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

Monday, December 31, 2007

#80: Stella Descending -- Linn Ullmann

From the moment she was born (her mother standing; Stella's first cry an earsplitting wail that struck one of the nurses deaf) Stella's been falling: throughout this novel, which opens with her fall from the roof of an apartment building she doesn't live in, she's falling and falling for ever.

Stella's story is told in -- or rather can be pieced together from -- narratives by her daughter Amanda; her curmudgeonly friend Axel, ninety if he's a day; by Corinne, the detective investigating Stella's death, who claims to be five hundred years old and to be able to smell a murderer; by the three old ladies who witness her fall; by Stella herself, in the form of the video that Martin shot just before she died, which was to have been a catalogue (for insurance purposes) of everything of value in their house.

Martin, her partner (who came into Stella's life by delivering an avocado-green sofa and then refusing to leave; who may or may not have pushed her from the roof), does not have a voice, except when he talks to Corinne.

This is an odd, impressionist book, made up of repetition and angle: the same event seen by different eyes, the same things seen in different places. Stella falling; Amanda constantly playing a Nintendo game in which she falls from world to world; a game in which there's a beast in the forest that eats children's hearts, which may or may not be the same beast that Martin's taking Bea to see in the forest. There's a face in the shawl that they hang over the window to keep out the light of the early northern morning, when neither Stella nor Martin can sleep. They play games; they challenge one another. Stella falls ill, and loses her sense of smell. (This happened to my mother.) Stella's mother wants to become a tree, and only on her deathbed does her stomach rumble, her body betray her with simple human noises. It's a novel full of silence, and falling, and absence. It's a series of impressions, a state of mind that Ullmann brings about: not necessarily a plot, but a situation and a series of events. Stella Descending is a novel where one comes away knowing more about the characters than they've really said.

The prose is lovely and the translation transparent. I suspect this is a book that will blossom with rereading.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

#79: Ilario -- Mary Gentle

Ilario is set in the same alternate history as Ash, about forty years before the events of that epic. It's a world in which the Visigothic city of Carthage is under the Penitence, an eternal darkness of unknown origin; in which Byzantium -- or rather Constantinople; that is to say, New Alexandria -- is the last stronghold, not of the Roman Empire but of the Pharaohs' Egypt; in which the Empty Chair in Rome is a symbol of the cursed papacy, and the schism of Christianity is between Christus Imperator and the Green Christ; in which Gaius Judas is a saint; a world which apparently revolves around Ilario, eponymous narrator of this novel.

I have written before about the difficulties faced by any reviewer tackling a novel narrated by a hermaphrodite. His? Hers? 'Its' is inelegant and, though it might feel right for a narrator who denies or is divorced from their sexuality, it's certainly not right for Ilario. Though the first five pages (which feature the only explicit sex scene in the novel) aren't representative, Ilario is seldom unaware of the sexual attraction -- and the uneasiness -- felt by those around him. Or her. [I'll end up using the male pronoun, I know I will: it carries less baggage in this setting, and I don't like the invented pronouns such as zir and hir.]

One of the major themes of the novel is appearance. Ilario, a painter by vocation who's desperate to learn the New Art of the Italians (perspective, painting only what one sees, et cetera), is well aware of how easily the eye is deceived: aware, too, of how much one can learn about something by looking at it properly. Truthfully. That perceptual laziness of the human brain, though, keeps Ilario alive more than once: people see what they expect to see, and if Ilario is dressed as a young woman then obviously the female pronoun -- and all it implies, in a society where women have no power, no legal existence, no rights -- is to be applied. And if some brawny fellow forgets that Ilario -- lately the King's Freak in the court of Rodrigo Sanguerra's court -- has been trained as a knight, well, it's his own fault if he picks a fight he can't win.

Another theme is the relationships between parents and children. Ilario is fleeing Rosamunda, who gave birth to the 'monster' twenty-five years ago, abandoned the child to die, and doesn't welcome the reappearance of Ilario in her life. Nor does her husband Videric -- who turns out not to be Ilario's father after all -- but he, at least, doesn't go after Ilario with a poisoned dagger. No: he sends Rosamunda to do his dirty work, stirring up some political difficulties that would better have been left to fester.

Ilario ends up on the run, a slave again, though this time his master, an Egyptian eunuch named Rekhmire', is less interested in his abnormalities than his talents. He encounters his father (by far the most likeable character in the novel); gets married; gets married again, on the other side of the bride/groom divide; meets the 'Master of Mainz', a German gentleman with a newfangled invention that'll make seditious publication ever so much easier; encounters Neferet, Egyptian Ambassador and not what she seems; meets the Pharaoh, who only wears a beard for formal occasions; sketches the biggest ship in the world, and its Admiral (who is rather badly lost); and finally achieves a penitence of his own, in a cause that practically everyone (including the reader) notices before Ilario does.

I liked this much more than I liked Ash: possibly it's the focus on arts and science, rather than on matters martial; perhaps a more likeable protagonist (though Ilario exhibits poor impulse control pretty much constantly, and behaves more rashly than a protagonist in a Shakespearean comedy); perhaps because I recognise many more of the historical and ahistorical references now; perhaps because the story feels more rounded, more concluded. And it is a story that depends on its protagonist's dual nature:
If I were a man, I wouldn't know what goes on in the Ladies' Court, and if I were a woman, I wouldn't have any different experiences to make the comparison.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

#78: Pirate Freedom -- Gene Wolfe

... where the hurricanes blow and lean, hard ships snap at the edges of the Spanish Main like wolves around a sheepfold ...

I have a horrible feeling I've missed something very important about Pirate Freedom. Because surely it can't simply be a pirate story with a time-travel framing narrative that allows the protagonist to keep stepping back and telling us that it's not like in the movies.

It is a Gene Wolfe novel, all right. Unreliable narrator? Individual who is not who (s)he seems? Plot like a Mobius strip? Narrative breaks just before something really important happens? Unexpected reappearance of apparently minor characters? All of the above? [Tick]. (Has anyone done a survey of Character-A-revealed-as-Character-B? I have a feeling it's more likely to be females than males, though this may be mostly to do with the majority of Wolfe's protagonists being male.)

If I read Pirate Freedom as a straightforward piratical adventure, it works pretty well. Captain Cris (as he is commonly known) rises through the ranks with precocious speed -- his age isn't given, but he's pretty young at the beginning of his adventures ... or at the beginning of the book, anyway -- and brings a modern sensibility to his career as a freebooter. Slaves are treated humanely, women with respect, underdogs with sympathy, enemies with the cold-blooded ruthlessness that they deserve. Cris falls in love with the beautiful and ferocious Novia (Spanish for 'sweetheart') and becomes fast friends with an English pirate, Captain Burt, who confides the details of his buried treasure.

Meanwhile, the framing narrative ticks along ever so quietly. It's possible to reconstruct events outside the novel; to form a hypothesis about Cris's father's business, and make a stab at identifying the time at which the tale's being told. What we can't guess at is the mechanism; what we can't predict is what happens after the last page.

The simplicity of the narrative is enhanced by the occasional glowing image (ships as wolves) and some very fine, because understated, descriptive passages. It's a rivetting read. But I still have that sense that, if I look at it just right, it'll snap into focus like an optical illusion, and I'll see more.

#77: The Pinhoe Egg -- Diana Wynne Jones

The Pinhoe Egg is set in the world(s) of Chrestomanci, but instead of focusing on Chrestomanci -- a position rather than a person, the title given to a nine-lived enchanter with the responsibility of regulating magic usage in a series of parallel worlds including our own -- this novel deals with the magic users who hide away almost in the shadow of Chrestomanci Castle: the Pinhoes and the Farleighs, and other more shadowy families, who inhabit small country villages and try to avoid being noticed.

Marianne Pinhoe is looking forward to the summer holidays, because she'll have time to work on her story about Princess Irene. Unfortunately, her grandmother -- Gammer Pinhoe, the head of the clan -- has other ideas. Gammer has been acting oddly of late, and the rest of the family suspect she's quite mad. Marianne isn't convinced, though Gammer's escalation of the old feud between Pinhoes and Farleighs is certainly not the work of a sane woman.

Gammer sends Marianne's brother Joe to work, and spy, at Chrestomanci Castle, where he ends up befriending Chrestomanci's son Roger: all well and good as far as Cat Chant is concerned, since it keeps Roger out of his way. Cat's found a huge, ancient egg in Wood House, where Gammer used to live: found it despite a quantity of 'Don't Notice' spells surrounding it. And the thing about eggs -- however well hidden they may be -- is that they hatch.

There's a lot of mayhem, magical and mundane, in this novel: and some of the magic is pretty dark stuff. (Mr Farleigh, the gamekeeper, nails dead animals to the fence as a warning, but there's a nastier purpose too. And hang on, isn't it quite a long time since the Castle needed a gamekeeper? And what happened to Gammer Pinhoe's husband? And why do the roads that lead away from the Castle not lead anywhere?)

There are a few things that niggle about this novel. How old is Cat? He seems very mature, and considerably more confident and assured than in Charmed Life, but I think he's the same age as Roger and Julia, and they behave much more childishly. And is Irene, Jason's wife, any relation to the Princess Irene that Marianne's writing the story about? (She does seem to break the mould, being a young woman -- rather than a girl -- who's a genuinely nice person, and on the right side: others have remarked on the lack of such characters in Jones' books.)

Niggles aside, I enjoyed this very much: there's space for Marianne, Joe and Cat to discover and demonstrate their talents, and the depiction of Gammer's decline is realistically unpleasant and unsentimental. Plenty of elements from fairytale, legend and myth; and I'm fairly sure I detect a general air of homage to E. Nesbit.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

#76: Girl Meets Boy -- Ali Smith

"Let me tell you about when I was a girl, my grandfather says."

Which is a first line to pull me in and keep me reading if ever there was one. I loved The Accidental, and Ali Smith is just as playful here and a sight more light-hearted. The myth she's chosen is Iphis and Ianthe, from Ovid's Metamorphoses: Iphis, a girl-child left out to die, is raised as a boy, falls in love with the beautiful Ianthe, prays to the gods on the night before her -- his -- her wedding, and becomes a man in truth. Plenty of meat there (as it were) for a feminist interpretation, but Smith goes further.

