No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, March 22, 2018

2018/13: Lud-In-The-Mist -- Hope Mirrlees

He knew so well both that sense of emptiness, that drawing in of the senses (like the antennæ of some creature when danger is no longer imminent, but there), so that the physical world vanishes, while you yourself at once swell out to fill its place, and at the same time shrink to a millionth part of your former bulk, turning into a mere organ of suffering without thought and without emotions; he knew also that other phase, when one seems to be flying from days and months, like a stag from its hunters – like the fugitives, on the old tapestry, from the moon. [loc. 521]
I have owned a paperback of this novel for at least fifteen years, but hadn't read it until prompted to do so in advance of the 'Fantastic Read' panel at Follycon. My loss. (Other books discussed on that panel: Swordspoint and Summer in Orcus.)

Published in 1926, this novel has been hailed as a classic of high fantasy. I wonder if Mirrlees would be pleased at its success, or disappointed that her theme of 'life vs art' was ignored in favour of the lush, almost preRaphaelite descriptions of Lud-in-the-Mist.

Lud-in-the-Mist is the capital of Dorimare, a country that borders on Fairyland. Centuries before the events of the novel, the two countries coexisted peacably: then the merchants rose up in revolt, banished their ruler Duke Aubrey (who, rumour has it, fled to Fairyland and lives there too) and forbade mention of anything to do with Fairyland.

But now, it seems, Fairy fruit is being smuggled into Lud-in-the-Mist: and Nathaniel Chanticleer, law-abiding citizen -- indeed, Mayor -- must face up to the uncomfortable truth that both his children (Ranulph and Prunella) have tasted that forbidden produce, and are languishing for want of it. When Ranulph escapes his chaperone and runs away to Fairyland, Nathaniel sets out to rescue him. How fortunate that the young ladies of Miss Crabapple's Academy, lured by their odd new dancing master Professor Wisp, have already skipped away in the same direction: they -- including Nathaniel's own daughter Prunella -- can be returned to the bosoms of their families by some never-detailed action of Nathaniel's. (I am thoroughly unimpressed by Nathaniel's lack of concern for his daughter.)

En route to Fairyland, which is also in some sense the land of the dead (the country people call both Fairies and the dead 'the Silent People), Nathaniel Chanticleer investigates a cold-case murder; uncovers a smuggling racket; and discovers some unexpected truths concerning the disreputable physician Endymion Leer. And returning from Fairyland, he brings reconciliation of a kind that the Dorimarites had, apparently, never considered before.

Lud-in-the-Mist feels like a conservative (or indeed Conservative) idyll of bourgeouis Englishness: its colours are rich (though its inhabitants are homogeneous) and its characters self-satisfied, prosperous and law-abiding. Yet there's this dark underside, the awareness of 'impenetrable shadows' surrounding the small bright places where civilisation reigns: and there is, too, Nathaniel's own underlying melancholy, 'life-sickness', an oversensitivity to 'the figments of his own fancy'. All this against a backdrop of Dionysian 'fairy fruits', the recurring image of fugitives fleeing from the moon, and the memory of lost Duke Aubrey.

Mirrlee's writing reminds me of pre-Raphaelite paintings, jewel-coloured and vivid. There is, too, a certain sardonic tone to some of her descriptions that, had it been more pervasive, I would have found irritating: Mirrlees, though, balances it nicely with gentle amusement at the gentlefolk of Lud-in-the-Mist, and with occasional profundities -- 'There is nothing so dumb as a tree in full leaf' [loc 355] -- which have stayed with me.

I think I'll be returning to this novel again and again.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

2018/12: The Fall of the Kings -- Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman

"...We know, up in the North, we've always known; about the Sacred Grove and the Deer Hunt and the Royal Sacrifice."
"The Royal Sacrifice, or the King's Night Out," drawled Fremont into the silence. "It sounds like a bad play." [p. 147]
Set forty years after The Privilege of the Sword, and about sixty after Swordspoint, this is the story of Theron Campion, posthumous son of the Mad Duke (his parentage is revealed in the short story 'The Death of the Duke), and his love affair with scholar Basil St Cloud, an historian who's interested in the legends of the old kings and their wizards. It's common knowledge that the wizards claimed they were bound by magic to the Land; they chose the kings who would rule; the system was dismantled two centuries ago by the nobles, who saw through the wizards' fraudulent tricks. Even the suggestion that magic might exist is illegal. St Cloud, however, insists on researching primary sources, and what he finds makes him question the consensus.

Meanwhile, the nobles on the Hill are becoming increasingly concerned about rumours of trouble in the North. Can the so-called Companions of the King be anything more than 'an association of young men, young and unmarried, who gather in the woods from time to time to celebrate elaborate rituals that draw equally from local folklore and a youthful taste for mysticism and indiscriminate copulation'? [p. 348] And does Theron's family tree explain their interest in him?

