If you haven’t read at least past Chapter 9 of Alsea Rising: Gathering Storm (the chapter titled “The Seventh Star”), hold off on reading this blog post until you have. Here, let me put in a pretty image of book covers to create some spoiler space. Below these books, all bets are off! (But I will still avoid spoilers for Alsea Rising: The Seventh Star.)
Right, let’s chat!
Here is a fact: no matter what I did with these last two books, pleasing all readers was categorically impossible. My readers are wonderfully diverse, which means they attach to and sometimes identify with this character but not that one (and there are five main characters plus four powerful secondary characters to divide their loyalties), which leads to strong opinions as to who should get coverage and what is (and is not!) a preferred outcome.
Since making everyone happy is not possible, I had one of two choices: 1) I could “write to market” and choose the narrative option that would please the greatest number of readers, or 2) I could write the story as it has unfolded in my imagination and as the characters themselves have driven it.
The thing is, I’m not very good at writing to market.
Alsea has always been about representation. I started writing science fiction because I was sick of sci-fi that was all dudes, all the time. I wanted to see lead characters that looked like me. Then I wanted to see lead characters that loved like me. Then I realized that if I wanted to see this, other underrepresented people surely did as well.
Sigourney Weaver blazed a trail by playing an action hero with (gasp!) a female body — in 1979. Almost forty years later, people still questioned whether Wonder Woman would make any money at the ticket office.
What better world to show families and loves that don’t correspond with most definitions of “standard” than Alsea, which has no sexism, no racism (except against Voloth), no rigid gender definitions, and a culture that sees sharing of emotions as more intimate than sharing of bodies?
So we have families with two fathers, or two mothers, or one of each. We have a female character who made a family with a male partner, lost that family, and made a new one with a female partner. We have an asexual main character. We have significant characters of color in both straight and same-sex partnerships. We have a disabled man with a chronic illness living a full and active life with his bondmate. In Books 9 and 10, we add a heterosexual interspecies relationship with a rather unique twist.
And in Book 9, Chapter 9, polyamorous folks joined the list of minorities given full representation.
Polyamory remains taboo even in cultures that have enshrined equal marriage rights for gays. Adjusting to the idea that we can’t choose who we love is one thing, while adjusting to the idea that we can’t choose how many we love is a very different ball of wax. We have all grown up in cultures that valorize monogamy and view any departure from it in pejorative terms: cheating, betraying, unfaithful.
But as we gays know very well, taboo doesn’t translate to nonexistent. It translates to invisible.
Remember when we used to say that if every gay person suddenly turned blue, everyone would realize they knew a gay person? The same applies to polyamorous folks.
I didn’t intentionally set out to portray a polyamorous relationship. The narrative arc and the characters themselves drove it, starting with Andira’s three-way Sharings with Ekatya and Lhyn at the end of The Caphenon.
As we learned early in the second book, those Sharings created a partial tyree bond between Tal and Ekatya. In the fourth book, Catalyst, Salomen explicitly rejected Tal’s assertion that this bond wouldn’t change anything:
“But the truth is that you and Ekatya are not just friends, and if this little piece of a bond has survived seventeen moons of separation, then you will never be just friends. You created something permanent.”
“I know,” Tal said. “I just don’t know what to do about it.”
“And this is where you keep making the same mistake. It’s not for you to do anything, not by yourself. This isn’t about you. It’s not even about you and Ekatya. It involves all four of us, and we will all decide if anything needs to be done.”
We also learned in Catalyst that Andira Tal wasn’t the only one feeling the effects of that bond:
“I’ve never had a friend like you. But we’re not just friends, are we? That bond…” [Ekatya] took another breath and said what she had been afraid to. “I missed you every day, Andira. Every damned day.”
The fifth, sixth, and seventh books didn’t push this narrative in any direction because they were about other characters and relationships. But then came Book 8: Uprising.