Anthea (named after Anthea Redfern, poor lass) falls instantly in love with an ecological activist named Robin, who is wearing a kilt and defacing the corporate logo outside Anthea's place of work. Robin has the swagger of a girl, she blushes like a boy, she turns boys' heads like a girl, she turns girls' heads like a boy. She reduces Anthea's sister Imogen to speaking, thinking, in parentheses and lacunae -- "(I am sitting in the same room as a )". I'm not sure Imogen ever articulates the word 'lesbian' but that's what Anthea has become. And not just that: she rejects her employers, a multinational corporation who are in the business of bottling water. Anthea is all about fluidity and freedom, and water should be free.

Smith's writing is glorious, playful and fluid and inventive, full of the grand gestures and unlikely juxtapositions of myth: full of transformations and redemptions and change.

#75: The Escapement -- K J Parker

The conclusion to Parker's 'Engineer' trilogy: I've always admired Parker's plotting, encyclopaedic military knowledge and understated humour, but the 'Engineer' books are the first in which the characters have really caught my interest. They are competent and practical, fitted for their roles but capable of improvisation when everything falls apart. They have ambition, humour, hopes and fears. They are human and likeable.

What can I say? K J Parker doesn't do happy endings. Though it could be said that these are happy endings. Marriage! Reinstatement! A long and pampered life! Military supremacy! Vengeance! The comforting knowledge of having been right all along! Everything has worked out just right, in theory. And in practice everyone is fiercely miserable. Apart from the happy dead, of course.
The quickest way to a man's death is through his heart, but if you want to get into his brain ...
Psellus, promoted beyond his competence and struggling to hold onto the Mezentine Empire, is grimly determined to solve the mystery of why Vaatzes committed abomination in the first place, and to find a solution to the real, nasty and million-strong consequence of that abomination. The book starts with the same scene -- the fencing lesson -- as the previous two: it's Psellus's lesson this time, and he learns something different from it, something new.

And everywhere people are musing on the uselessness of honour and the emptiness of revenge. Miel Ducas, courtesy and breeding all but worn away by his partner in crime, but still preferring to be lynched as a highwayman than dishonoured as an aristocrat ("if you weren't a stupid, ignorant low-class woman you'd understand that", he thinks but is still too courteous to say); Vaatzes protesting that "revenge is the last thing on my mind. I never believed in it and I don't want it"; Veatriz considering love, and how it doesn't solve everything, and how only a romantic like the Machiavellian Duke Valens -- who knows the way to any man's heart, except perhaps his own -- would think that it did. "Poor man, he's lived his life thinking that the book closes at the first kiss, and that being in love is like crossing a border, over which they can't follow you. Perhaps he thought love could be starved out with a blockade, or stormed with overwhelming force, once the defences had been undermined."

In The Escapement, lies are layered: the lies about the Mezentine Empire, its foundation, the Specifications that dictate every aspect of life. The lies that two people in love tell one another. The lies that a commander tells his men. The lies that rivals tell one another, the sins of omission; the truths that aren't believed.

There's a great deal of detail about medieval / Renaissance warfare, especially siege warfare, that might choke the reader unaccustomed to Parker's pace. Easier to go with the flow, to see how metaphors are constructed from that material: the illuminating glow of the cold spot in a forging, the perfect ignorant mimicry of an illiterate copyist, the escapement that lets a mechanism work in a controlled way, rather than running free. Pain 'like an army of occupation; a strong garrison in the centre, but elsewhere its control was patchy'. (That's from an incident that befalls Duke Valens, an incident requiring messy and ingenious surgery: it's based, Parker adds in an endnote, on a wound sustained by Henry V at the Battle of Shrewsbury.)

There are some threads that don't seem satisfactorily concluded (Daurenja's past; the founding of the Empire) and some tics that become quite infuriating (characters who are never named). And if a happy ending is required, this is not the book for you. But it's clever and wistful and emphatically practical, marrying philosophy and ethics with the fine art and coarse, bloody science of warfare, and though the resolutions are icy-cold and implacable, it all comes out like clockwork.

#74: Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition -- B. R. Burg

In which Professor Burg sets out the thesis that homosexual behaviour was natural and normal and very much the done thing in Caribbean buccaneer communities around 1700.

The first chapter, 'Sodomy and Public Perception in Seventeenth-Century England', argues that sodomy was not viewed as negatively in Stuart society as it would be later: homosexual characters in plays and broadsheets were more likely figures of fun than stereotypes of wickedness. "Crimes of violence and treasonous plots were common subjects of the penny sheets, but on the rare occasions when they dealt specifically with sodomy it was clear they regarded it as a minor offence within the panoply of evil deeds." (p.33)

Chapter Two, 'To Train Up a Buccaneer', adds that vagabonds and criminals were unlikely to get many opportunities for heterosexual behaviour. Chapter Three, 'The Caribee Isles', presents some statistics about the demographic imbalance in the Caribbean colonies: far fewer women transported than men (though I hadn't previously encountered the argument that women could get out of transportation by pleading pregnancy: I'd thought they were more likely to have a capital sentence commuted to transportation for that reason); those women who emigrated mostly doing so as part of a family; female servants jealously guarded in case pregnancy should curtail their economic usefulness.

Chapter Four, 'Buccaneer Sexuality', and Chapter Five, 'The Buccaneer Community', argue in favour of predominantly homosexual behaviour amongst the pirates, whether bound by emotional and affectionate ties or simply the "homoerotic unity often observed between men in times of hardship, crisis or danger". Burg makes a case for penetrative rather than oral sex -- for reasons of hygiene, class-related mistrust of 'exotic' behaviour, and the pirates having "no need to include in their sexual practice techniques well-suited to furtive encounters." (136) -- and explores pirate nicknames, drinking habits and behaviour towards female captives.

I'd find the theory more credible if I trusted Burg's research a little more. There are minor errors -- for instance,the name of the founder of the Scout movement given as Richard, rather than Robert, Baden-Powell -- that shouldn't have made it into a second edition: there are ... interpretations that are presented as fact. Burg writes of Dampier buying the 'tattooed lad' Jeoly, and of their 'deep attachment': "Ownership of Jeoly had its pleasures but all was not joy for the Captain in the relationship." (123). Jeoly was a man in his thirties, and Dampier wasn't a captain. There's nothing in Dampier's own writing, or that of those who knew him, to support Burg's interpretation.

Burg readily admits there isn't actually much evidence:
...the absence of substantial quantities of documentation for pirate actions does not inhibit research into their intimate lives to any greater degree than would have been the case if more material were available. Still, despite the lack of familiar historical source materials and the total absence of the type of psychological data that has formed the base for much modern research on homosexuality, there remains cause for cheer. The very paucity of information on individuals vitiates many of the conceptual and theoretical problems that have vexed investigators and turned so many of them in directions that produce little but valueless articles. The passage of time and the absence of truly revealing personal records only channels research away from the preferences or general orientation of individual pirates and instead directs it towards the entire pattern of buccaneer homosexual behaviour. (44)
In other words, no tedious facts to get in the way!

I'd be surprised if there wasn't a tendency to homosexual behaviour, at least in the absence of other options, in a substantial portion of buccaneer 'society'. But I'm not convinced it was the norm, or that the majority of pirates were uninterested in women. (Or that 'a pirate forced into a situation of equality with a female would undoubtedly have been as uncomfortable as [if he'd been sitting] down to dinner with the king' (172).)

Monday, December 17, 2007

#73: The Mirador -- Sarah Monette

I read this the day it arrived -- Halloween -- but have been busy on other projects since then, with the result that this blog's out of date; I have quite a few reviews to write and post; and I'm writing about a book that is Ancient History as far as my memories go.

That said, I do remember enjoying it enormously ...

The Mirador is the third of four, and in some ways it feels as though Monette's marking time: we don't yet get to see how these plot threads spin out, in the way that many floating plot elements in Melusine were resolved in The Virtu. This third book introduces a new POV (the redoubtable, and likeably flawed, Mehitabel) and takes some of the focus from the intense relationship between brothers Felix and Mildmay, who spend much of their time trying to avoid one another, not always successfully. It's a chance to see that relationship from the outside, and Mehitabel's perception of Felix is (or becomes) much clearer than Mildmay's ever was. Mind you, Mehitabel's perception of herself is, at times, damningly clear. She's an actress with a string of lovers, a woman who makes no bones about being a social climber. That's simply how things are. And it has to be said that Mehitabel acts more, in the sense of causing things to happen, than either Felix or Mildmay, who tend to react. Which is part of the problem.

The Mirador begins two years after the events of The Virtu, and what I thought was an unforgiveable act turns out not to have been so. Though it hasn't been forgiven, as such: Mildmay is not thinking about it, and he's not-thinking so hard that at times the reader is hard-pressed to remember just how abusive Felix has been.

Mildmay, bored and lonely and with a lot of bad memories to suppress, naturally goes out and finds himself a new intrigue: the case of Guinevere Dawnlight, formerly Jenny, who's been imprisoned for digging up a corpse from the oldest graveyard in Melusine but won't say why. There's also the matter of another grave, deep beneath the Mirador, that can't possibly be the final resting place of the lady named on the plaque: or can it?

It all comes back to Mildmay's former thief-keeper, Kolkhis, and Vey Coruscant, the blood-witch who Mildmay crossed (Melusine) and assassinated (The Virtu). Confronting Kolkhis -- unwithered and unstaled and thoroughly unsavoury -- Mildmay finds himself making some connections, facing up to some unpleasant aspects of his bond with Felix, and not making himself one whit happier.

Felix is thoroughly unpleasant, high-handed and arrogant, yet with a certain breezy style (and disregard for popular opinion) that's oddly endearing. There's one passage where something very bad has happened, and Felix has done something very bad: and we're not quite sure if those two bad things are one and the same. But then each of the POV characters is up to no good in his or her way. Mildmay, thief and assassin, is the most honest and straightforward of the three. Except with himself.