Theron is something of a dilettante, studying at the University until he takes up his duties as Duke Tremontaine: Katherine, the heroine of The Privilege of the Sword, is the current head of the family, and between her benevolent rule and that of Theron's mother Sophia (a surgeon), Theron is allowed to indulge himself. He doesn't reveal his relationship with Basil to his family: Basil, after all, is a commoner, whose father is a tenant farmer on Theron's estates at Highcombe. (Basil can't complain, as he can hardly be open about having an affair with one of his students.) Instead, Theron courts Lady Genevieve Randall, who he thinks might rather like to be Duchess Tremontaine some day.

The Fall of the Kings is much longer, and more richly detailed, than the two preceding books. There are more characters (including more women), and more plot threads: I especially liked the scenes of student life, with claret and eels and arguments about whether the earth revolves around the sun. And I'm especially glad to have read this novel, at last, in its proper place in the sequence, with the weight of backstory behind it. I can see, from Theron's 'outsider' point of view, how Katherine grows up (though I do wonder why she has chosen to remain single) and learn the fate of the Black Rose's child, the utterly splendid Jessica. And it's interesting to see why magic has gone unmentioned in the previous novels -- and how the Tremontaine family have retained their power over the centuries. [I note, too, that the revelations of Tremontaine cast the events of The Fall of the Kings in a different light.]

Now I am more than ready to embarque upon Tremontaine Season 2 ...

Thursday, March 01, 2018

2018/11: The Privilege of the Sword -- Ellen Kushner

"A nobleman of the city brought your poetry's virtue into question — 'Duller than a rainy Tuesday and twice as long' was the way you put it, Bernhard, I believe? A challenge was issued. There was a duel, and the swordsman defending the honor of your verse was defeated."
"But — one man sticking another with a sword cannot change my poetry from good to bad just like that."
"The duel is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Where men's judgment may be called into question, the opinion of the sword always holds fast." [p. 100]
Reread after rereading Swordspoint: my previous review of The Privilege of the Sword, from 2006, is here. That review gives a good summary of the plot: Katherine Talbert goes to stay with the Mad Duke, who is Alec from Swordspoint; is taught sword-fighting by the Duke's reclusive friend; uses her new-found martial skills to avenge a female friend's honour, and her increasing confidence and independence to begin to make her own choices.

Rereading this time around, I found myself noticing the feminist aspects of the novel. Katherine is scornful of the swordsmaster who suggests she might be frightened by the mess and blood of a sword fight: "I am not afraid. I see twice as much blood every month". She dislikes the masculine clothing the Duke asks her to wear, because it shows her body more than she likes. She becomes profoundly aware of the ways in which her society treats women as second-class citizens.

I'm also much more aware of structural and narrative techniques than when I first read The Privilege of the Sword. We see Alec and Richard from an outsider's viewpoint: the great romance of Swordspoint, and how time and society have warped it, and what remains true. Alec, here, has matured into something glittering and powerful and, to be honest, not always very happy: Richard has undergone other changes, but is less altered by them. And I did feel that Alec, for all his delight in affronting society, was not nearly as subversive as his niece Katherine.

Onwards to the third novel in the sequence, The Fall of the Kings: I had never read them in sequence, or without intervening distractions, before ...

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

2018/10: Behind the Scenes at the Museum -- Kate Atkinson

I had thought that when she died it would be like having a weight removed and I would rise up and be free of her, but now I realize that she'll always be here, inside me, and I suppose when I'm least expecting it I'll look in the mirror and see her expression or open my mouth and speak her words. [p. 327]
A rambling, discursive story of four generations of women: Alice, her daughter Nell, Nell's daughter Bunty (short for Berenice); and Bunty's daughter Ruby, the narrator. The novel begins with Ruby's conception in 1951, and progresses in thirteen chapters to 1992: but each chapter has a 'footnote', telling the story of another family member. Sometimes the footnotes mirror what's happening in Ruby's narrative, and sometimes they add context to a name, or an object (a pink glass button, a lucky rabbit's foot, a locket).

The women of the family are prone to flight (Alice, Lillian, Patricia), and tend to regret not running when they have the chance. (None of them really marries for love, at least not the first time around: all of them long for love, even if they don't recognise it.) Each of the four main characters, at some point, believes that she's living the wrong life: this epiphany sometimes arrives as a spiritual or supernatural event, sometimes in more mundane form.

Alice's story begins in 1888: Ruby's ends in 1992. The wider world is relentless: many of the family (especially the men) fall victim to one war or another. But growing up in York, a town where 'the past is so crowded that sometimes it feels as if there's no room for the living', gives Ruby, in particular, an air of disrespect for life and death. Or is this just children (or the children in this novel) in general? Ruby's pragmatic lack of empathy (wondering, for instance, how a dead sibling's Christmas presents will be divided between her and her remaining siblings) was horribly credible.

Bunty is not a good mother. She is unhappy and unloved, and bestows unhappiness and emotional abuse on her daughters. Learning about her past -- and her mother's history, too -- granted me compassion for her. (If only real life came with a crib sheet about one's parents' heartbreaks, disappointments, secret shames and grudges!)

There are so many secrets in Behind the Scenes at the Museum: and secrets, kept, turn toxic. Children are born out of wedlock; die (as do adults) in mysterious circumstances; remember minutiae, forget life-changing events. Atkinson is excellent at seeding the narrative with clues, hints, and coincidences: connections fray and are rewoven, lost children turn towards home, similes foreshadow (or echo) parallels in different lives.

