By Wingèd Chair by Kendra Merritt

By Wingèd Chair is a young adult coming-of-age fantasy romance novel which plays with the Robin Hood story and takes it in some interesting new directions. Set in a fantasy world that has both medieval European and Victorian steampunk elements, the backdrop to the story is the unjust rule of Duke John, who has somehow disposed of his elder brother and now rules the country with the aid of the Sheriff and his Peacekeepers, who are something between an army and a police force with magical abilities. In addition to taxing the villages to the point of starvation, the Peacekeepers also control shadowy entities called the Vachryn, which both eat the memories of their victims, and leave them unable to form new memories.

Rumours abound of a Robyn Hode, an outlaw who supposedly killed his family by magic, and who seems to have taken on a symbolism of his own among the populace – is he fighting the Peacekeepers and the Vachryn, or robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, or is he simply the criminal that he is believed to be? The answer is more complicated than one might expect, and comes with nods to several different stories within the Robin Hood legends.

The story is narrated by Merry, short for Marion, a sharp-tongued, sarcastic, and downright cranky young woman with paraplegia who has just been kicked out of her most recent boarding school.

They say truth is the path to all ends, but maybe I really shouldn’t have told Madam Francine she looked like a squashed frog. I mean, she might have kicked me out because of the kitchen incident, but I’m pretty sure it was the frog thing.

As opening lines go, that’s pretty stunning.

Merry was at boarding school in order to get a recommendation so that she could attend the University, which is the only place where you can formally study magic. Merry is a very talented user of magic, though only partially trained; her real reason for wanting to attend the University is that she can see magic in ways that are supposedly not possible. Alas, it’s difficult to get a place at the University without a recommendation, especially when you are a young woman who uses a wheelchair which causes everyone to underestimate your intelligence.

Waiting at the station to take the train home, Merry witnesses one of her professors attacked by two Vachryn, which steal his memories and identity, leaving him empty and confused. When the Vachryn and their Peacekeeper handlers turn on her, she begins to defend herself with magic, but is both thwarted and rescued by a motley trio – a mage and two fighters – who sweep Merry and wheelchair up in their wake, initially planning to take her home. But of course home is not as she left it, and matters develop from there.

There’s quite a bit going on in this book. We have Whyn, broody, brilliant, and with a Dark Secret, who is bent on fighting the Peacekeepers and the Vachryn. We have a Robyn Hode, blamed by the Sheriff for all sorts of misdeeds, believed by the peasants they meet to be stealing from Duke John’s tax-collectors and giving to the poor, and who may or may not be doing any of those things or even be the actual Robyn Hode. We have the problem of people who have lost their memories and can’t maintain new ones. We have the question of what these Vachryn really are, what they are actually doing with the memories they eat, and whether they are, in fact, demons, or something else.

And of course, we have the relationship between Merry and Whyn, which is very much antagonists-to-lovers. Merry is snarky and mistrustful and unfriendly, and Whyn is angsty and arrogant and sarcastic. They bicker like siblings or an old married couple, and are, quite frankly, the only two people in the book who don’t immediately realise that they are nurturing gigantic crushes on each other. To be honest, if the romance were the centre of the plot, this would probably get old quite fast, but the central story of the book is really Marion coming into her own, discovering what she can do and what she wants, and learning that she can, in fact, have friends and even accept help without losing her independence or sense of self. The romance with Whyn is a fun part of that, but it’s tertiary to Marion’s journey and to the overall fantasy/political/Robin Hood plot of the book.

This is a YA romance, and it’s a ’sweet’ one, in the sense that nothing ever goes further than kissing. To be fair, Whyn and Merry would hardly have the time for anything more, given what else is going on. But I get the sense that this novel is aimed at a younger audience.

The novel also feels a little bit Inspie to me. While it isn’t overtly Christian, it does have pretty strong Christian sensibilities and themes – think Madeleine L’Engle, or maybe C.S. Lewis, but not quite – and religion, while not central to the plot, is an important part of many of the characters’ lives. The religion in question isn’t Christianity per se, but there is a God who is referred to as the Almighty who once lived among humans, died at their hands and for their sake, and then rose again, bringing light back to the world. Characters talk about dedicating particular actions in their lives (making art, studying, fighting, parenthood, even grief) to the Almighty through particular Saints’ Ways, and a number of major characters are Disciples of various saints, operating a bit like monks, in that they live communally and follow that Saint’s Way, although they are permitted to fall in love and marry without leaving the community.

There are also strong themes throughout the story of redemption, healing and forgiveness – while justice is important to the story, vengeance is clearly considered unhealthy. And there’s a strong thread about doing what is good versus doing what is right. There is no sermonising, or any of that ‘there are three people in this relationship, you, me, and God’ stuff which I always find deeply uncomfortable in Inspies, but the characters do think about ethics and religion a fair bit. I’m a bit of a theology nerd, and I love interesting takes on religious thought and practice, fictional or otherwise, so this worked very well for me, but if you don’t enjoy overt religion in books, this may not be for you.

Back to the story! What makes this book for me is Merry. She is fiercely intelligent, frustrated, angry, has no patience with fools and has had it up to here with people being nice to her while treating her like an idiot. Her inner voice is pure snark.

If my legs worked, I would have kicked myself. Why would he notice you, stupid? Even if I didn’t roll around in the worst fashion accessory ever, he still would have picked [Cecilia] over me. She looked like a porcelain doll, one that had never been played with, with her shiny blonde curls, rose petal complexion, and big, limpid brown eyes. Like a cow’s.