Minor characters from the previous books are fleshed out. Kolkhis; Lord Stephen; his brother Shannon, Felix's ex. The entire novel is set within Melusine -- largely within the Mirador, that vast windowless fortress-court -- or within a stone's throw of the city walls. That probably contributes to the sense of claustrophobia.

I don't want to explore the plot in too much detail: I'd rather think about the setting. The Mirador, with its improbable coincidences, its ghosts and tombs and intrigues, is like a knot, like a maze: mazes are important here, and Mildmay's gift for finding his way anywhere (almost anywhere: "only ever gotten lost once in my whole life, and there's a couple different ways that wasn't my fault") is certain to come to the fore again. I want to see how that unravels. I want more of the legend of Heth-Eskaladen, the librarian-god whose descent to Hell is commemorated by the Trials every four years, a Lower City festival strong on mazes. I want more about Malkar: where he came from, just how many times he pulled that trick of his, and why Felix, turning up the card of the Dog in his Sybilline reading, seems to have forgotten that when he was mad he saw Malkar as a dog-headed monster. I want more about the distinction between noirant and clairant magics, and how they're different from simplistic Bad and Good. (Noirant is "the magic of labyrinths, of things that are tangled and lost and dark".)

'I want' never got. But Corambis, last in the series, is due in 2009.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

#72: 100 Great Short Short Fantasy Stories -- Isaac Asimov (ed)

Following 100 Great Short Short Science Fiction Stories, this should really have been entitled Another Hundred Great &co: the majority of the stories collected here -- by authors from Asimov himself to Zelazny (a master of the very short genre story) -- seem more easily categorised as SF or horror than as fantasy. I did start tabulating themes (pacts with the Devil or his minions; 'three wishes'; ghosts; vampires, werewolves and that ilk; alt history ...) but was distracted by some of the puns I encountered herein. Even without quantitative data, though, I'd maintain that the majority of these stories aren't strictly 'fantasy' in the contemporary sense. And I'd also like to point out that presenting the stories in alphabetical order by title means that similar tales may be clumped together, to their detriment. When it comes to an anthology, contrast is good.('The Third Wish' followed by 'Those Three Wishes'; 'Deal with the D. E. V. I. L.' by 'The Devil finds Work'.)

The stories collected here were published between 1940 ('The Haters' by Donald Wollheim) and 1984 (several stories including 'Vernon's Dragon' by John Gregory Bettancourt: this anthology's copyright date is 1984). It's a whirlwind tour of the (primarily) American short-fiction market over that period, from the ancient horrors of Lovecraft to the psychological nasties of the sixties to the smaller apocalypses and stranger worlds of the eighties.

It is perfectly possibly to write a neat, well-formed story in a thousand words or less, and many of these authors manage it. James Gunn's 'Feeding Time' will stick in my head (and is proof that there's room, even in a story this short, for pacing and suspense). I'd read Wollheim's 'Rag Thing' long ago, not remembering title or author: the story's stood the test of time. There are clever stories, wry stories, stories that are deeply surreal (Raylyn Moore's 'Getting Back to Before It Began', about a bus ride to the end of everything, to where there are no names for places ...) and stories with the simplicity of a fairytale (Jane Yolen's 'The Lady and the Merman' is a bittersweet delight, wonderfully visual and melancholy).

There are also quite a few stories that exist to support a pun or a one-liner (not my thing, but fine in moderation), or to explore a hitherto-murky aspect of a classic story -- literary fanfiction, if you like, where a crewman from the Flying Dutchman makes his escape and is rescued by the Marie Celeste; where the ghosts from Hamlet plot together to ruin everyone else's stories; where God welcomes Adam and Eve's rebellion. One thing that does strike me about these stories is the sense of fun -- that these are tales their authors produced for the hell of it, because they wanted to, because the idea suddenly popped fully-formed into the writer's head.

A good anthology to dip into, but be prepared to groan at some of the really dreadful puns.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

#71: The Virtu -- Sarah Monette

What hooked me into reading this more or less as soon as it arrived in the post was the prospect of seeing Felix (who spent most of Mélusine mad) in a state of sanity. Kethe's blessing (as Mildmay would say): what you asked for but not what you wanted. Felix is sharp enough to cut diamond, arrogant, insensitive and vain, a very Romantic hero, very Byronic and intrinsically, perhaps irrevocably, damaged.

Actually I rather like him. Though not nearly as much as he likes himself.

I've read elsewhere that Mélusine and The Virtu were originally conceived as a single novel: if so, the structure (and the rather episodic feel of Mélusine) make much more sense. The structure of The Virtu, and the physical journey that Felix and Mildmay undertake, is a mirror of the previous novel -- though both men are changed by what they've experienced, the ordeals they've undergone, and by Mildmay's solution to the situation he left behind in the city of Mélusine. (A solution that could hardly be signalled more strongly in the earlier book, but still surprises, because Mildmay, even as narrator, isn't in the habit of telling anyone more than a quarter of what he thinks.)

As before, the most fascinating aspect of the plot is the interaction between the two. There's Felix's growing respect for Mildmay ("he'd simply taken a short-cut through the conversation I'd anticipated having and reached the finish line ahead of me. I'd known he was much smarter than he seemed, but I hadn't appreciated before how quick he was"). There's Mildmay's need to hold onto, stay with Felix (quite different from the cult of Felix he observes in others, which gives us an external yardstick for Felix's charisma). There are all the things they have in common (both damaged by physical and psychological abuse when younger, but Felix is far readier to blame those responsible for the way he is, while Mildmay internalises, thinks he deserved everything, and seldom makes explicit connection between his past and his character), and all the ways in which they complement one another (Felix has little sense of direction; Mildmay doesn't get lost, even in mazes).

And it's hard not to like a character named Mehitabel, even if she speaks normally (formally, even) and is not given to saying wotthehell*. For one thing, she calls Felix 'sunshine' and completely fails to fall under his spell. Perhaps one day she will give him the resounding slap he deserves. Go Mehitabel!

One thing that really did strike me about this novel -- though I hadn't consciously made the connection with Mélusine -- was how well it fits the 'fantasy of manners' subgenre, as originally suggested by Don Keller long long ago in a galaxy far far away NYRSF. (Now butterfly-me has spent a while googling the original article: no joy, but there are good write-ups of a couple of Readercon panels.) Urban setting? Yep, once they get back to Mélusine. Elaborate social structure? Yes, and then some. (Thrown into relief by Felix and Mildmay coming from very different levels of said structure.) Protagonists pitted against their peers? More so than against any external Blight, for sure. "Duels may be fought," says Wikipedia, "but the chief weapons are wit and intrigue." Spot on. (I found myself thinking about fantasy tropes that aren't featured here, and one of those is swordplay: neither protagonist uses, nor wishes to use, a sword. Bernard uses a sword, but even Mildmay thinks he's a thug.)

Which is not to say there's no plot. I am intrigued by several elements of same: the mazes and labyrinths that recur, and are key; the Sibylline, a local variant of the Tarot with some extra cards and a Major Arcana that's congruent but distinctly not ours; obligations, d'âme and du sang, and how they might be broken; memory and forgetfulness, which is all I'm saying about the ending.

Oh, there's a very definite ending to one arc of the story -- and, I thought but was mistaken, to another arc (because I thought something was not forgivable, but underestimated a bond) -- there are elements that are left ready to be drawn back into the weave, in the third or even fourth book of the series. And there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no happy endings. Just broken people, afraid of but craving intimacy, afraid of what's broken and wanting to mend it.

*yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell

#70: Dream Angus -- Alexander McCall Smith

Another in the Canongate Myth series (in which mainstream authors tackle classic myths, with mixed results): this is the first work I've read by the author, despite his near-constant presence on the bestseller lists. His style is deceptively simple, and his approach -- a kind of Impressionist melange of simple retelling and contemporary echo -- suits his subject, the Celtic god of love and dreams, very well, though it has a vague unfinished feel like a dream fading at waking.

Angus's father is the Dagda, ruler of the Celtic pantheon, cunning and paranoid and fickle as Zeus. The Dagda banishes Angus after one of those nasty prophetic dreams: Angus is raised by a foster-father, and grows up gentle and peaceful, loved by his foster-family, inspiring dreams of romance in the young women he meets, drawing songbirds to him as he sleeps, calming the fiercest hound by his presence.

Angus's story weaves through others: the tale of Jamie and Davie, two brothers in Depression-gloomy 1930s Scotland, inseparable until Davie's invited to seek his fortune in Canada, which development devastates Jamie 'til he's sent a dream of dark trees and snow and knows, somehow, that Davie will still be there for him in the dream-world. The tale of Pig Twenty, a genetically-modified pig bred for medical reasons, and the gentle unambitious keeper who wants to rescue him -- and of the secretary who falls in love with the pig-keeper, against all inclination but with a joyful recognition of something that's right. The tale of two honeymooners, a man with a secret and a woman who dreams of it. Of a son who finds out that his father is not his father. A wife who walks out on her husband and seeks therapy. Brothers, secrets, childhood, the sound of birdsong.

McCall quotes Auden in his introduction: "Angus puts us in touch with our dreams - those entities which Auden described so beautifully in his Freud poem as the creatures of the night that are waiting for us, that need our recognition." I hadn't encountered that phrase before: I like the way it made each dream a vulnerable entity rather than a divine messenger or a symptom of some inner sickness. But are the dreams characters in and of themselves, separate and distinct from the god who bestows them? From these stories, I'd call the dreams gifts rather than entities: blessings given, not something born.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

#69: Natural Flights of the Human Mind -- Clare Morrall

Pete Straker lives, hermit-like and apparently impoverished, in a lighthouse on the north coast of Devon. He is haunted by the ghosts of those whose death he caused.

Imogen Doody (known as Doody), a school caretaker with an interesting and painful past, has just inherited a run-down cottage in the nearby village. She is not practically-minded: but Straker is ...

I have surprisingly little to say about this novel. I did find it very readable, and the pacing was masterful. Straker and Doody are not especially likeable characters, but they're sympathetically written and there's never a sense that the author has dismissed them in the way that others have. There are some glorious passages describing the coast -- ribbons of kelp, grey light, the sun coming up over the sea. And the patchwork of memory, rumour and dreams (I suspect the reader ends up knowing more about what really happened, what Pete Straker made happen, than anyone in the novel) is carefully and compassionately constructed.

