Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Book Hungry
March 2007

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
Roc, 2007, Hardcover, 421 pp, $24.95

Come to think of it, if I saw a vision of an entire mountainside soaked in the blood of two hundred thousand people, I'd be a little nauseous too.

For Ned Marriner, however, it's just one of many signals that he's stepped into the middle of a recurring, centuries-spanning, semi-reincarnation of a love triangle -- one that usually ends in a rather lot of killing.

Kay is known for such sprawling epic fantasy series as the Fionavar Tapestry and the Sarantine Mosaic; with Ysabel, he scales way down and brings us to the present day.

We meet Ned, an endearing fifteen-year-old track and cross-country runner, in France with his father, a famous Canadian photographer. When he wanders away from a photoshoot in the middle of an ancient cathedral, he quickly meets Kate, an American exchange student. Even as they become fast friends, they come upon a mysterious man . . . crawling out of a hole in the ground. Not a particularly comfortable sight in itself, the appearance of an ancient knife certainly doesn't give much hope for a happy ending.

This stranger, who turns out to be neither benign nor quite malevolent, is actually one of two warriors battling for the love of Ysabel, a spirit who will take possession of the body of an unlucky woman on the eve of Beltaine. This is the night when the Celts believed that the gates between the living and the dead were open after the sunset, and she will give herself to whichever man is able to track her down at the end of three days. Their story has been played and replayed over and over again as the centuries roll on, with the only difference being which man is able to find her first.

Unfortunately, Ned's father's assistant Melanie is the unlucky woman chosen to be the surrogate. This is as painful for us readers as it is for the characters, because before she is enslaved in her own body, she is made endearingly, heartbreakingly real. When she is lost, we are too; we grieve for her even as she sets off the race between Ned's family and the two warriors, all of them struggling to locate "Ysabel" while keeping the other "teams" ignorant of their attempts.

An entire bookcase full of artsy and angsty introspection couldn't compete with the amount of character revealed in five pages of Kay's tightly-written ensemble sections. As we work with Ned's family and friends through the clues surrounding Ysabel's disappearance, we gradually learn how Celtic and Roman history is still shaping the forces at work around the characters. Indeed, Ned even begins to acquire ancient powers, so that he is able to see visions from the past such as the one of the blood-soaked mountain. Kay makes even the history lessons both relevant and surprisingly entertaining, and the past weaves with the present until they're so entwined that we're hardly aware of where one leaves off and the other begins.

This is no Dan Brown mockery of depth; Kay is the real deal, interposing the bones of a relatively simple historical thriller with both an epic romance and a wrenching family drama. Ned unearths the long-denied connection his family has to the locale and the three resurrected spirits, and in the process simultaneously sets his mother and aunt on the pathway to reconciliation. The inevitable romance between him and Kate is also made fresh with the details of how their personalities connect and fulfil each other -- and thankfully, they actually behave like the awkwardly chaste adolescents they are, rather than the usual mini-adults that populate these sorts of stories.

In fact, that might be the greatest strength of this very strong book; Kay is able to make the experience of the modern day teens, in all their hormonal, Ipod-enhanced youth, as equally compelling as the fantastic elements that crash around them. I also especially liked the fact that Ned's parents were both important and deeply real -- deeply good -- characters, a relative rarity in this genre. The story is as much about them as it is about Ned's maturation from naive youth to thoughtful young man aware of his place in history.

In other words, read this book the first time to race to the end and see how all the strings of the past come together in a powerful climax.

Reread it in order to revel in the depth of the deceptively-simple characterizations Kay gives us with the utter clarity of his prose.

The White Tyger by Paul Park
Tom Doherty Associates, 2007, Hardcover, 304 pp, $25.95

Where do we draw the lines between art, storytelling, theater, religion, politics, war, and the process of growing up?

In Paul Park's fascinating Princess of Roumania series, we see that if there are any lines at all, they are faint indeed.

When we last saw Miranda and Pieter, they were trying to escape the soldiers sent by the inimitable Baroness Ceausescu to capture them. Is it really such a surprise that -- in this third book of a projected four-book series -- they don't quite evade their grasp?

