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Old School Wednesdays Readalong: Jaran by Kate Elliott

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Jaran by Kate Elliott

For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.


Title: Jaran

Author: Kate Elliott

Genre: Science Fiction, Romance

Jaran (ebook) jaran

Publisher: Open Road Media (first published by DAW)
Publication date: First published 1992
Paperback: 496 pages

The first book of Kate Elliott’s epic Novels of the Jaran, set in an alien-controlled galaxy where a young woman seeks to find her own life and love, but is tied to her brother’s revolutionary fate

In the future, Earth is just one of the planets ruled by the vast Chapalii empire. The volatility of these alien overlords is something with which Tess Soerensen is all too familiar. Her brother, Charles, rebelled against them at one time and was rewarded by being elevated into their interstellar system—yet there is reason to believe they murdered his and Tess’s parents.

Struggling to find her place in the world and still mending a broken heart, Tess sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, one of her brother’s planets. On the ground, she joins up with the native jaran people, becoming immersed in their nomadic society and customs while also attempting to get to the bottom of a smuggling scheme she encountered on her journey there. As she grows ever closer to the charismatic jaran ruler, Ilya—who is inflamed by an urgent mission of his own—Tess must choose between her feelings for him and her loyalty to her brother.

Jaran is the first volume of the Novels of the Jaran, which continues with An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, and The Law of Becoming.

Stand alone or series: Book one in the Jaran series (but it’s a very self-contained novel and could be read on its own).

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Ebook (Kobo)


Ana’s Take: For some unknown reason (considering how clear the blurb is) I was sure Jaran was Fantasy? Imagine my surprise when I started reading. After a short period of adjustment, I settled down into what proved to be a comfort read in many ways. I loved how heavily focused on romance and awesome character development Jaran turned out to be and how, at the same time, it offered great food for thought in terms of culture-clash and thought-provoking depictions of gender relations within the Jaran culture. I devoured it and with only a few criticisms, I can say this was another successful Readalong read.

Thea’s Take: Oh, I’ve been a Kate Elliott fan for a few years now, but I’ve had my eye on Jaran for ages. Naturally, I was beyond thrilled when this book was selected for February’s Old School Wednesday readalong. And you know what? I loved it. Yeah, it has its issues and there are certain aspects of the book that I wasn’t crazy about (mostly Tess’s infallible ability to win over everyone), but the worldbuilding is fantastic. Most of all, I love the meaty questions Jaran raises in terms of gender roles, colonization, and cultural exchange. So I am wholeheartedly with Ana – this was a hugely successful readalong pick (and I cannot wait to read more in this series).

Discussion Questions:

1. Genre definitions can be complicated. How would you approach or classify Jaran considering its heady combination of science fiction and romance? Do you think the romance overtakes the narrative to the point where we could call this Science Fiction Romance, as opposed to Science Fiction with romance? Does it matter?

Thea: Because Jaran is a book about the importance of communication and language, this semantic approach actually is pretty interesting. My immediate thought is to say that it shouldn’t matter – Jaran is a wonderful science fiction novel with a delicious, slow burn of a romance that is central to its story, but not at the expense of worldbuilding, plotting, or character development. It will appeal to both romance readers and science fiction readers. I don’t think it would be incorrect to call the book a Science Fiction Romance, nor do I think it would be incorrect to call it a Science Fiction novel with Romantic elements.

That said… words are important things and assign different meaning. I’m not nearly as well-versed, eloquent, or clever as linguist and Jaran protagonist Tess, but I will say this: I’ve seen SFR get a bad rap amongst the non-romance-reading SFF community. To the naysayers and to those who might be hesitant to try Jaran I say this: READ THIS BOOK. It’s fantastic by any fiction standard, and the perfect gateway drug to even more science fiction romance/romantic science fiction.

Ana: At first, I admit I was surprised at how much of the novel focus on the developing romance between the protagonist Tess and the leader of the Jaran, Ilya. Because I was not expecting it: this seems to show how I have certain expectations of Science Fiction I was not even aware of. If it is not called SFR, I am not going to be expecting a strong storyline involving romance and sure as hell won’t be expecting it to be that good. Also: am I reading the wrong books? Why can’t I read books like Jaran all the time?

In any case, the romance is utterly connected with Tess’ independent character arc. This is in many ways, her story: her development and growth as heroine, starting as reluctant tool in her brother’s machinations to finding her own place in the world, learning to adapt and shape her new circumstances. Her falling desperately in love with Ilya does not in any way detract from her own character arc or is an impediment for her to develop relationships (romantic or otherwise) with other characters. It is an intrinsic part of her love, like love and relationships so often are.