Here is where we saw Salomen walk out on Tal for a perceived betrayal: not of loving Ekatya, but of doing something for her that she wouldn’t do for her own bondmate. The threat was never the bond, the threat was the quality of the bond, which seemed to put Salomen in second place.
Here is also where we saw the beginnings of the relationship between Lhyn and Salomen, followed by the latter’s new understanding, which she shared with Tal upon her return to the State House:
“I realized something last night. We all have our own connections. All four of us. Perhaps I just needed to know that I have a place in that, besides the one I have with you.”
Because Salomen was the one questioning her place, she was the first to recognize the importance of balance in their connections. She and Lhyn also acknowledged, during their laughter-choked imaginings of Tal and Ekatya sharing a bed, that “those two wouldn’t do anything without written permission from us. In triplicate,” as Lhyn put it. Any change would have to be driven by Salomen and Lhyn, because their honorable tyrees would never, ever take the first step.
We saw the relationship between Lhyn and Salomen deepen during the three days they hid away before the uprising. We also had a preview of the new powers these bonds enabled when Salomen heard Ekatya laugh during that nighttime mind-to-mind visit.
Finally, during the uprising itself, Tal and Lhyn realized that their foursome Sharings were having unexpected effects — and that they would have to decide whether to let it happen or try to put on the brakes.
If they were finding their own interconnections, Tal could no longer coast on a primary position she hadn’t even realized she held—not until the possibility of losing it was staring her in the face. She didn’t know what the four of them were creating, but if she was too afraid to speak her truth, the others might create it without her.
“I know what I don’t want,” she said. “I don’t want to stop.”
“Me either.” Lhyn’s relief felt like the first breath of air after being underwater too long. “I don’t ever want to stop, and Ekatya—sometimes I think she needs it more than I do.”
Now, here is where I make a confession.
Before Alsea Rising, the various clues pointing toward this arc were subtle. If you didn’t notice, or did notice but read the clues a different way, that doesn’t mean you were inattentive or in denial. It means I succeeded in giving myself an escape route.
Because right up until Book 9, Chapter 9, I wasn’t certain I’d go through with it.
I knew the polyamory arc would be controversial. I expected, and have received, negative book reviews as a result. While I never wrote that tyree bonds were the equivalent of soulmates — in fact, Dr. Wells’ genetic explanation of these bonds explicitly argued against it — I’m aware that some readers consider this to be the case. Even aside from that, many readers are invested in these great loves and don’t want to see two loving hearts become three. They firmly believe that to love more than one person at a time, physically or romantically, is a betrayal. Our cultures tell us that practically from birth. It is powerful messaging, and for most people, it’s not just belief, it’s reality.
I did not want to upset, anger, or sadden readers. Moreover, I did not want readers to lose respect for characters who are my beloved friends — people I’ve lived with and shared my mind with for nearly ten years.
To prevent that, I seriously considered compromising the artistic vision of this series. At the end of Uprising, I could still have chosen the safest path forward.
But the narrative arc of Alsea Rising doesn’t truly work without completing the plot arcs that began all the way back in The Caphenon. To back away from my vision and avoid controversy would have felt like a different betrayal — mine.
So I made my choice and brought the narrative full circle.
The series begins with a collision of cultures and follows its ramifications through our four main characters: two Alseans and two Gaians. Among the ripple effects are restoration of the divine tyrees, the breaking of Fahla’s covenant (on Ekatya’s advice), and the combination of both in the final battle. Tal’s strategy to fight the Voloth in Alsea Rising was made possible by the changes brought to Alsea via Lhyn and Ekatya. But as we eventually learn, that strategy requires more than Tal expected or planned for.
The Gaians can’t beat this foe alone. The Alseans can’t beat them alone. The two forces working together are far more powerful, and that is represented by our four leads. If you are now thinking “the polyamory is a metaphor?” then you are right—but it is also a natural endpoint.
Over and over again throughout these books, we’ve seen how our four leads help and even save each other. The most important aspect of this has always been the power of their tyree bonds.