A thought-provoking novel about grief, mourning, guilt and redemption, about overwriting and crossing out the past, about escape and reinvention; also, incidentally, about the creative process (is Morrall mocking Doody or herself when she pokes quiet fun at the half-finished novels in exercise books?). It's a good read, and I don't think it's the book to blame for my lack of response to it.

#68: Brethren: Raised by Wolves, vol. 1 -- W. A. Hoffman

First instalment of the 'Raised by Wolves' series, Brethren is a gay pirate romance: and like many romances it focuses on the emotional aspects of the plot to the detriment of the rest.

The novel's set in the 1660s. The Viscount of Marsdale ('duellist and libertine' it says here), down on his luck in Florence, returns to the family seat in England and is promptly packed off to Jamaica to set up a sugar plantation. Once in Port Royal, he finds the buccaneers -- the Brethren of the Coast -- far more congenial (and profitable) company than the other planters (and much more accepting of his preference for male lovers). Marsdale, now going by the name of Will, meets Gaston, a handsome Frenchman with a mysterious past, and ends up pledging matelotage to him. The two sail on the North Wind and pillage and plunder and rifle and loot. And so on.

I was hoping to like this novel rather more than I did. It's probably unfair to read a swashbuckling romance with a beady eye for historical detail -- and a great deal of the detail is accurate and well-researched, even if the novel occasionally makes heavy weather of that research -- but my sense of period took a serious knock when someone rode to Brighton in 1667, and another when they went to the docks there. (It's a fair assumption that a South Coast town would have docks, but in this case wrong: Brighton, as can be seen from old maps, simply didn't exist in 1667, though there may have already been an unfashionable and unremarkable fishing village named Brighthelmstone.)

The novel could do with a serious edit, not only for things like repetition and poor word choice (one expiates, not expurgates, one's guilt) but to even out the balance of plot and background, and to make the dialogue pacier and less reliant on attempts to transcribe dialogue and verbal tics.

Given all that, I do want to find out what happens, and how various plot threads are resolved. (Will Will ever return to England and his title? Will Gaston's morbid habits be 'cured'? Will the plantation prosper? Will the wicked cousin get his just desserts? Will there ever be hot sex?) However, the Raised by Wolves series is self-published, and the cost of the paperback is almost double what I'd expect to pay for a good-quality hardcover novel. Unless I find the other books second-hand, I suspect I'll never know how things work out.

#67: Melusine -- Sarah Monette

[I'm having a huge problem writing this review, because every time I pick up the book to check a name or remind myself of a plot point, I find myself reading another chapter or two. And The Mirador, third in the sequence, is imminent, if Amazon's delivery estimate is to be believed ...]

Mélusine (a place, not a person, despite my initial assumption that it'd feature a serpent-woman) has two first-person narrators: Felix Harrowgate, a court sorcerer, and Mildmay the Fox, a cat burglar and assassin. Both are intriguing characters, but where the novel really takes off, for me, is when the two meet.

That encounter isn't as straightforward and predictable as it might be in a typical quest fantasy with its carefully randomised selection of characters from Central Casting; but Mélusine is not, in any way that matters, a typical fantasy. Both Felix (whose persona of aristocratic magician is deliberately shattered in the first few pages) and Mildmay (who might conform more closely to the 'lovable thief' archetype if his voice wasn't so distinctive, and his doubts less internalised) have unpleasant secrets in their pasts. That they are secrets until Monette chooses to reveal them -- without there being any sense of gaping voids in plot or characterisation -- is assurance enough that we're in safe hands.

Felix is used as a weapon and sent mad by it: Mildmay, meanwhile, falls in with a shopgirl with aspirations named Ginevra, and ends up crossing some people it'd be best not to cross. Both Felix and Mildmay end up leaving Mélusine for their health: Felix disturbingly, vividly, credibly insane and prone to seeing animal-headed monsters; Mildmay in the company of a crippled sorcerer and his unsociable henchman Bernard. Also, there's the slight matter of the fire consuming the city ...

Given the title of the novel, it's surprising that so much of the action happens after the characters have, effectively, exiled themselves from the city. Mélusine is a richly-detailed metropolis, saved from sprawling by immense walls, where cathedrals soar above dark and nasty alleyways; where multiple gods, saints and darker entities are worshipped or placated; where two calendars are used; where ghosts and ghouls are physical dangers after dark, or in the wrong place; where there are more 'wrong places' than one might expect. This is not our world, but the names of streets and suburbs have familiar echoes: Rue St. Bonamy, Plaza del'Archimago, Catacombes des Arcanes. The history that Felix and Mildmay know (which Monette surely knows in extravagant detail, though it's referenced only in passing) mentions Troians, Kekropians, Merrows. And, incidentally, there are alligators (as well as nastier things) in the swamps.

All of which inclines me to view this as a very American fantasy, with a melting-pot of cultures and history and a certain flexibility about social class (Felix goes slumming; Mildmay, while not a habitue of the Mirador, is perfectly capable of scrubbing up nice and being bored in middle-class bars.)

There are flaws. At points (especially, but not exclusively, before Felix and Mildmay meet) the plot seems somewhat episodic: a trial is overcome, and along comes another trial. Later, some of these events do join up and assume greater significance. Not all of them, though, so the effect is occasionally of a series of swashbuckling episodes adrift on a dark and roiling sea of myth, metaphor and magic.

And that episodic feel leads me nicely to another kind of flaw, which is that it wasn't at all clear that Mélusine was first in a series -- a series, in fact, in which the second novel (The Virtu) leads on more or less directly from its antecedent. Having come late to Mélusine , I picked up an edition with the first chapter of The Virtu as endmatter: it would have been extremely frustrating if the novel had just stopped without indication of more.

This review might be rather longer if The Mirador (third in the series) had not just arrived. Which should give you an indication of just how hooked I am.

#66: The Shining Company -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Set around 600AD -- long enough after the departure of the Romans for their presence to be a folk-memory, yet with Roman ruins still inhabited and Artos the Bear (Sutcliff's portrayal of the historical King Arthur, in The Lantern Bearers) still a hero -- The Shining Company recounts the tale of three hundred warriors who make a last valiant stand against the Saxons.

The story is a retelling of 'The Gododdin', the first surviving North British poem, written (or at least created) by the bard Aneirin. Sutcliff tells the tale from the point of view of Prosper, the second son of a minor chieftain, whose quiet life alters course on the day that Prince Gorthyn arrives to hunt a magical white hart that roams the Welsh hills.

A couple of years later, when he's grown to manhood, Prosper, along with his bondsman (and friend) Conn, answers Gorthyn's summons to train as a warrior (not one of the three hundred, but a shield-bearer and backup) in King Mynyddog's army. Conn, meanwhile, finds himself drawn to the smithy: as a bondsman he can't train to be a smith, because smiths are free men and such training would grant him his freedom: but Prosper counts friendship more important than slavery, and Conn learns his trade with Prosper's blessing.

What I love about this novel is what I've always loved about Sutcliff's writing -- the detail, the sense of real people living, feeling, acting in famiiar ways, in a recognisable setting and a distinctly remote time. There are familiar moments: the sour taste of beer to one accustomed to wine, the smell of green wood burning, the thickening of the evening light. And there's the wider world in which these characters move: Prosper studying Latin and being aware of the Greek classics, in particular the tale of the three hundred Spartans; his fascination with the 'archangel dagger' that he's shown by a trader, who tells him that it was the cherished possession of an Emperor's bodyguard, and speaks to him of Byzantium. And because the framing narrative -- present in only the lightest of allusions -- is of an old man looking back on his life, that wider world has more significance to the reader than to the young Prosper.

The Shining Company is far from the best of Sutcliff's novels: I think it may have been her last. But it brings the period to life, and peoples it with characters more real and credibly flawed than most.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

#65: Orphan of Creation -- Roger McBride Allen

I read this novel soon after it was published (1988) and remembered one aspect of it very well, and other aspects not at all. Title and author eluded me for years, until some random googling turned up a reference that led me, in turn, to a discussion of the book. And that's ironic, because one of the things that really struck me is how dated the setting feels. I don't mean that there's anything wrong with it: the blurb mentions 'the day after tomorrow', and it's pretty clearly set in the mid-to-late Eighties. It seems odd, though, to read of scientists who don't have access to their own computers; of research done entirely in libraries, of people being out of touch because away from their telephones ...

The story is deceptively simple. Dr Barbara Marchando, an American paleoanthropologist, stumbles upon an intriguing rumour whilst visiting the family home. Her ancestor, Zebulon Jones, was born a slave but ended up owning the estate and having slaves of his own -- but it sounds to Barbara as though the 'slaves' purchased by Jones might've been gorillas. Maxing out her credit card and enlisting her young cousin Livingstone, she begins to excavate the area where she suspects the bodies might have been interred ... and finds something that nobody could have expected. "Doctor Marchando discovered a burial site, approximately one hundred and thirty seven years old, in which no less than five extremely well-preserved and complete specimens of the genus Australopithecus were found."

Cue scientific uproar, with some thoughtful (and still timely) vignettes concerning Creationists, cryptozoologists and the whole issue of slavery. The australopithecines were slaves, but was that somehow better than humans being slaves? And what is a human being, anyway?

The answer that Barbara finds to that question is what stayed with me. Revisiting it many years later, I still think it's what makes this book something out of the ordinary. I'm less sympathetic to Barbara, though, and I have more sympathy for the unwilling accomplices to her plan -- who don't really get a say in the matter, and whose futures are left as an exercise for the reader.

Another thing about this book: I did find the writing pretty clunky in places, and there were passages I would have edited down (Barbara's early experiences with hamster-burial). But science fiction is the literature of ideas -- and in this case, though the literature wasn't as literary as I've come to expect, the ideas were enough to keep me reading and draw me in.