In the Palace of the People, where the Baroness reigns as The White Tyger -- a sort of iconic national figurehead -- Miranda and Pieter are held as de facto prisoners. So, too, is Miranda's real mother, who is brought back from Germany, home of the enemies of Roumania. Aptly named, this book is decidedly the Baroness Ceaucescu's tale, as she manipulates the general populace as easily as her captives. She overshadows everything, so much so that at times the heroes are threatened with being upstaged by their own villain. Pieter, in particular, is somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Nevertheless, a delicate and yet curiously potent melancholy is imbued throughout, an intimate twilight claustrophobia that threatens to suffocate Miranda as she weaves herself into the highest circles of power. We see how the Baroness's life in the arts directly impacts the world of politics and warfare, as she is so drunk on the artistic pretension with which she makes her moral decisions that she becomes reckless with the lives of others. Unlike so many black-and-white villains in fantasy, we come to almost sympathize with her, even as we're repulsed by how personally we can relate to her evil. It's a testament to Park's persuasive power as a writer that -- despite the fact that we know Ceausescu really is a heartless murderer -- we are still lulled into a compliant acceptance of her rationalizations for her own actions, to the point where we nearly fall off the cliff of thinking that because she believes she's doing right, it must objectively be so.

This book is a quirky examination of how the tiny forces of private human nature can start ripples powerful enough to move vast masses of people. It is also an intriguing blend of scientifically-understandable causes mixed with an uneducated response and interpretation of them. Spirituality and radioactivity are nearly interchangeable, the one acting as a metaphor for the other, the bounds between alchemical magic and science blurred.

For instance, a scene set among some charming old ladies that Miranda encounters acts as both an important plot fulcrum hinging on their mystical intuition and an interesting examination of how we model the universe. Where exactly does our understanding of mechanical causation break down, and at what point are we effectively left with what are basically fairytales, explanations of order that we might get on with our lives? Even the most scientific view is still, in the end, a just-so story. The simple language of the women, the simple-seeming questions they ask, they're barely concealing the surging undercurrents of meaning. This is especially obvious when Miranda, with the help of her companion Luda Rat-Tooth, again travels into the Secret World, one of the many competing visions of an "afterlife" she's discovered. Fantastically bizarre juxtapositions of powerful images emerge as we're led through the "real" world and the Secret World simultaneously.

Indeed, the comparisons drawn between Park and Gene Wolfe and John Crowley are quite deserved -- sometimes even to his detriment. Reminiscent of those masters, the clarity of Park's overall plot is sometimes eschewed in favor of powerful individual scenes, though I can't think of a way to really have both at once. Indeed, I think Park does about as good a job as can be done with finding a workable balance between the epic and the intimate.

There are a few extremely minor annoyances -- the common trick of ending a chapter on a cliffhanger, then moving forward in time in the next chapter in order to have the characters "remember" how they got out of the scrape, for instance. Attempts like this at creating more suspense merely make readers more aware that we're reading a story and not experiencing the events. Authorial intrusion of the kind that plays tricks with narrative is largely overrated, in my view, whereas the simpler process of merely telling a tale plainly is largely under-appreciated. Park also has a habit of writing a single line or two of dialogue that defines a character's attitude towards another -- the over-use of the somewhat silly phrase "those uneducated potato-eaters" as a euphemism for the Germans is particularly egregious.

But enough. These are quibbles, and rather petty ones at that. As the plot thickens with languid ease, we're drawn into an utterly absorbing story of dark alchemical magic and deeply personal revelations. We move with the characters as they are forced to grow up, and share in their agony of transformation. Despite the political intrigue and fast-paced adventure scenes, this book is ultimately a bittersweet meditation on how people change and are changed by others. It's a book about the strange metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood, and finding our own stories in the midst of the stories other people force us into.

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
Del Ray Books, 2007, Hardcover, 432 pp, $17.95

Quick! Translate the word "Chosen" into French and then spell it phonetically!

No? Luckily, young Deeba happens to be daydreaming in French class when she realizes that The Shwazzy (as The Chosen One is called by various randomly-encountered crazy people) happens to be none other than her best friend Zanna.

Heck of a thing, to learn that your preordained role in life is to be someone's sidekick.

Then again, after wild animals follow you both around London for a few weeks, and nutters come up to you in cafes as if you're an old friend, and oh yes, a mysterious dark cloud possesses your friend's father and makes him want to run you over with his car, you begin to get the feeling that something unusual just might be going on. The sentient umbrella that leads Zanna and Deeba to a strange new world doesn't even feel particularly out of place after all that.

Welcome to UnLondon, the world where all things "Mildly Obsolete In London" disappear to, sprouting like bizarre mushrooms into a new (and sometimes sentient) existence. Piles of junk on the side of the road don't always have to be picked up by waste management artisans, after all; whatever is thrown away, whatever is out of fashion, whatever is forgotten, might just as easily seep into UnLondon and become part of the local architecture.