I wanted to remark on the development of the romance itself. It features all of my romantic sweet spots: broody (but nice) hero, independent and smart heroine and a relationship that develops deliciously slowly and is based on mutual respect. The ending though and the way they go about getting married is both infuriating (hello, troubling issues of consent and trust) and incredibly in-fitting within the thematic background and worldbuilding. I will go back to this later on.

Basically: I completely agree with Thea. READ THIS BOOK.

2. One of the most distinctive things about Jaran is its treatment of gender roles and female characters. What’s your take on these gender dynamics?

Ana: I’ve been thinking about the gender roles and dynamics in this book non-stop. This is I think, the point. The reversal of traditional gender roles especially when it comes to sex and marriage, the strong respect the men have for women and the partly matriarchal make-up of the Jaran are really interesting. On the topic of respect for women, it is interesting to note how the mere thought of raping a woman is a matter of distress for anybody in the book. Considering how the book deals with death, violence and war head-on, it is a breath of fresh air that this type of violence against women is not something that is part of the world’s make-up.

There is a lot of nuance and thoughtful commentary here as well, because no society – as advanced as it might be – will ever be free of problematic aspects. The foremost one is how the Jaran go about getting married: it is always the man’s choice, once they literally brand their chosen wives, the women have no say. I am torn on this aspect of the book. On the one hand, I understand the gender role reversal (it is the man who wants to get married) and appreciate how the book did go to great lengths to show the inevitable problematic results of this approach (unhappy marriages being just one of them of course).

On the other hand: does this make complete sense in the context of the book’s own world-building which is so preoccupied with women’s agency, freedom and power? I am not entirely sure. Going back to my point about Tess and Ilya’s marriage: it makes sense that he did what he did being a product of his own environment and I appreciated how the narrative show his action for what it was (not in any way romantic) and how Tess struggled to accept and was understandably pissed-off.

Thea: Oh, I loved the gender roles and dynamics in this book more than anything else. The Jaran are a fascinating society – they are matriarchal, but not in a simplistic, didactic way. In this nomadic culture, women are the ones who make the choice of sexual partners. Men do not approach women (which is viewed as wanton or even taboo), but rather, the women make the advances and sexual invitation to the men. Women are the leaders of the different tribes, who can dismiss or reprimand the men within their groups. There is a very distinct difference between “men’s business” and “women’s business” that rings as wholly genuine within the construct of this particular society – and also works to subvert accepted gender norms.

There’s sexual freedom amongst the Jaran, too, as married couples can have as many different partners as they wish. At one point, when Tess explains monogamous relationships that are the norm in her culture, a Jaran character is utterly disbelieving, commenting on how barbaric the notion is. Indeed, “marriage” as an institution has a complicated subtext in Jaran culture – while women are the ones to initiate sexual encounters, men are the ones who instigate marriage. Often against a female’s will. Which, while raises issues of consent as Ana points out, my take on this particular forced matrimony is a fascinating take on marriage altogether – a reversal of the stereotype that men are somehow anchored to the old “ball and chain.”

Something else that occurred to me while reading this book is the preoccupation with the grim, the gritty, and the dark. During Jaran, heroine Tess accompanies a crew of 30 or so men as they ride out across the country – a scenario that would be nigh unthinkable under the current prevailing notion of “realistic” SFF. To anyone that argues for the inclusion of rape or otherwise marginalization and violence against female characters, I say read this book. Elliott’s world is incredibly nuanced, the cultures mindbogglingly detailed – and in this society, rape (and violence against women) is addressed as the most barbaric and horrific of acts.

Finally, regarding gender roles and relationships I should mention that gay relationships are tangentially mentioned and explored, but only from the male perspective. Interestingly (or perhaps I missed it?), there are no mentions of lesbian relationships, which strikes me as a little odd (nor are there any encounters with multiple partners). That said, I understand the binary gender role reversal is the real discourse of this book, and a thought-provoking theme that Jaran discusses very nicely.

And I haven’t even touched on the cultural mores that govern the utterly alien Chapalii – who are the imperialist masters to humanity, but are strangely benevolent, removed, and bound almost blindly to their social hierarchy. But more on that in a bit.

3. One important aspect of the story is its worldbuilding, both from a wider intergalactic perspective, to the minute details of a nomadic tribe confined to one planet. What did you think of this contrast between the macro and the micro scale of worldbuilding in Jaran?