#64: Fludd -- Hilary Mantel

From the doorsteps the women stared at passers-by, and laughed. They knew a joke, when it was pointed out to them, but for the most part their entertainment lay in the discernment of physical peculiarities in those around them ... They did not think it was cruel to mock the afflicted, they thought it was perfectly natural; they were sentimental but pitiless, very scathing and unforgiving about any abberation, deviation, eccentricity or piece of originality. There was a spirit abroad in the village that discriminated so thoroughly against pretension that it also discriminated against ambition, even against literacy. (p.14)
Fludd is set in a fictitious village in the north of England, in the 1950s. Hilary Mantel's portrait of village life, blackly comic and quietly mocking, would have hooked me even if the novel had had no plot at all. And it does have plot: I'm still thinking it through.

The novel opens with a description of Sebastiano del Piombo's 'The Raising of Lazarus' (left), which doesn't seem especially relevant. Then the story itself begins, with the Bishop's visit to Father Angwin, bidding him to remove the saints' statues from the church. (I fear that the priest's household, with the eternally curious housekeeper Agnes Dempsey, reminded me irresistably of Father Ted. But not in a bad way.) Father Angwin is prone to muttering insults under his breath, but gets away with it: still, the saints have to be removed, and he enlists the help of the villagers to bury them in the churchyard.

Then a visitor arrives: Fludd, a curate whom Father Angwin takes to be the bishop's man. Nevertheless he warms to his visitor, confessing his crisis of faith -- and his belief that McEvoy, the tobacconist in Netherhoughton (the hamlet up the road, where the people have some very odd habits), is the Devil incarnate.
'How did you know him?'
'It was his smile ... his horrible jauntiness ... the little tune he whistled.'
'Anything else?'
'Perhaps the smell of sulphur. It stank out the afternoon.'
'Sulphur,' said Fludd, 'mey be taken as definitive.

Quietly and smoothly, without any fuss, things begin to change. (There's a whisper in the back of Agnes' mind, 'and only he could have put it there. I have come to transform you. Transformation is my business.') Even when we're granted Fludd's point of view, we know little more about him or his mission. There are, it must be said, several oddities about Fludd. Father Angwin's whisky bottle never empties when he's drinking with the curate; Fludd, refusing to read Sister Philomena's hand, nevertheless knows a great deal about palmistry; visiting Netherhoughton, he instantly recognises 'the lively signs of alchemy: the black hens scratching in the small back-plots, and the nine-runged ladder, the scala philosophorum, leaning casually against a wall'; and some of the changes he effects don't seem at all Christian.

The book ends with a description of another painting, Borgognone's 'Virgin and Child' (right): Mantel draws our attention to the 'near-smirk on her dimpled mouth'. And I think that near-smirk stands for the most significant of Fludd's changes; but I am still thinking through the implications and consequences of his time in the village, and his departure. And of the final appearance of McEvoy, the tobacconist ...

I enjoyed this ever so much, though it's really quite a bleak novel: hope and love and rescue, all right, but so little can be saved.

#63: Spanish Steps -- Tim Moore

In which Tim Moore, author of Do Not Pass Go, does the Camino de Santiago -- a pilgrimage from St Jean Pied-de-Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) west to Santiago de Compostela -- in the company of Shinto, a donkey. Neither is driven by any religious fervour. Moore seems to be having a very mild and wholesome mid-life crisis (hitting forty, wife and three children, a while since the last bestseller) and Shinto is the beast of burden, acquired when Moore decides that lugging his own luggage is a mug's game.

The fine art of the pilgrimage having declined somewhat since its medieval heyday (explored in well-researched, pertinent and entertaining asides that never overwhelm the basic narrative), you might think that Moore was basically in for a solitary trip. Far from it. He meets pilgrims from all over the world, with varying degrees of faith, dedication and stamina -- not to mention eccentricity. "One thing was certain. Doing this walk never made anyone less weird."

Moore has an excellent ear for accents (for instance, the woman who's wandering around aimlessly after having encountered a fellow traveller with a huge joy, which she has smocked) and is not afraid to reinforce national stereotypes. But he's also ready to mock himself, and to own up to the unsentimental feelings inspired by Shinto, who has a horror of crossing wooden bridges and an apparent determination to make life as difficult as possible. But as the journey progresses (more than 500 miles; more or less a million steps) Moore becomes fonder of Shinto, and their final parting is remarkably, understatedly, affecting.

Which all sounds serious, and it's a book that made me laugh out loud.

And did the pilgrimage have any effect?
I had learnt to be more patient and less fastidious, to cope when many of the basic decencies of modern life were absent, to relish them when they weren't. I had made sense of a complex world by appreciating the humble solidarities of the past; learnt the true value of water; acquired a Dark Ages lexicon of livestock feed and disease. I had learnt to accept, even befriend people I'd previously have dismissed with a cheap and ugly laugh: brittle-spirited mystics, policewomen, Austrians.

Friday, October 12, 2007

#62: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax -- Liz Jensen

I'm not most kids. I'm Louis Drax. Stuff happens to me that shouldn't happen, like going on a picnic where you drown. Just ask my maman ...
Louis Drax is French, accident-prone, fond of reading, very intelligent, and in therapy for some behavourial problems. On his ninth birthday, his parents take him on a picnic. By nightfall, his father is missing, his mother is hysterical and Louis himself has been pronounced dead.

Which makes his narration of half of this novel slightly spooky.

Louis (unaccountably still alive, or alive again, though it's impossible to rouse him from his coma) starts off with a potted history of his short but fraight life. Falling in front of the metro, cot death, salmonella and tetanus and botulism, a dynasty of hamsters all named Mohammed ... There's a hint that not all Mohammeds have died a natural death: "you can drop something heavy on him, like volume three of the encyclopédie medicale or Harry Potter et l'Ordre du Phénix. Just as long as you don't make a mess". As his mother Nathalie says, "If you were a cat, Louis, you'd have used up eight of your lives by now. One for each year. We can't go on like this."

She's probably crying. Boys shouldn't make their mamans cry, repeats Louis.

Hence Fat Perez, the psychiatrist, who has his hands full with Louis, who is an exceptionally convincing eight-year-old boy, with a voracious enthusiasm for weird facts, spit, blood, rude names for people and complete contempt for stupid adults. Fat Perez doesn't seem to make much progress, but then Louis is a difficult child.

Cue the second narrator, Dr Dannachet, who takes over Louis' case at his clinic in Provence. A married man, he nevertheless finds himself attracted to Natalie, Louis' mother, and when it seems as though Louis' father -- still apparently on the run -- is a threat to Natalie, Dr Dannachet promises to protect her.

Only gradually (and extremely unwillingly) does he begin to question her account of events at the picnic.

Louis is in the dark, but he's not alone. The ghoulish figure of Gustave -- whose head is wrapped in bloody bandages -- addresses him as 'Young Sir' and shows more interest and understanding of Louis and his predicament than anyone else ... well, anyone outside Louis's head. And Gustave, in the end, makes the difference to Louis.

Some parts of the novel (Dannachet's home life, Perez' reaction to Louis' 'accident', Natalie's past) seem almost too lightly sketched, but there's enough solid meat there to support the story. It's a story of many layers: an attempted-murder mystery; a child's interpretation of overheard, half-understood accusations; a doctor's willingness to take a chance that could ruin him professionally; a ghoulish tale of life inside Louis' head. And it's a difficult novel to write about because unpicking even one of those layers would reveal too much about the rest. I did feel, though, that it was a more tightly-plotted, less rambling novel than the more recent My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time.

"If you make a choice, and it's wrong," says Nathalie, "you have to live with it. Everyone has to live with the consequences."

Apparently the film rights have already been snapped up, and it's to be directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient I wonder if it'll get a UK release?

#61: To All Appearances a Lady -- Marilyn Bowering

Bowering's first novel, To All Appearances a Lady, is set on the west coast of Canada in 1957 -- though many of the key events occur in the late 19th century, recounted to protagonist Robert Lam by the ghost of Lam Fan, his recently-deceased Chinese stepmother.
I think about what Lam Fan has said about how we came here -- by following the whaling ships. As if their well-worn routes from the open sea through the islands were like a path through the woods: trodden down and flattened, worn to bedrock ... Have both sea and land a record to keep? Do ship lanes and whale migrations and the blood trails left by the sea ravages of men -- just like roadways and railways -- tie strings of traffic round Mother Earth herself? ... It makes a sort of sense, I suppose, at least to a ghost. Who need not concern herself with what is now and what is past. It is all one line she treads.

Lam (half-Chinese, he goes by the name 'Lamb' to ease his way as a pilot in the close-knit and occasionally xenophobic maritime community) is a complex character. The novel is the story of his last voyage in the Rose: a trip up the coast to where the whales are, a trip which becomes a voyage of self-discovery, fuelled by Lam Fan's slow revelations about his parents, and his step-parents. Fan's ghost, a tiny frail Chinese lady deprived of her habitual opium (not to mention her life) and spiky and restless as a result, tells a richly-detailed story: should Lam doubt her tale, the briefcase of family documents which he discovered after her death is more concrete evidence.

Robert Lam's mother, India Thackery, was an idealistic reformer who emigrated from Hong Kong after her father's death, accompanied only by Lam Fan -- the abandoned daughter of the baker who, in 1857, tried to poison the white community with arsenic. Arriving in Vancouver Island, the two women found a community bubbling with unrest and conflict: a melting-pot of cultures and races where India's good works were drops in the ocean. She persevered, and found employment as a bookkeeper ... in an opium factory. (I hadn't realised that opium, or at least its production, was legal in Canada until 1908. The economy of the Chinese community seems dependent upon it, as employment and solace.)

Whilst doing good deeds, India became acquainted with a drifter, Robert Louis Haack, who carried as talisman a letter from the author Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he'd met in California before coming north. Falling in love with India, Haack developed ambitions to better himself: but his schemes went awry and he ended up imprisoned, unable to rescue India when the opium factory was robbed and she was abducted. Considering how many toes India'd stepped on, and how little protection she had, the thieves were pretty merciful: they marooned her on an island off the coast -- D'Arcy Island, home to a community of Chinese lepers.

And there she stayed 'til Haack, released from gaol, came for her, married her, and abandoned her after a single day.

