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

Saturday, January 30, 2010

2010/07: Whiskey and Water -- Elizabeth Bear

"All books are lies, but the books that say you can walk out of Faerie unscathed are more so. It's not that you come back and not a moment has passed -- it's that you're gone a moment, and fifteen years have gone, and everyone you loved has forgotten you." (p.134)

In which Elizabeth Bear illustrates, in diverse and creative ways, the truth of the adage 'better the devil you know'. And she is of the devil's party -- but unlike Milton, knows it very well, thank you.

Whiskey and Water is the sequel to Blood and Iron, which I read some time ago and enjoyed -- but not enough to get around to reading the next volume. In a way, I'm glad: I was desperate to read Whiskey and Water once I discovered that one of the protagonists is a character from 'The Stratford Man' (see previous review(s)), but I don't think I would have been so utterly hooked on that character if I'd read Whiskey and Water before Ink and Steel.

Which means that I read Whiskey and Water as a much-later sequel to The Stratford Man, rather than directly as a sequel to Blood and Iron -- so my perceptions are likely coloured by my bias.

It's seven years after Blood and Iron, Faerie is known and recognised in the human world (Cairbre, the Queen's Bard, has been in Time magazine) and an uneasy peace reigns. Jane Andraste is gathering mages about her once more. Matthew Sczcegialniak (a name for which copy'n'paste was invented) is a somewhat laissez-faire guardian of New York City, teaching Renaissance Drama and running in the park, setting off car alarms and confounding technology and trying not to listen for the sound of the other shoe falling. The woman who was once Elaine sits on the throne of Faerie, attended by the shapechanger she calls Whiskey, who holds her soul. Merlin the Magician is an up-state lecturer, and hangs out with a New Age coven: there's a new addition, a young woman named Michael, who's learning to read Tarot.

And meanwhile, in another place, a poet is packing his bags, ready to venture forth and avenge the death of his lover.

The action's kicked off by the brutal murder of a young woman -- a murder that bears the hallmarks of a Fae killing. Detective Donall Smith is trying to trace the killer, and finds himself ensnared in the politics of the Prometheans and the Fae.

The murdered woman's friends, Geoff and Jewels (the latter's Otherkin, which is to say wannabe Fae) fall in with Matthew -- and with Lily, a Goth whose lover Christian knows more than he says. Cue what would in another author's hands be a novel in itself, about who has power and who aspires to it, about how it's won and how it's lost. I liked these three (and was greatly amused by the narrative's disdain for the poses and pretences of the Goth / New Age scene) but they were overshadowed by the setting and the other characters.

Whiskey and Water is a very full novel. There are figures from more than one mythos, feuds ancient and modern, a murderer's ghost -- who was Orfeo? -- a plethora of Devils (the conceit being that each author's Devil is a different one, Dante's an idiot god ceaselessly gnawing, crouched on his idiot throne, Milton's Satan with a certain urbane bravado, for all his groaning wings and reek of brimstone (p.222)), a swan-may, a masked ball and tea with Morgan le Fay.

"... I remember now. Things I never remembered before. This story, that story, all of them different. Every one contradicting the others. I used to know history. Now I don't even know my own, who I was, who I loved, how I lived --"
"It's all true."
"It's all lies."
"False things are true ... What colour is my hair?"
"Black," he said, combing the strawberry locks through his fingers. "Black as sin, black as sorcery ..." (p. 446)

The novel, incidentally, is written in omniscient third person, which made me itch and twitch until I identified my unease: flitting from one person's thoughts to another mid-scene, mixing motivations, requires more attention from the reader. There is nothing wrong with 3rd-omniscient, at all, but I've seldom noticed it so much as I did here.

Whiskey and Water pulls no punches: Elizabeth Bear is not gentle on her characters, nor they with one another. And, as before, the ending -- which made me teary again -- is painful but right.