Honestly, Merry is one of the most fun viewpoint characters I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time. She is utterly self-confident in some ways – she knows that she is smart and far better at magic than most of the people around her and this is never taken away from her – but her prickly personality is a cover for a lot of insecurity and fear. Early on, it seems like her rescue will be at the expense of her wheelchair, and she flatly refuses to go without it – she would rather face the Peacekeepers and their Vachryn than be completely reliant on others.

Merry is very good at what she does. While her rescuers initially take her with them out of altruism and perhaps pity, she saves their lives when they are attacked, first by spotting the Vachryn’s handler, and secondly by knowing a spell to banish it when Whyn’s first spell fails. I like that Merry’s superpower is not magic, though she is very good at this – it’s intelligence and knowledge, and most specifically, magical theory. Her father is a magical scholar, and she may not have been to the University, but she knows a LOT about the theory of the various spells and of what the Vachryn are up to. Since most of the people she is allied with in the book are dealing with the practical consequences of magic but have less theoretical knowledge than she does, she is very valuable to the group.

Merry’s relationship with her body and her disability is well drawn, I think. She doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what her body can and cannot do, and at no point in the book does she seek to fix her body. This is an interesting choice, because so much of the book, in retrospect, is really about Merry coming to terms with the social impact of being disabled – of the way people treat her, of the annoying limitations posed by stairs, and so forth – but evidently the physical aspects are something she has already accepted. We see her designing a new chair that will give more control, and mobility over a wider range of surfaces; we see Whyn designing a spell to help her shrink and carry her chair when she is on horseback (and we see the adjustments required to ride on horseback while paraplegic); we see Merry designing extremely complicated spells, many of which have medical purposes. But at no point does she or anyone else attempt any kind of magical intervention to allow her to walk.

It’s very much the social model of disability being shown here, actually – the problems that Merry faces are not intrinsic to her disability, but are rather the result of an environment and society that is not set up to accommodate her needs. Not being able to use her legs is a nuisance, but the thing that matters to Merry is that others treat her as fully human and adult and independent regardless of what her legs can or can’t do. And Merry may use a wheelchair, but she is absolutely an active heroine – she comes up with plots, invents and casts spells, and makes key connections. While she does occasionally need to be rescued, she is far from the only one requiring help, and it has nothing to do with the state of her legs.

I do want to mention the whole Magical Disabled Person trope in passing, because I know that this is a thing that drives some of my disabled friends right up the wall, and because I think the author walks a very fine line here. Marion is already an accomplished user of magic before the riding accident that paralyses her legs, but it is also made quite explicit that her experience of trauma and disability have made her abilities far stronger. In fact, it seems that in this world trauma of any kind, physical or emotional, unlocks an extra level of magical ability in certain people.

“Suffering tempers us,” I said. “Like metal. We’re stronger for being tested.”

Now, this is an Own Voices novel – Merritt has partial paraplegia – and on her ‘About’ page she talks about being in hospital learning to walk again and realising that ‘all the heroic characters I read about could run and jump and swing a sword. I never saw any that looked and walked like me’. She decided that she wanted to write books that featured disabled heroines who kicked ass, and she has done so, and done so extremely well. So I don’t want to argue that the narrative that trauma can make you stronger, that being disabled in one area might make you wiser or more gifted in another area, isn’t helpful for some people with disabilities. Clearly, it is for some.

But I am also aware that for every Greta Thunberg who sees her ASD as a ‘superpower’, there is someone with another disability or chronic illness who finds this kind of language patronising or hurtful or otherwise troubling. Bluntly, there are some kinds of traumas that do not have an up-side for the people who experience them. (And… this sort of narrative can edge into viewing mental illnesses as some sort of weakness of character, I think.)

So I don’t know where that leaves us except with a bit of a caveat emptor. I can see this narrative being incredibly affirming and powerful for some readers; I can see it feeling pretty shitty for others. You will be the best person to decide whether this works for you.

All caveats aside, I loved this story. Merry is a heroine who is quite unique in my experience – Merritt is absolutely right in observing the sad lack of fantasy / adventure heroes in wheelchairs – and her voice is a delight. I enjoyed the banter between Merry and Whyn, and the fact that he likes her as she is. While Merry does lose some of her anger at the world over the course of the book and becomes kinder to others (perhaps because she feels accepted by others and is less automatically defensive), she is never going to be full of sweetness and light, and that’s just fine.

“It may have been a little my fault,” I said. “I know I’m not… not very friendly.” I tipped a glance toward Whyn. “Even you can’t argue with that.”

He gave me a lopsided grin and shrugged. “Maybe friendly is boring. Maybe some of us like surly.”

I also thought the Robin Hood plot points were approached in a very clever way. Several of the Sheriff’s plots to trap Robyn mirrored those from the original Robin Hood stories, and there was a lovely little nod to the way different Robin Hood figures kept on cropping up throughout the Middle Ages any time anyone had a grievance with authority. I liked the insatiable curiosity of the entity that Merry’s father traps and that Merry inherits, and I liked the humour of the story. I really liked all the secondary characters – they all clearly had lives outside the main plot of the book (and beyond what Merry, who is, after all, a teenager, would notice), and they were, by and large, people I would like to know in real life. I enjoyed the way the various plot points – including Merry’s new wheelchair – came together for a very satisfying ending.

My only complaint was that I think the story did drag a bit at some points – first novels often have pacing problems, and I think that’s what happened here.

But if you enjoy Robin Hood stories, surly and sarcastic heroines who can kick ass from a wheelchair, broody and sarcastic heroes who appreciate said surly heroines, enjoyable secondary characters with inner lives, twisty political plots and interesting religious systems, this is definitely worth your attention.

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