The title is taken from a report into India's death: she drowned, and Robert Lam has never been quite sure of the circumstances. Fan, used to keeping her secrets close, reveals them only slowly: reveals the truth about Lam's parents, and her own involvement in their lives, last of all. But by then there are other proofs to convince Lam of what really happened on D'Arcy Island at the turn of the century. Proofs that, despite his unwillingness to accept them (unlike the ghost of Fan, whose company he welcomes but never questions), are inescapable.

It seems that everyone in this novel is displaced. Lam never quite fits with British Columbia, never marrying or, apparently, feeling much for anyone save his stepparents (perhaps because of the secret shame that he keeps close); Lam Fan, addicted to opium til the day of her death, trying to keep the memory of her guilt at bay; the lepers on the island, cast out from a world that is already far from their war-torn, famine-stricken home; India Thackery, alone in the world and abandoned by the man she loved.

To All Appearances a Lady opened up a period of history, and of migration, about which I knew almost nothing. Few of the characters were likeable (India, perhaps; Lam Fan, until near the end; Ng Chung, the most personable of the lepers on D'Arcy Island) but they felt real. And Lam, alone (but for a ghost) in the fog-bound inlets and deserted islands of the coast, is the product, the end, of all the stories, quietly bleak, embracing his fate.

Beautifully written and well-researched, not a cheerful book but a compelling story.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

#60: A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life -- Lucia Graves story is partly the story of Spain; .. all these ends and changes in Spanish life reflected ends and changes that also occurred in me.
Lucia Graves (daughter of the poet Robert Graves) writes of life between cultures -- Spanish, Catalan and English -- and the life of women in twentieth-century Spain: the village midwife in Majorca, her marriage declared unlawful after the Spanish Civil War; Lucia's own education in a convent in Palma, chanting Fascist slogans and being gently pressured to convert to Catholicism; the village girls watching silently as their fiances flirted with the first wave of English and Scandinavian tourists ...

I read this whilst on holiday in Barcelona, and it did give me new insight into the oppression of the Franco years (suspicion of the authorities, endless bureaucracy, everything -- in Lucia's memories, at least -- grey) and into some hitherto unfamiliar aspects of Spanish, and especially Catalan, life, past and present: the Sephardic Jews, the folklore of the land, women in Catalan history ... But I found myself more fascinated by glimpses of Robert Graves the family man. I read Graves' poetry avidly in my teens and twenties, but I don't think I even realised that he was still alive (he died in 1985) much less that he'd raised a family, that he used to comfort his little daughter by picking the nightmares from her scalp and flushing them down the toilet, that he'd run on stage after the annual ballet show with bouquets for everyone, that he was simply Senor Graves in the Majorcan village where the family made their home.

From the sound of it, Lucia didn't at first know just how famous her father was in the English-speaking world. At school in Geneva, her English teacher made her feel inadequate for her failure to write English as fluently as her father. Later, she was an undergraduate at Oxford when he was Professor of Poetry there; by which time, she says, she'd 'largely overcome the feelings of inadequacy'. But it wasn't until I, Claudius was shown on Spanish television that Graves' adopted homeland began to take an interest in him. By that time he was already too ill to deal with this late fame, and Lucia became her father's representative on lecture tours and in interviews.

This is not only a book about being the daughter of a famous man. Lucia Graves' account of herself as a woman divided between cultures, caught in the gap between languages, is honest and direct. "To say that the man was dead was simply not the same as saying he was mort, even if both words have the same meaning. ...'dead' was like a dull pain, like the quiet end of a smile ... mort was the sudden tolling of bells, deep mourning, a gloom beyond words." Like Persephone (her father's metaphor) she learns to love both her lives, English and Spanish.

#59: The Nautical Chart -- Arturo Perez-Reverte

... real freedom, the only possible freedom, the true peace of God, began five miles from the nearest coast.
Took this with me to read in Barcelona, since that's where the novel starts: with Manuel Coy, a sailor stranded on shore after running a ship onto uncharted rocks, attending a maritime auction. At the auction he notices a beautiful woman (Tanger Soto) bidding -- against fierce and apparently hostile competition from a menacing pony-tailed man and a malicious dwarf -- for a 17th-century nautical atlas. She wins, but Coy has to intervene in a potentially nasty situation outside. Buys her a drink, or two. Falls in love. Sells his one valuable and treasured possession, his sextant, to buy a train ticket to Madrid, where he tracks down Tanger at work in the Museo Maritime and finds out why she really wants the chart -- to help her find the wreck of the Dei Gloria, a Jesuit ship sunk by pirates off the coast of Spain in 1767.

Unsurprisingly there is treasure aboard.

And Coy, not only a sailor but an experienced diver who knows that part of the coast well, is just the man to help Tanger with her quest. The fact that he's given to solving problems with violence, and has what one might term poor impulse control, probably doesn't hurt.

The Nautical Chart is peppered with references to nautical classics: Coy thinks of himself as being in the Conrad phase of his life ("all heroes authorised to move through that terrain were weary heroes, more or less lucid, aware of the danger of dreaming when at the helm"), having previously lived a Stevenson period and a Melville period. I warmed to him as soon as he showed evidence of being an O'Brian fan. Plenty of nautical metaphors, too, and an interesting backstory for the Dei Gloria's last fateful voyage -- just before the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain ...

I wasn't entirely satisfied with this book: the action seemed to be propelled artificially, with Coy threatening to walk away every time the action slowed, and Tanger drip-feeding some more information. And the ending seemed flat and abrupt, though I do wonder if it's meant to illustrate just how blinkered Coy can be and has been, just how unwilling to face the facts. Just how blinded by love (for Tanger, and more convincingly for the sea) he has been.

Apparently the plot echoes The Maltese Falcon, but it's a long long time since I saw the film ... so that's a layer of significance (and possibly an extra dimension of emotional depth, of twisting and transforming the characters and themes) that I missed.

Occasionally I found myself noticing the translation, as though the translator was struggling to put into English a phrase that flowed in the original Spanish. And when the actual narrator, the first-person voice who claims to be telling this story, finally made an appearance (".. the story of the lost ship, and of Coy, the sailor banished from the sea, and of Tanger, the woman who returned him to it, seduced me from the start ...") I found him irritating and sly.

Packed with action and with plot -- and some excellent nautical detail, like the storm at sea, and going overboard, and the perils of night-sailing in busy waters -- but curiously empty.

#58: The Electric Michelangelo -- Sarah Hall

Like Water for Elephants (with which it shares at least one real-life scene), this novel focusses on the American circus/carnival milieu in the Thirties. But The Electric Michelangelo is darker and grittier.

The novel opens with Cy (Cyril) Parks' boyhood in Morecambe. His father died days before he was born: his mother, Reeda, pursues two complementary trades -- running a boarding-house for tuberculosis patients during the summer, and providing illegal abortions in the off-season -- to make ends meet. Cy grows up familiar with blood and suffering (there's a surprisingly beautiful scene where he tries to read his fortune in the swirls of blood in a patient's basin) and accustomed to showmanship, the lifeblood of the resort.

His artistic ability is spotted by Eliot Riley, an alcoholic tattoo artist with a reputation as one of the best who takes Cy on as apprentice. It's not an easy ride. Eliot is a slave to the bottle, prone to black moods and violent behaviour. But he has a lot to teach, and Cy is eager to learn.

Reeda and Riley dead, Cy turns his back on Morecambe: he emigrates to America, and sets up a booth in the heart of the circus -- Coney Island, a carnival underworld populated with immigrants and the displaced, with misfits and freaks and outcasts. Cy -- now The Electric Michelangelo -- fits right in. Confident in his art (and it's clear, both from the technical detail of his work and from the way he's driven by, transformed by, a channel for it) he finds others who share, or at least comprehend, his vocation. Something of a loner by nature (we get the feeling that he doesn't give his heart lightly, and both Reeda and Riley have left him walking-wounded) he finds friends and colleagues.

And then there's Grace.
There was something unholy about her from the beginning, that guile, the heretical bile that lifted in her mouth when she spoke, the gall in the gut of her words, the retch of her dark hair, the very peccancy of her sex, that thousand-fanged stare, and she might have been his, once, but for herself, but for her cloven-kolo self in the centre of her being.

Grace is probably not her name, but it's the name she's chosen. (Significantly, she always refers to Cy by his tradename). She's a European woman of indeterminate origin, a bareback rider (her horse sometimes shares her Brooklyn apartment, in the same block as Cy) who comes to Cy with one clear and specific request: she wants to be made into the Lady of Eyes, to be tattooed with the image of an eye (green, edged in black) repeated over and over on every inch of her skin.

Cy obliges, and almost incidentally falls in love. It's not as though there haven't been women before, plenty of 'em, aroused by endorphins and acutely aware of their newly-tattooed bodies. Grace is different. They aren't lovers in the physical sense, but there is far more sense of Cy's engagement with her than with anyone since Riley's death. And although he doesn't make love to her in any of the usual ways, perhaps the physical act of transforming her body, the intimate engagement of pain, is another form of eroticism.

Grace, complete, is a work of art. And art can be destroyed. Riley's death follows vengeful violence: Grace survives the attack on her, but it transforms her as much as or more than Cy's art -- and against her will. Her return to Cy is the pivot-point of the novel, the moment at which everything that's made him the man he is (Reena, Riley, the consumptives, the tattooing) comes together in a single night. The events of that night occur offstage: we have only Cy's memories, later, to show us what happened. It's enough.

As coda, the novel shows us Cy's return to Morecambe, years later. He's served in the war, and walks with a limp: he is alone: he's coming back to Riley's empty house. Yet it's not an ending, and not a decline: 'his heart was densely occupied and his soul was lying fallow', and if beneath it all he's waiting, still he's out in the changing world.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The White Tyger -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in November 2007.

This is the third in Park's Roumanian quartet, following A Princess of Roumania (2005) and The Tourmaline (2006). (The final volume, The Hidden World, is due next year.) Though penultimate volumes can sometimes seem slower and less eventful than other parts of a quartet -- marking time, building suspense -- The White Tyger provides a new perspective on previous events, and considerably more information about the world in which it's set. A great deal happens in this volume of the story, though it's inconclusive. There are reversals, mistakes, the gradual subversion and destruction of several well-laid and long-term plans. All it takes is a little greed, the wrong person in the right place, the hidden world trickling into the real.