... where there's life there's hope. And I hear these days they're changing stories all the time. (p. 447)

2010/06: Hell and Earth -- Elizabeth Bear

"The Catholics would redeem us," Kit said, crouching to warm his hands before a star that grew and flowered close beside his feet. They stood on one of the crystal vaults of heaven: far below, he could discern the shifting blue-white orb of the Earth. "If we forswore all for the love of God." He paused, pressing his fingers to the crystal, so pure it was invisible. "An we were closer, I might amend some maps." (p. 93-94)

The second part of 'The Stratford Man', following Ink and Steel. I ordered this within minutes of finishing the first book, and when it failed to show up immediately I bought the ebook to tide me over.

I liked it extremely. Good thing, really, as I have two copies now.

Hell and Earth picks up where Ink and Steel left off, so it's going to be hard to avoid spoilers in this review. Nevertheless I shall try ...

Kit is more proactive in this volume, applying himself to the solution of mysteries (Baines' agenda, who killed Hamnet, what the dreamt name 'Mehiel' might signify) and being presented with more (the identity of Prometheus, why the lamia Amaranth is so helpful, the purpose of the events in Rheims). He's also involved with a major new project, a translation of the Bible. And he attends a funeral or two.

Despite the powers he's won -- and those bestowed on him unwilling and unrecognised -- Kit isn't invulnerable. He makes choices, and some of them are bad; he attempts action, and it's not always successful. Nevertheless, he's grimly determined to be his own man. Only at the end of the novel (and in the epilogue, which made me teary-eyed) do we have the feeling that he's wholly free.

There's a lot in this novel about the power and magic of Story: how contradictory stories (for instance, models of the cosmos) can be simultaneously true; how the stories an artist tells can save him ... All stories are true. But this is becoming more true than the other. (p. 259)

Kit inspires various emotions in various characters: perhaps the most important is loyalty. Though it takes him a while to recognise that he's also loved.

I haven't mentioned Will. This is not because he's irrelevant to the plot of the novel, but that it's so much Kit's story -- or perhaps that I was so focussed on Kit's story. Nonetheless, Will's narrative strand also fascinates: a mortal man aware (and wary) of the magick woven through his world and his creations, devoted to his wife, still mourning his son, befriending Ben Jonson (who has a Sekrit Crush though not on Will: Ben amused me greatly), and writing, writing, writing.

Hell and Earth is fast-moving -- there are some scenes I'd have liked to see played out, rather than merely alluded to -- and full of unexpected twists and contrary agenda and game-playing and twice-told tales that cast a different meaning on the narrative.

This is a rather breathless review, I know, but I'm still digesting the plot and finding new resonances and revelations: and I'm still very much enamoured of Bear's Kit.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2010/05: The Memory Palace -- Christie Dickason

... a drowsy blackbird sang a single muted note. Another replied. A thrush interrupted. Sparrows disagreed ... It was a trick he had learnt, of paying close attention to every small detail of life. If he gripped hard enough onto the observations and sensations of each moment, he could haul himself hand over hand through the day without having to remember. (p.5)

Third in trilogy that began with The Lady Tree and continued with Quicksilver, this novel focusses on Zeal Beeston, left behind at Hawkridge in the lush Hampshire countryside when her lover John Nightingale was banished to the New World. Zeal embarks upon a marriage of convenience with Philip Wentworth, an ageing soldier who's sought a simple life and forgetfulness at Hawkridge after a chequered career. But Hawkridge, ruined by fire, needs rebuilding, so Zeal hires a friend of Philip's, 'a young man with an interest in Italian architecture', to help her design a grander and more beautiful house. Enter the improbably-named Lambert Parsley, who loves Zeal as a sister (his baser desires are the reason he had to leave London in a hurry) and willingly indulges her vision of a house filled with memories, images, clues.

Zeal still hopes that John will come back to her. Whenever a horseman appears on the road, her heart leaps. Seven years, the term of his banishment, is not (she tells herself) so very long. But in the turbulent years before the outbreak of civil war, nothing is certain or safe. Zeal's accused of witchcraft (and half-believes it herself: there are a lot of deaths, and maybe her subconscious rage has something to do with them). She's accused of harbouring Catholics; Doctor Bowler, the estate parson, worships his God with music and joy and is strongly disapproved of by the Puritan minister Gifford.