Ana: I had two words in my head when reading Jaran: colonialism domino. From the alien Chapalii, to the humans who have a hold on an entire planet given out as a gift, down to a culture who wants to unite all tribes under one rule and then kick everybody else off, everybody plays it.

It was all so fascinating. The glimpses we’ve got of the fascinating yet mysterious Chapalii who play the role of mostly “benevolent” rulers of a vast empire whet the appetite. Isn’t a mostly benevolent, peaceful rule still subjugation? We also got glimpses of Tess’ brother, someone who unsuccessfully rebelled against the Chapalii and in his failure, was awarded a dukedom and consequently unimaginable power and prestige within this alien culture. Better to keep your enemies closer and to bribe them into compliance?

The viewpoint narrative is mostly Tess’ though, and her narrative comes too from a position of privilege. She is not only an outsider to the Jaran, someone who holds more information and knowledge they do not have, but she is also a member of an elite where she comes from. Her position within the Jaran itself is also one of privilege – being a woman affords her the same rights the women have in the tribe whilst at the same she is awarded a measure of freedom that other women don’t. She gets to ride with the men, she gets to learn to use the sabre and go to war, she gets to say her mind. Tess is in a way unique. That uniqueness is somewhat problematic to me: it is impossible to disconnect Tess’ privileged position from her actions and because she gets to criticise parts of the Jaran culture, scot-free and to introduce small revolutions make me a little squeamish. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVED that Tess called out whenever she thought there was an idiosyncratic part of the Jaran and I loved that she was able to do the things she did. Marking Ilya’s face when they got married? A+. But I hated that, as far as we know, she was the first woman to do so. Even though I recognise and appreciated that Jaran women within the book have voiced similar concerns and showed their own desire to do the same things Tess was doing. So in a way, Tess might be starting a revolution that already has its internal roots set but it would be great to see this developed further in a way that doesn’t show a foreigner as the liberator. I hope this is what happens in the next books.

Between the macro and the micro, this first book strikes me as a very personal story. At this stage, the wider context is lesser developed that the lifestyle of the Jaran, for example. I’d loved to have seen more of the bigger picture but I still loved the book just was it was, for what it was.

Thea: This is a meaty question! For the most part, I agree with Ana. The macro and micro worlds that Kate Elliott creates in Jaran are all of a piece, connected by cultural dictates and a fervent desire for revolution and change. The most fascinating part of the contrast to me isn’t so much a question of scale (intergalactic versus tribes on a single planet), but the question of change.

The planet Rhui was gifted to Tess’s (much) older brother, Charles, by the alien Chapalii – this, after he attempted to overthrow their rule. Instead of killing or imprisoning Charles, the utterly alien Chapalii rewarded him with a sort of intergalactic fiefdom, elevating him to a Duke in their imperial standing and thus removing him from any threat of bodily harm because the Chapalii are wholly bound to their social rules and order. Tess, Charles’ heir, is similarly protected by the Chapalii’s adherence to social order. I don’t see the Chapalii’s gift of Rhui as an attempt at bribery, but more a show of… respect? Or perhaps some much deeper motivation that is hinted at with the book’s late revelations? (Or perhaps the Chapalii are just so entirely alien their motivations are entirely beyond my grasp.)

Regardless of their motivations, the fact is this: when the Chapalii made first contact with humanity, they provided humans with Chapalii technology, wealth and knowledge. This was so overwhelmingly advanced, that it disrupted societal development overall, and humanity became wholly reliant, beholden to their Chapalii overlords.

When Charles was gifted Rhui, his sole edict is that no one is allowed to interfere with Rhui’s cultural development – the humans on this planet must be allowed to develop naturally without outside interference (at least, no outside gifts of technology or knowledge). The problem is that this edict might be respected on a broader level, a faction of the Chapalii have their own plans. Knowledge and trade is making its way to the people of Rhui – especially to the nomadic Jaran tribes. For the Jaran, the question of revolution and change is similarly central, as Bahktiaan is on a visionary quest to unite the Jaran tribes and – most likely – expand his power as far as he possibly can. Now that he is married to Tess, whom he believes is the sister of the Prince of Jed, who knows what the future will have in store.

ALL of this poses thought-provoking questions of colonization and interference, of social responsibility and change. I appreciate that Jaran doesn’t make any value judgments – not yet – but I’m intrigued to see how the series arc progresses, especially now that Tess and Ilya are married. (I fear that DOOM lies ahead.)

I don’t think I answered the question, but there you have it.

