falls ill, and Meriones' time is divided between his work and tending his wife. Hokar prevails on him for help, and thus it is that he is at the palace instead of with his wife when the element of fire makes its presence known. Nothing will ever be the same again for Meriones.

The focus shifts to earth and to 19th-century Vermont. Annie Murphy is hard-working and a good wife and mother with ambitions for her son to receive a better education. She is considered a bit odd by the others, particularly for her love of books, but she is also independent and doesn't care what others think. Although she is well-educated herself, she succumbs to superstition regarding a boulder said to be sacred to the Indians nearby, and she finally decides to be brave and face her fears. She finds that she has a connection to the stone, a connection of which she would never have dreamed, but one which she would not relinquish.

The final section is about air, and is set in a future in which the ozone layer is gone and most of the population has succumbed to new diseases for which there is no cure. Half Irish, half Native American, meteorologist George Burningfeather joins a community gathered onto a reservation and finds that they have a chance to help save what's left of the world.

Each character is a descendant of the others, so the line of "elementals" or people with abiding connections to the elements is established, even if one isn't certain just what the connection is. Meriones comes to understand and accept the fire, but the preparation is a bit vague. The book is very readable, although the message tends to get hammered home a little heavily, and at times the plot falters. All in all, though, Llywelyn is a compelling storyteller, and while The Elementals doesn't compare to her historical fiction, it is still thought-provoking and timely.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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