And meanwhile she begins to unravel the puzzling past of Philip Wentworth, hoping thereby to find a way of imagining what John Nightingale might be living through, in the colonies.

I like Zeal a lot: she reminds me more than ever of a rather unpolished (and hot-tempered) Philippa Somerville, and she fears only two things, ignorance and loss of control. (Both of which, of course, she'll suffer before the novel's out.) She builds her Palace, with a labyrinth beneath, but realises too late that labyrinths have monsters at their heart.

The story's told through narrative, through letters, through the paperwork and small business of a large country estate, and through Zeal's work-book:

  • Engage a second theatre artificer to help Cobb with new devices and illusions (if such a man can still be found in London)

  • Begin at last to move belongings into east wing

  • With Sir Richard, discuss fining of J Simms and F Bull for brawling again with Dauzat's glaziers

(p. 389)

Dickason's writing is delicious: it doesn't obviously strive for period accuracy, or attempt an old-fashioned ambience, but there's nothing out of place. She has an excellent eye for detail and a strong sense of comedy -- though there's wrenching misery here too. And the world she describes is full of inconsequential details that make it more real than the setting of many a contemporary novel.

I'm a little wary of Dickason's other, more recent, books, which seem to be packaged to appeal to Philippa Gregory's readership. On the other hand, what sells, sells: and if cover art of wistful young women in period costume entices more people to read Dickason's prose, all shall be well.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2010/04: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies -- Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

"... Can there be any other opinion on the subject?"
"Yes, there can; for mine is totally different. Will you hear it?"
"Most willingly."
"You shall have it in a few words. Miss Bingley sees that her brother is in love with you, and wants him to marry Miss Darcy. I dare say she means to keep you from his attentions. Your honour demands she be slain." (p. 94: compare the original...)

Does what it says on the label, and rather better than I was expecting: it is a one-joke book (zombies! and ninjas!) but doesn't wholly vandalise the original. Yes, I can see Elizabeth Bennett as a fearsome swordswoman determined to avenge all and any slights; yes, this book does advance an original new theory for Jane's willingness to marry Mr Collins; yes, Lydia is a silly cow.

The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every zombie confirms my impression that God has abandoned us as punishment for the evils of people such as Miss Bingley. (p. 103)

I am, however, unimpressed with the blurb: "transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read." And slightly horrified at the prospect of anyone reading this without knowledge of the original. This is a proper Transformative Work, if a heavy-handed one, and what's the point of transformation if the audience doesn't know what's changed? (Clue: Jane Austen would not have included off-colour jokes about balls.)

2010/03: A Home at the End of the World -- Michael Cunningham

I got distracted by the pale darkness, the refrigerator's hum and the jars of spices meant to cure headaches, insomnia, and bad luck. I might have been a body buried in a brick wall, eavesdropping on the simple business of the living. It came to me that death itself could be a more distant form of participation in the continuing history of the world. Death could be like this, a simultaneous presence and absence while your friends continued to chat among the lamps and furniture about someone who was no longer you ... I was living my own future and my brother's lost one as well. I represented him here just as he represented me there, in some unguessable other place. (p. 152)

Jonathan grows up an only child, close to his mother, amusing her and himself with the stories he invents; sometimes he's unable to remember with hindsight whether something truly happened or was a tale he told. Bobby grows up in the shadow of his adored elder brother, like a character in Carlton's stories: when Carlton dies, Bobby finds himself adrift, unscripted.

Sooner or later Jonathan and Bobby meet -- Jonathan's the new kid on the block, Bobby's the bad boy of the school -- and start to tell one another the stories they need. (And listen to Jimi Hendrix, and smoke dope, and get experimental.) Jonathan's mother, Alice, alienated by her much older husband, hangs out with the boys. Bobby (whose mother is dead) treats her respectfully, and she can pretend to herself she's still close to, loved by, her son. Jonathan and I had always been good friends despite our blood bond. I decided that accepting Bobby's little gifts of music and dance would do no harm. I had been a bit wild myself, at Jonathan's age, not so very long ago. (p.81)

Things fall apart. Jonathan leaves for university, and Bobby moves into the space he left, literally and figuratively: and Alice realises that he's become boring, and that she wishes he'd leave.