I note that this review is also rambling and discursive. And I've forgotten to mention that this intricately-constructed novel is often very funny (though the humour can be pitch-black), as well as poetic, poignant, and sometimes farcical.

And it makes me want to write a version with the women of my own family. Plenty of gaps to fill: plenty of women running away in search of different selves. Plenty of women surviving.

Monday, February 26, 2018

2018/09: The Buried Giant -- Kazuo Ishiguro

Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest? [p. 323]
It's the Dark Ages: you can tell because there are Britons and Saxons, and the vague memory of King Arthur. But all memories are vague, or non-existent. Beatrice and Axl are an elderly couple who, though they can't remember much about their lives together, suddenly remember that they had a son, and decide to visit him.

Their journey is eventful. After a single day's walking they reach a village which has been attacked by ogres, and meet a Saxon warrior (Wistan) and Edwin, the 'ogre-bitten' boy he saves from the wrath of the villagers. Travelling with Wistan and Edwin, Axl begins to remember fragments of his past. As does Beatrice. There are also monks, pixies, a mysterious Charon-like boatman, an ill-tempered goat, assorted monsters, soldiers both Saxon and Briton, and Sir Gawain.

There's a sense of timelessness about this novel that I found at once captivating and irritating. Who is the narrator, who thinks that 'you, or perhaps your parents' were brought up in roundhouses, and who occasionally waxes philosophical about the mist of forgetfulness that's fallen over everyone?

I liked the dreaminess of the post-Roman landscape, the ruined villas and the desolate passes. Ishiguro's portrayal of Axl and Beatrice, and their faith in and love for one another, is touching. Even for them, though, the return of memory carries risks.

I think I like this book more in hindsight than I did while reading it. The authorial voice annoyed me, and the fantastical elements felt heavy-handed. Some beautiful prose, though.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

2018/08: Wolf Brother -- Michelle Paver

For the first time in his life he was truly alone. He didn't feel part of the Forest any more. He felt as if his world-soul had snapped its link to all other living things: tree and bird, hunter and prey, river and rock. Nothing in the whole world knew how he felt. Nothing wanted to know. [loc. 181]

Ooops, another unintentional reread: though it's been twelve years ... ...
Torak is eleven when his father is slain by a gigantic bear that seems to be possessed by a demon. Torak's last instruction from his father is to seek the Mountain of the World Spirit, and to stay away from men. But even in the New Stone Age (around 4000 BCE) this isn't easy, and Torak makes both friends and foes as he encounters other tribes, and becomes more confident in his quest to defeat the demon-bear. Perhaps his most faithful companion is Wolf, a wolf-cub who Torak rescues and who he finds he can understand.

This doesn't have the sheer horror of Paver's ghost stories (Thin Air and Dark Matter) -- probably just as well, since it's aimed at a younger audience. There is plenty of tension, though, and a plot that evolves satisfactorily: and as Torak discovers his world, so does the reader. An interesting and credible take on prehistoric religion, and on the social structures of early humans.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

2017/07: Hekla's Children -- James Brogden

"... how do you go back to mucking around in your garden with your, your petunias and your water features and whatever, when you know that two hundred and fifty thousand years of darkness is right under your feet, waiting to swallow you up?" [loc 1205]
Nathan Brookes's career as a teacher is ruined when, during an orienteering event in Sutton Park, four teenagers disappear into thin air. Nathan, who'd abandoned them briefly to talk to the colleague he was having an affair with, is blamed -- even when one of the four, Olivia, reappears. But she remembers nothing.
Ten years later Nathan is working as an outdoor pursuits instructor. He's haunted by visions of the three lost teenagers; he's lonely, directionless, messed up. When a body is found in Sutton Park he hopes that it will bring closure: but it's a Bronze Age 'bog body', not one of the missing pupils. Further investigation reveals something strange about the corpse. It seems to have been made up of parts from different people. It may have been a kind of ritual guardian. And one limb shows evidence of something unaccountable.

Like the corpse, this is a novel of different parts. The first half reminded me strongly of Tana French's In The Woods, one of my favourite novels. Then, after a brief, unpleasant discursion into gory Stephen King territory, it becomes more like Robert Holdstock's Lavondyss (another favourite). The author acknowledges a debt to Alan Garner; there are elements, too, of Mark Twain.

I found this a gripping read. It's not poetic or meditative, but it has a twisty plot and a lot of prehistory, anthropology and mythology. The second half of the novel feels rather rushed, as the focus (and the narrative's sympathy) turns away from Nathan and towards another character. But I didn't especially like or empathise with Nathan (though his fate is disproportionate to his actions). Brogden's female characters are interesting and distinct -- especially osteoarchaeologist Tara Doumani, daughter of Lebanese refugees, and Liv the survivor -- and in general more likeable than most of the males.

Note: the Hekla reference in the title refers, not to Mt Hekla's reputation as a gateway to Hell, but to the Hekla 3 eruption, circa 1000 BCE, which may have caused the Bronze Age collapse.