The White Tyger moves the focus away from Miranda Popescu, who's been transplanted from our own Massachusetts to become a fairytale princess, a symbol of freedom and hope, in a Roumania quite different from the one we know. Miranda -- seen by her family's loyal followers as the embodiment of the White Tyger, a legendary symbol of Roumanian freedom -- is a shadowy puppet in this novel, and when she does appear it's seldom in a sympathetic role. There's more warmth in the widowed Baroness Nicola Ceacescu, calm within her web of plots: the Baroness is as happy to use magic -- simulacra, 'the old country magic of whores', and a degree of foreknowledge that may be prescience or predetermination -- as poison or intrigue. Sasha Prochenko (the bold and dashing lieutenant whom we encountered first as a girl, and then as a dog) is now a tripartite creature, capable of being male or female or something quite inhuman: and the ways in which Prochenko's three selves manifest, merge and interact with new protagonists, is fascinating.

Park fleshes out his world in this volume of the quartet. In A Princess of Roumania our own reality was written off as an elaborate deception to hide Miranda: now it's reinterpreted as a failed experiment. "Models for evolution, heliocentric ... fairy stories. A world where dreams mean nothing. Where the dead are dead. Where stars are only balls of flaming gas and planets are dead rocks, and we are only responsible to our own selves."

Miranda, the archetypal self-involved teenager, says lamely "And I thought it was all for me."

Roumania, even while occupied by the Germans, is the cultural, or magical, or actual centre of a world in which a god has been imprisoned in a tower for the last three centuries: where Cleopatra has taken her place amongst the deities on Olympos (and a world in which this deification is perceived as history rather than mythology): where Shakespeare's known as 'that English refugee' and Newton -- who 'died of syphilis and mercury in Potsdam, a drunken broken man' -- is more famous for his alchemy, and a few unpleasantly effective devices, than anything else. After all, in this world, Copernicus was wrong.

The story gathers pace like a runaway train -- yet there's also a curious, calming distance between the reader and the characters, a sense that we are watching their stories unfold rather than inhabiting those stories. In a way that could be said for the characters, too: that they're not inhabiting their own stories. For a world constrained by fate and gods, there are a great many individuals creating and recreating themselves, choosing the myths by which they live and die. Nicola Ceacescu, whose unfinished opera The White Tyger -- with herself in the leading role -- shows a steely determination to revise her own history and that of all Roumania, strives to find the myth that fits what she has done, and what she's become. Will she be Cleopatra with her asp? Or will she assume the attributes of that other princess of Roumania, the infanticidal Medea?

It remains to be seen whether or not Park can pull all the threads of his narrative together, explain every allusion and reinterpretation, in the final volume of the quartet. But having come this far, my hopes are high.

Friday, September 28, 2007

#57: Special Topics in Calamity Physics -- Marsha Pessl

On Friday, March 26, with the same innocence of the Trojans as they gathered around the strange wooden horse standing at the gate to their city ... Hannah drove our yellow Rent-Me truck into the dirt lot of Sunset Views Encampment and parked in Space 52. The lot was empty, with the exception of a swayback blue Pontiac parked in front of the cabin (a wooden sign slapped crookedly over the door like a Band-Aid: MAIN) and a rusty towable trailer ("Lonesome Dreams") chucked under an evangelist oak. (It was in the midst of some violent enlightenment, branches stretched heavenwards as if to grab hold of His feet.) A white sky ironed, starched, folded itself primly behind the rolling mountains. Garbage floated across the lot, cryptic messages in bottles. Sometime in the last week or so, it had sleeted cigarette butts.
I had to buy this as soon as I saw the title, and I'm pleased to report it was a damned fine read.

Blue van Meer is a precocious and over-educated American teenager, reared peripatetically -- 36 schools between five and sixteen, I think it was -- by her brilliant left-wing father after her mother's death when Blue was five. This odd upbringing has produced a girl who provides a reference for practically every metaphor, weird statistic or astute observation that she comes out with. I'm still trying to decide if it's irritating or reassuring.

Because I like Blue. She reads far too much (each chapter bears the title of a Great Work of Literature, from Othello to Che Guevara Talks to Young People). She's a geek, or possibly a nerd: top of the class in every school she's attended, remarkably mature for her age and possessing a confidence that does a great deal to conceal a lack of social skills. Or perhaps she just falls in with the wrong crowd - the Bluebloods -- when she starts her senior year at St Gallways, in Stockton, North Carolina.

Right from the start it's clear that this is a murder mystery, that Hannah was murdered and that Blue was the one who found her. The novel is about how Hannah dies, but not only about that: it's about lies and secrets and the past, about people who disappear and people who create new identities, about things that aren't at all what they seem (I can't count the layers of deception) ... about Blue's transformation, at the hands of Jade Vine, from plain Jane -- oh, did I mention the visual aids? drawings by the author, presented as photos, throughout -- to all-American teen ... about, really about, Blue's claustrophobic love-hate relationship with her father, Gareth van Meer.

I don't think I can do justice to the convolutions of plot, and I don't think I should try. The writing, the prose, was what dazzled me (in good and bad ways). Sheer pyrotechnic writing, wordplay and sly humour (I'd say more than half of the references are sheer fabrication), acerbic observation (Blue is especially dry on the vagaries of the June Bugs, her father's serial girlfriends, each ditched before things can get too serious), Milnean Capitals, and some gorgeous metaphors -- hair ivying across a chair, sauteed kitchen air.

All of which makes me wonder if the novel is structured around the two points when Blue is lost for words. The first time, she leaves a word-length space in the sentence, a space to stand for an indefinable personal quality: the second time, at the end, she acknowledges the lack of a word and moves on.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a novel that I suspect could be read on several levels: murder mystery, coming-of-age novel, satire on modern American life, a cult novel with clever in-jokes and pop culture references. It's reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, but too much has been made of the similarities: though both novels are set at school and deal with the gradual (apparent) acceptance of an outsider into a clique, presided over by a benign academic, the outsiders are quite different, as are the cliques and the acceptance and the outcome.

I recommend it to anyone with a bit of the nerd, geek, outsider in them, anyone who appreciates writing that fizzes with invention but not just for the sake of it: certainly to anyone who was ever told, as a teenager, that they read too much. (Believe me, you never read as much as Blue.) And I am very much looking forward to Pessl's next novel.

There's a heavily interactive website to which I've just lost half an hour.

#56: The Floating Egg: Episodes in the Making of Geology -- Roger Osborne

Marking this as 'read' is a bit of a cheat, because I read about half and skimmed the rest: and how I wish I'd thought to read it in the ~10 years I've owned it, instead of picking it up ready to package and send it to a BookMoocher, and finding myself entranced!

The Floating Egg is a series of pieces (not really essays: some of them are quotations from original sources, some are fictionalised vignettes, some are straightforward historical accounts and some are collections of historical minutae) concerning geology: in particular, the geology of the North Yorkshire coast around Whitby, an area which Osborne clearly knows and loves. There are chapters on alum (the 'floating egg' of the title refers to the method of extracting alum from a solution of mineral salts: a hen's egg, placed in the mixture, would float to the surface at the moment when the liquid had reached the correct density), on meteorites, on dinosaur fossils, on Captain Cook, and on theoretical geology -- the strata that are typically found adjacent to one another in the British Isles, an understanding of which helped early geologists to earn their keep by advising mining corporations.

Each chapter stands alone, though some make strange reading taken together. It's just the right sort of book to rekindle my interest in a science of which I used to have a working knowledge (almost took Geology O-level as an additional subject, but class was Saturday mornings and I couldn't get to it). It made me want to do some serious fossil-hunting again, to walk Yorkshire beaches and pick up jet and ammonites, to revisit the Natural History and Science museums and look at old bones and ancient iron.

Shall try to BookMooch a copy ...

#55: Trim: Being the True Story of a Brave Seafaring Cat -- Matthew Flinders

This good-natured purring animal was born on board His Majesty's ship the Roundabout in 1799 during a passage from the Cape of Good Hopeto Botany Bay; and saving the rights and titles of the parish of Stepney, was consequently an Indian by birth. The signs of superior intelligence which marked his infancy, procured for him an education beyond what is usually bestowed upon the individuals of his tribe; and being brought up amongst sailors, his manners acquired a peculiarity of cant which rendered them as different from those of other cats, as the actions of a fearless seaman are from those of a lounging, shame-faced ploughboy;
I bought this on spec: it's a neat little hardcover, about 50 pages long, and it was on offer in Nauticalia in Greenwich. I'm fond of ships' cats, and fascinated by the affection they often elicit from Navy and civilian sailors alike. In Trim, Flinders -- more generally known for circumnavigating Australia, a feat which he clearly couldn't have managed without Trim's help -- shows a warm and whimsical side of himself. Apparently the book was written while its author was held prisoner in Mauritius by the French. Flinders wanted to improve his prose, and his beloved cat had just disappeared (eaten, he was sure, by hungry slaves): the result is this touching little tribute.

Trim, named after a character in Tristram Shandy, was a proper seafaring cat. He was perfectly capable of swimming, and of catching hold of a rope-end, if he fell overboard. He invited himself to dine in the officers' mess, and his somewhat forward table manners (grabbing food off the fork of a lieutenant who was talking too much) were tolerated to a surprising degree. He did get a hiding for stealing meat from the larder, though. He took an interest in astronomical observations, scaled the rigging only when the order was given, and loved to chase musket balls around the deck.

Trim did not take to life on land, on one memorable occasion leaping straight through a sash window that somebody had inconsiderately left closed with him on the wrong side. Back at sea, though, he survived shipwreck and privation before his master's imprisonment: Flinders was prevailed upon to lend him to the young daughter of a French lady, but he strayed (or, given the character of the creature, escaped) and was never seen again.

Flinders is definitely writing half in jest when he lauds Trim's fine looks, bemoans his vanity, recounts his adventures &co: it's a gentle parody of the picaresque. But the affection he felt for his constant feline companion, and the clarity with which he conveys Trim's character, is timeless: it brings Flinders and Trim back to life.