Tal mended Ekatya and Lhyn’s relationship at the end of The Caphenon via a three-way Sharing and many more after, which established both her initial tyree bond with Ekatya and a new connection between Ekatya and Lhyn. That new ability saved Lhyn in Catalyst. Salomen’s tyree power saved Tal in her death duel in Without A Front. In Uprising, the power provided by both Salomen and Tal shifted Lhyn and Ekatya’s bond from “something more” to “full divine.” (That is why Lhyn’s attempt to light up the molwyn tree with Ekatya didn’t work in The Caphenon, but did work during their bonding ceremony.) The four of them working together healed Lhyn’s brain damage. And then their powers began to merge…as did their hearts. Without that, certain important events in The Seventh Star could not occur, including a critical rescue.
Some may feel that all of these balanced and ever-increasing powers were equally possible without the polyamory. To my view, attempting that would have been like building a four-legged stool with one leg an inch shorter than the others. (Though I was still tempted — see above reference to subtle clues and an escape route.)
Taking this down from metaphor level to character level, Tal was polyamorous the moment she fell for Salomen. That she didn’t act on her love for Ekatya doesn’t negate the fact that she loved two women. The same held true for Ekatya, though it took her longer to realize it. Leaving these bonds unbalanced would have meant these two women denying a part of themselves for the rest of their lives.
As for Salomen, what single force drives her more than any other? Love for her family. It is completely within her character to embrace a larger-than-normal family and take joy in loving and being loved so deeply. In Without A Front, she told Tal that one of the things she appreciated about their bond was that for once, she knew she was wanted for herself and not her land. To experience that twice is, for her, a true gift. All she needed was the assurance that she was ascendant in one of those bonds.
Lhyn is very like Salomen in that regard, though she comes to it from the opposite direction. She was a child who competed (unsuccessfully, it seems) for parental love and grew into a solitary nomad who didn’t trust romantic love. As she revealed in Uprising, Ekatya’s abandonment broke her trust so badly that she would never have recovered had Tal not initiated that Sharing. It was therefore enormously significant when she told Salomen, “I don’t think your love comes in rations.”
The irony is that Lhyn’s career made her uniquely open to a non-standard relationship, but her distrust of romantic love limited her ability to hold even one heart, let alone two. Salomen’s unwavering nature broke through that.
As an interesting side note, polyamory was present in this series as of the end of Book 3, when Micah confessed to Tal that he had loved her mother — so deeply, in fact, that Tal had to ask him whose daughter she really was. That this was already in Tal’s family history was a significant clue. (It is also another completed circle: Tal succeeded where her mother and adopted father did not.) Intriguingly, readers view that instance of polyamory as tragically romantic and completely noncontroversial. Is this because it was in the past? Perhaps because it wasn’t one of our four leads? I don’t know.
There is one more aspect of these interlaced bonds that I could not cover in the books, because the results won’t play out for some time. For those who read this arc with a sense of sadness and loss, I hope this final reveal will offer a salve.
Without some intervention, Ekatya and Lhyn would die long before Tal and Salomen. We know from the books that Alseans can easily live to 120. Even if Gaians can reach the same number of years, the difference between a standard year and an Alsean cycle means that when an Alsean hits 60 cycles of age—just half their lifespan—a Gaian is nearly 90.
We also know, from a clue glimpsed at the end of Book 3, that Ekatya and Lhyn suspect Tal’s tyree bond has a reverse aging effect. We learn in Alsea Rising that the healing of Lhyn’s brain damage made structural changes in all of them. And we know that sealing a tyree bond — via a two-way Sharing — creates a physiological connection.
In the next few cycles, Dr. Wells will discover that her friends are not aging at the normal Gaian rate. This is not because of their own divine tyree bond. It’s because each of them also holds a tyree bond with an Alsean.
Ekatya and Lhyn will live out extraordinarily long lives with their friends and loved ones, aging at the same rate. And for those who believe in an afterlife…someday, these blended bonds will ensure that four women who loved deeply are never, ever separated.