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

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Wolfskin -- Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier's earlier fantasy novels - the Sevenwaters trilogy - have earned her a cult following in the US, but a rather lower profile here in Britain. It's something of a surprise, then, that Tor have chosen her new novel, Wolfskin, as their lead title for the launch of Tor UK.

Wolfskin tells the story of the Viking colonisation of the Orkneys, which is generally believed to have taken place some time before 1000 AD. There are two protagonists: Eyvind, a Viking berserker, and Nessa, a Pictish priestess. Nessa doesn't appear until Eyvind's character is well established, but after that the two viewpoints alternate and intertwine. A man, a woman, a dramatically wild setting: the ingredients for the colonial romance of your choice. But the story isn't that simple, and Juliet Marillier's blend of speculative history and fantastical elements is more effective than many attempts to portray a magical past.

Eyvind grows up in a close-knit Viking community, his sole ambition to be a Wolfskin like his brother. He befriends an outsider - Somerled, awkward younger brother of the nobleman Ulf - and ends up swearing blood-brotherhood to him. Ulf's ambition is to found a new colony on the 'Light Isles': a colony which can then be used as a stepping-stone to the riches (whether traded or raided) of the British mainland. When he sails for the islands, both Somerled and Eyvind accompany him.

Nessa, meanwhile, has been leading a blameless life as a priestess, learning the rituals and becoming more in tune with the natural forces that shape life on the islands. She observes the initial meetings between the Folk and the incomers, and shares her observations with the Christian priest Tadhg.

For a while it seems that the colony might be established peacefully. But then a terrible, apparently ritual, murder sparks violent retribution and threatens a way of life that has existed for time out of mind.
The historical element of the story is credible enough, and this would be an accomplished historical romance if there were nothing else to the story. But this is fantasy, though the magic that underpins the story is subtle rather than spectacular. Eyvind's initiation as a Wolfskin, and Nessa's rituals as priestess, are magical experiences: whether they are objectively real is a different matter. Magic isn't a tool for making things easy, or for breaking natural laws. In part, it's a belief system that is embedded in both Pictish and Viking ways of life: a significance attached to events, actions, places.

This is a novel about ties and bonds: about the natural loyalty that exists, or should exist, between kin, and the loyalty that is manufactured between a Wolfskin and his Jarl, or between blood-brothers. (There's a strong theme of brotherhood: Eyvind's love for his true brother Eirik and his blood-brother Somerled, Somerled's difficult relationship with his own brother). It explores the ways in which women gain power in a male-dominated society, and the choices each individual must make in order to live well.

Eyvind and Somerled, Tadhg and Nessa and Ulf, are all utterly credible characters, embedded in their time and their culture. Somerled is especially fascinating, a man too clever for the culture into which he's born. The meeting of Pict and Viking cultures, a dry historical event, is given a human dimension in Wolfskin's exploration of that encounter's life-changing consequences for all involved.

Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille -- Steven Brust

Thirteen years after its first publication, Steven Brust's most science-fictional novel - Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille - has been reissued by Tor US.

With hindsight it's easy to detect Brust's debt to Roger Zelazny: there's a particularly metaphysical twist to some of his metaphors, and a cavalier disregard for modern English that's reminiscent of Zelazny at his most lavish. But the admiration went both ways: Zelazny's praise of Brust ("He's good. He moves fast. He surprises you.") appears on the cover of this and more recent Brust novels.

And he does surprise you. Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille is a murder mystery, a time-travel whodunit and a love story, with plenty of other ingredients to taste - including a memorable elegy to Laphroiag, and an ingenious use for goats.

The novel's credited to 'Steven Brust, PJF', and Tor would have done well to include Brust's own explanation of the acronym. 'PJF' stands for 'Pre-Joycean Fellowship', a tongue-in-cheek agglomeration of (mainly Minnesotan) writers who, in Brust's words, "exist to poke fun at the excesses of modern literature, while simultaneously mining it for everything of value."

Brust (unsurprisingly) is disingenuous. Billy, who sounds from the photofit as though he bears a marked resemblance to Brust himself, is as unreliable a narrator as you could wish to encounter. The 'Intermezzos' between each chapter, which at first appear to be telling separate, disjointed tales, have an unexpected connection to the primary narrative. And I remain mistrustful of any novel in which a major threat to humanity is described solely in terms of current jokes and references to taboo menu items. (Pancakes and flounders, if you must know).

The science-fictional trappings of the novel are more backdrop than setting: the eponymous restaurant executes a time/space leap whenever atomic war occurs in its vicinity, depositing itself and its inhabitants in a safer place. When the novel opens, the restaurant and its 'crew' - cook, handyman etc, plus an Irish folk band who happened to be playing when the first jump occurred - find themselves on New Quebec, their first trip outside the solar system. Working out why they're there, how they're there and what they're meant to be doing there, is next on the agenda: the process drives a fast-moving, emotional rollercoaster of a plot. The action is punctuated by jam sessions as the band submerge their sorrows in music, in a way that will be familiar to any devotee of early-Nineties North American urban fantasy. (Think de Lint, Emma Bull, Pamela Dean et al). If the music leaves you cold, the cooking might get to you: this is not a novel to be read on an empty stomach!

Brust's light, witty prose sits oddly, at times, with the salvation of humanity and the weighty ethical issues underlying the narrative. Yet - in part due to the emotional honesty of the characters - it carries off Brust's narrative sleight-of-hand with considerable flair. A welcome reissue! (Oh, and Deverra's there: page 94).