There's a lovely page about Trim here, with a photo of the statue of Flinders, fine upstanding Navy chap, and his cat rubbing against his leg.
And the Maritime Museum have a delightful multimedia Trim page for children, here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

#54: A Circle of Stones -- Shelagh MacDonald

This is a reread, but I first read the novel so long ago that I'd forgotten most of the plot. All I remembered was an English girl (Tini) on a Greek island channelling the goddess Athene, and Pethi (her Greek friend) with his cat riding on his shoulder. (I have fond memories of trying to persuade the cats at home to do this. I may also still have some scars.)

A Circle of Stones, like its sequel Five from Me, Five from You, is set on the island of Serifos, the birthplace of Perseus. McDonald's writing is clear, not condescending (I wonder if children today would find it difficult, as they apparently find Rosemary Sutcliff's writing hard work) and unaffectedly poetic: the 'swearing tremble' of a cat's growl, for instance. She balances the beauty of the island -- blue skies, white houses like sugarcubes tumbling down the hill -- with the grinding poverty that sends most of the men abroad, because there's no work.

Pethi has a secret which might make all the difference to the islanders. George, Tini's father, is an archaeologist who'd love to share that secret. And the man who owns most of the island's mines is scheming to close the mines and make his fortune another way. Vleppo (the aforementioned cat) plays a major role in thwarting those schemes. (I'd forgotten just how much violence there was in this book. I'd forgotten just what Vleppo does.)

Rooting around on the web, I find there's another children's novel, No End to Yesterday, by Shelagh MacDonald -- but it's set in the 1920s. I suppose she'd written all she wanted to write about Serifos, Pethi and Tini. I do wish there was more.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

#53: Pilgrim -- Timothy Findley

I have lived many times, Doctor Jung. Who knows, as Leda I might have been the mother of Helen -- or, as Anne, the mother of Mary. I was Orion once, who lost his sight and regained it. I was also a crippled shepherd in thrall to Saint Teresa of Avila; an Irish stable-boy and a maker of stained glass at Chartres. I stood on the ramparts of Troy and witnessed the death of Achilles. I saw the first performance of Hamlet and the last performance of Moliere, the actor. I was a friend to Oscar Wilde and an enemy to Leonardo... I am both male and female, I am ageless and I have no access to death.

Pilgrim (he admits to no first name) is introduced to us in such a way that we expect the entire novel to be told in retrospect: we meet him as he walks out at 4am one spring morning in 1912 to hang himself in the garden of his Cheyne Walk home.

Pilgrim, though, can't die. After hours dead his heart begins to beat again: and his dear friend Lady Sybil Quatermaine accompanies him to Switzerland, to the Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, where he is given into the care of one Herr Doktor Carl Gustav Jung.

Henceforth Pilgrim is as much Jung's tale as Pilgrim's own -- more, perhaps, since for quite a while Pilgrim refuses to speak at all. Luckily, Sybil has entrusted his journals to Jung, and Jung's wife Emma reads them: at first with disbelief and later with a growing fascination. For Pilgrim writes of other lives he's lived, of other times: of the time when he was Elisabetta Gherardini, gazing upon the painter Leonardo with a deadly hatred; when he was Manolo, a crippled Spanish shepherd-boy, and begged a young Catholic woman named Teresa for a miracle she could not bestow; when he was Simon le Jeune and signed his name in the great glass window at Chartres Cathedral; of walking the walls of Troy, shaded by a parasol, watching heroes fight ...

Of course, these may all be fantasies. The nature of Pilgrim's condition is never made clear, and -- aside from his undoubted resistance to death -- there's no objective evidence to support his claims. There is a birthmark (or is it a tattoo?) in the shape of a butterfly -- Psyche's symbol -- that appears to accompany him through all these lives. There's his assertion that although he dies and is reborn, he never knows what it is to be a child.

He is, if nothing else, a man who inspires great loyalty: from Kessler, a man with madness in his own past, who tends him in the Clinic; from his manservant Forster, who affects disguise and engages in espionage to 'rescue' his master; from Lady Sybil, who may be a spiritual messenger or simply a Victorian aristocrat with a penchant for the supernatural; from Emma, who weeps over his journals and rejoices when it seems he's free. Doves and pigeons are drawn to him. Photographed in the snow, a butterfly appears in the picture.

Towards the end of the novel, Pilgrim becomes decidedly more active: he has an agenda, and he wants the world to listen, for some of his dreams are of a future filled with blood and war.

I read Pilgrim feeling that there were layers of the story that entirely eluded me. Perhaps this is a tale of madness, of Pilgrim as just another patient at the clinic -- where the Countess Blavinskeya believes herself to be an inhabitant of the Moon, where a woman plays piano with Robert Schumann's hands, where a man writes on every surface with an invisible pen, and another believes himself to be a dog. (Picturesque madnesses. Upper-class madnesses.) Or perhaps it's a tale about art and the power of art, from Leonardo's light-and-shadow to the glorious colours at Chartres ...

Or perhaps it's a tale of the case that Jung could not solve, that shaped his interests in mysticism, synchronicity, the collective unconscious. Perhaps Pilgrim is that collective unconscious embodied.


#52: The Navigator of New York -- Wayne Johnston

The eponymous Navigator -- from the old word for 'explorer', though this novel's set in the first years of the twentieth century -- is Devlin Stead, a young man from Newfoundland. Devlin, after receiving a series of letters to which it's impossible to respond, travels to New York to confront the letters' author, Dr Frederick Cook.

Connoisseurs of Arctic history will be familiar with Cook's name and his history: his claim to be the first man to reach the North Pole, and the first to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska. The first claim was challenged by Robert Peary, whom history recognises as first to the Pole; the second was proven fake by Cook's travelling companion, who testified that they had not ascended the mountain. Debate still rages.

And debate rages within these pages too: Peary and Cook's feud, post-Pole, occupies a significant portion of the novel, with Devlin fiercely loyal to Cook. Cook, after all, knew his father, Francis Stead, and was on the expedition on which he died. Cook, it turns out, also knew Devlin's mother. And Cook is a man who can keep a secret: indeed he relinquishes them only reluctantly, and even the last few pages of the novel contain unexpected revelations -- unexpected to Devlin, at least, though I was beginning to suspect that there might be a little more to Cook's version of events than he'd yet disclosed.

Though the focus, for the main part, is on the relationship between Devlin and Cook, the scenery is stunning. The sense of New York -- Manhattan -- springing up almost overnight, the sheer energy of this new city (when Devlin first arrives, the north part of Manhattan Island is still fields, where families live in shacks: Cook recalls a time when men hunted small game from the roof-gardens of the Dakota Apartments), is vividly recounted, its sheer vitality a marked constrast to the polar wastes. Which is not to say that the Arctic passages are lacking: Johnston evokes the emptiness, the oddness of the polar regions in language that reminds me of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen. Devlin's mother walks beside him across the ice, the fifth in a party of four. Jo Peary, devoted wife of the explorer, poses in formal dress with her daughter Marie on a Greenland beach. The Belgica is photographed by night, eerily flash-lit ...
Eventually, a 'day' consisted of an hour-long twilight, the sun barely clearing the almost-flat horizon to the east before it began to set again.
We could not keep our minds from reacting as they normally would to the light conditions, could not help feeling that this was the dusk of a day in which the sun had run its normal course across the sky and now was setting. We did what people do at dusk: gave in to reflectiveness, to thoughts of the past and what the coming days would bring.

Devlin's story is inextricably linked with Cook's -- and with Peary's, after Devlin saves him from a chilly death in Greenland. And in the end, Devlin, who has given his allegiance wholeheartedly to Cook's cause in the feud between the rival explorers, discovers that Peary holds the key that will unlock the last of Cook's secrets.

Devlin is very much of his time, stiff and shy, his emotions painted in bright simple colours. I'm not sure I liked him, but I pitied and envied him. And Johnston's writing, his evocation of Newfoundland and New York and the Arctic, is sparse and brilliant at once, like light on snow.

#51: The Hallowed Hunt -- Lois McMaster Bujold

The third in the Chalion trilogy, this isn't closely connected with The Curse of Chalion or Paladin of Souls. It's clearly the same world, presided over by a quintet of gods: it's possible that one of the failed attempts to heal Ingrey came by way of Ista, the heroine of the second novel. But the Weald is a darker and older place than Chalion itself, and this tale of shamanism and werecreatures is shadowed by the memory of ancient wars and the unquiet dead.

Ingrey is a fascinating protagonist -- I've come to expect no less from Bujold, but the craft that's gone into his character still impresses me. Sent off by Sealmaster Lord Hetwar to tidy up after a prince's murder at the hand of the woman he intended to rape, Ingrey thinks of himself as 'not quite bravo, not quite clerk, but a man to be relied upon for unusual tasks discreetly done'. Only from the actions and reactions of those around him does it become clear that he's rather more than that; a man feared and respected for his martial prowess, and feared, too, for the curse he carries. Ingrey, at fourteen, was spiritually (shamanically?) bound to a wolf whose very existence he's learnt, through hard and painful lessoning, to quell. No wonder that people never introduce him to their female relations.

Lady Ijada, whom he escorts to the capital, is under a similar curse, courtesy of the late Prince Boleso. And, it transpires, they are not the only two who have such a relic of the past in their souls.

There's immortality the hard way, here (and a couple of extremely thoughtful asides about the implications of the method). There's a wood haunted with the ghosts of sacrificed warriors from a war four centuries before. There are the five gods, and their hopes and deeds that intersect with Ingrey's own desires. And there is, gloriously, someone very like a Viking prince: Jokol, named Skullsplitter (which turns out to be a tribute to his epic poetry rather than to any stereotypical violence) and his tame ice-bear.

Towards the end the magic, the politics and the history became rather confused (though this might've been me, staying up later than I should to read). But there is a gloriously primitive feel to the Wealden magic, with its sacrifices and sacred animals and woodland setting; and though some aspects of the story were predictable, others were entirely unexpected.

I do wish there were more Chalion books: there's little sense of trilogy-conclusion here, and surely more to tell.