4. What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about?

Ana: Tess and her character arc is my favourite thing about the book.

I was not enthusiastic about the way that marriage played in a role within the Jaran society because it just seems to incongruous with everything else that afforded agency and independence to women in that culture. I was also troubled about how Tess played such a “saviour”, “moderniser” role considering that she was effectively, an outsider. Those things said: this is merely book 1 in a four book series and I am on-board, hoping those will be addressed somehow.

Thea: I haven’t talked at all about character development, but my favorite thing about the book is Tess’s growth and journey – physically and emotionally – as a character. You can’t help but fall a bit in love with Tess, who is so bitter and unsure of herself at the start of the book (following a broken engagement), but who comes into her own when she’s thrown into an extreme situation. She becomes a part of a family, she’s freed of expectations of her brother, she becomes a rider of the Jaran, and, of course, she finds love. Also, can I mention how awesome it is that Tess has THREE sexual partners in this book, without being shamed or even having to be in love with those partners. It’s a romance in that she and Ilya share an undeniable passion and lovestory, but along the way Tess shares other kinds of love and relationships. And that, to me, is awesome.

On the negative side, I have to agree with Ana that Tess’s exceptionalism was my least favorite thing about Jaran. Tess is exceptional from her appearance (brown hair and green eyes = not present in the Jaran tribes), to her skillset (linguist of unparalleled skill), to her ability to adapt (she learns to ride a horse very quickly), to the way others treat her (she becomes a sister, a lover, a rider, a wife). She instigates change as an outsider; she is able to accomplish things that no other Jaran member – and no other woman – has been able to accomplish. That carries a dangerous connotation, and wasn’t my favorite.

5. Have you read any of Kate Elliott’s books before? Will you try any others if you are a newbie to her books? More to the point: even though Jaran seems to be perfectly fine as a standalone, will you continue with the series?

Ana: Sadly, in spite of the fact that Thea has been singing her praises for a while and I admire the author’s non-fiction essays, this is my first encounter with her fiction. I will definitely try others and I want to continue with the Jaran series- I am curious to see where this goes and how the world (and characters) evolve.

Thea: Oh yes, I’ve read and loved Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy and highly recommend them to all. I will absolutely be back to read the rest of the Jaran series (and am gradually making my way through Kate’s extensive backlist).


Ana: 8 – Excellent

Thea: 8 – Excellent


Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!

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  • Li
    February 26, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    You two make so many interesting points! I read JARAN for the first time last year (my first Kate Elliott too!), and it was one of my favourites of the year. So I was thrilled when it was picked as your OSW readalong book.

    Random points/comments from me:

    Ana – all the SF books I love have romance as a strong subplot, I’ve never viewed the SF and romance genres as being exclusive. But tied to that, I do approach books explicitly labelled SFR with slight caution – possibly a bias on my part, but I tend to feel that the SF/world-building elements aren’t as strong as the romance in these.

    If we’re talking genre classification, I actually thought JARAN straddled the SF/fantasy line – almost science fantasy. Apart from the fact that Tess is from a different planet(!), I didn’t think there was much emphasis on the SF angle.

    Thea – re gender roles & relationships, there is some exploration of multiple partners in a later book *mysterious*

    Agree that this book is a very personal story – it’s really Tess/Ilya’s story. The plot focus/arc changes substantially in the second and third books, and is totally different in the fourth, IMO.

    I never got around to writing a proper review of the books, but jotted a couple of thoughts down on GR here FWIW:

  • Stephanie Burgis
    February 27, 2014 at 5:19 am

    I don’t have anything meaty to add, only – thank you for doing this!!! Jaran was the first Kate Elliott novel I ever read, 12 years ago (after hearing her give an AMAZING, inspirational talk to my local science fiction society), and it made me a fan of hers, but I hadn’t thought back to it in a very long time. Now I need to go rummaging through my bookshelves to try to find and re-read it! I’m so glad you wrote about it and made me remember how much I loved it.

  • JillA
    March 2, 2014 at 1:52 am

    I found your commentary very interesting and on point. I read this book when it was first released and remain fascinated by the gender roles in it, and how real and natural they feel, for the most part. And yes, Tess is a bit too easily accepted – by everyone but Ilya – but that’s bearable. And it’s a great, great romance.

    I wish the series had been completed. I still live in hope that it will be. In a way, her Highroad Trilogy does so. Written prior to this, it takes place post Chapalii. And the romance is just as good as this one.

    Thanks for the discussion of one of my all-time favorite books. I’m so glad they’re all available again.

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