If Un Lun Dun seems from the start to concentrate far more on The Chosen One's sidekick than the "hero" herself, that's because we quickly learn that the book of prophecies that predicted her coming was . . . well, not so prophetic. It seems that UnLondon has been hoping for a hero to save them from the vicious self-aware Smog that is threatening to burn the world and feed off the fires. Bit of a blow to the ol' "Faint Glimmer Of Hope" thing when the Smog attacks Zanna so cruelly that she is forced back to London to recuperate.

Seems a sidekick is the best the universe could conjure up for UnLondon, and that's bad news for Deebs.

China Mieville's first book for young adult readers is an absolutely wonderful hodgepodge of engaging weirdness, surreal in gloriously innovative ways that even the most rigorous "adult" fantasy would be hard-pressed to match. He gleefully subverts the usual "Chosen One" storyline with a much more powerful tale of what you can do even if you aren't the official Hope Of The Universe. Which isn't such a surprise, really, seeing as how YA fantasy/sci-fi has always been home to some of the genre's best work. (Eva, anyone?)

Unshackled from the constraints of stodgy adult literature -- the tiresome burden of trying to encode self-consciously "important" meanings into tales -- YA fiction is free to be truly symbolic and important . . . and dangerous. Which is more insidious, the meanings that are so easily-comprehended that they can be consciously separated from the tale itself and vivisected in English Class, or the meanings that creep in, sly and unnoticed, that shape the experience of a seemingly "simple" story and thereby the unconscious worldviews of the readers?

This book is for the students who are even now weeping bitter tears at the sheer absurdity of trying to come up with something valuable to say about whatever their teachers are insisting is deeply symbolically significant about the broken-pickle-dish in Ethan Frome. Because grownups have long since been brow-beaten into submitting to a wary suspicion that any book that concentrates on character and plot must not be very good, they're able to be fooled into thinking that even the thinnest of stories can be Real Literature, so long as the surface gleams with a sheen of clever wordsmithing.

Thankfully, younger readers force the creation of truly interesting stories by simple virtue of the fact that they get mind-numbingly bored if the actual events and meanings are merely excuses to see how prettily an author can manipulate the language. (Remember the New York Times' ridiculous sore-loser creation of a YA bestseller list in response to the horror of such juvenile work as Harry Potter being at the top of the heap for so long? Right, Rowling's high station is "unfair" to non-series adult literature, even though she's the one who's actually writing well enough to get an audience of non-readers to turn to books rather than TV.)

For a few chapters, I was afraid that Un Lun Dun would be one such Book With A Message to foul up the YA section -- that because Mieville was consciously writing for younger readers, he'd dumb it down to the level of propaganda for whatever view he wanted to disguise as fiction. Thankfully, he's learned from writers like Neil Gaiman; the story gets darker and more interesting because it's written for a more demanding audience, not in spite of it. The plot twists come hard and fast as characters in the war against the Smog reveal loyalties and double-double-cross each other.

. . . oh, of course the book is on some level inevitably shaped in part by the author's political views, and I suppose there is in fact a vague "message" buried underneath the fantasy, but it never controls the plot or the absolutely wonderful character sketches of the endearingly strange ensemble of heroes. Indeed, it never even rises above the nebulous level of "Dude, Pollution Is Bad News." I doubt many people need converting to that particular choir anyway, so it's not like the virtually non-existent preaching is particularly annoying.

Because Mieville, in spite of the fact that everyone wants to concentrate so much on his outspoken politics, higher-education credentials, and unsuccessful stand for the British House of Commons, is really mostly interested in the monsters.

My favorites: the carnivorous giraffes (deeply scary if you think about it), the disturbing man who transforms the words he speaks into strange little creatures that fly out of his enormous mouth (and barters with Deeba for new words like "bling" and "diss"), what lies beneath Skool's diving suit and enormous headgear, the vast armies of sentient umbrellas commanded by the Umbrellisimo, the curious little milk carton named Curdle and the rest of Deeba's ragtag team of eccentric UnLondoners, and the Black Windows of Webminster Abbey-- an Escheresque colony of arachnid windows that open into space/time-bending rooms and crawl into each other in an infinitely complex loop as the two warring Popes who have stood guard outside their web for centuries warn people like Deeba's half-ghost companion about the --

Er, come to think of it, you should really just read the book.


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