Part Two of the novel opens some years later, in New York, where Jonathan's sharing an apartment in a bad part of town ("I considered this neighbourhood a source of anecdotes" (p. 109)) with bohemian sparkling Clare, who's somewhat older than he is. They've lived together for three years, and she's never met his lover Erich: Jonathan compartmentalises very effectively. He and Clare are the best of friends, in love in every sense save the erotic. Then Bobby moves in ...

Bobby of Clare: "Her effect on me resembled the effect of music. I had a hard time conversing in the face of her." (p. 138)
Jonathan of Clare: "Like many of us, she had grown up expecting romance to bestow dignity and direction." (p. 255)
Clare of herself: "An undecided, disorganised woman who fell out of every conventional arrangement. Who dragged her own childhood along with her into her forties." (p. 274)

This is a complex and layered novel, full of echoes and resonances -- seldom remarked by those who act them out -- stories and make-believe. There are stories the characters tell themselves and stories they tell one another, and stories that never quite take shape.

It's a couple of weeks since I read it and the memory of their story -- Jonathan's, Bobby's, Clare's, plus Alice's and Erich's -- is still shaping itself. A Home at the End of the World is ... it's not a happy story (though there are moments of surpassing joy within) but it has weight, rigour and honesty. Each of the characters is true to themself; each a broken person who's remade themself; each capable of love and cruelty, of simple emotional blindness, of self-deception. "We become the stories we tell about ourselves," says Jonathan.

I don't like the ending, but it is right and it works. Everybody gets what they want, or think they want: cities, siblings, freedom, home. And I love the prose, especially Bobby and Alice's narratives.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

2010/02: Ink and Steel -- Elizabeth Bear

"Morgan. You're a story."
"Aye, Master Marley. Poet, Queen's Man, cobbler's boy," she said. "I'm a story. And now, so art thou." (p. 352)

Ink and Steel is the first part of a duology (or, in the author's own words, 'two halves of a really long novel, which is collectively known as The Stratford Man'). The other volume is Hell and Earth, which I ordered from Amazon within minutes of finishing this book.

Which is to say that I liked Ink and Steel very much indeed. (More than I liked Blood and Iron, which engaged but did not bewitch me.)

Christopher Marlowe is dead, stabbed in a Deptford pub; a secret underworld of men loyal to Queen Elizabeth must now find another playwright who can work magic into the words he pens, and thus confound the shadowy Promethean Society. "I know a man," says Richard Burbage: and so William Shakespeare, still shaken by the death of his friend Kit, is recruited to the cause. Cue magic, murder, mystery and ... well, as it says of Marlowe in the prefatory 'Principal Players', "dead (to begin with)".

Kit Marley does not die in Deptford. With the aid of an innkeeper's wife who happens to be related to the Queen of Faerie's court musician, he is stolen away to the glamorous, decadent and intrigue-riddled realm of Faerie, to which initially (to the reader, at least) he seems ideally suited. But there's more to Kit Marley than a pretty -- albeit scarred -- face and a flexible attitude, and more to his aspirations than immortality and entertainment. It's not long before he's back in the mortal world, caught between the Mebd, Faerie's Queen, and Elizabeth of England -- whose reigns reinforce one another -- and trying hard not to interfere in the affairs of those mortals he yet cares for.

Kit is an immensely likeable character, but not wholly popular in either Faerie or London: he is, quintessentially, a survivor, competent and dangerous without compromising a passionate heart and a quick wit. He is also, as becomes evident, a kind of weapon: it's not clear from this volume how capably he resists being used.

I've read quite a few fictional versions of William Shakespeare: I like Bear's portrayal better than most. Will's playmaking is not the only thing of note about him, nor even the most important -- though it propels him into the heart of the action quickly enough. He is flawed (jealous, prejudiced, occasionally inept) and very human. And I am utterly captivated by Bear's interpretation of the Sonnets (and consequences thereof).

Kit and Will are the viewpoint characters: we see everyone else through their eyes, and they are not necessarily reliable witnesses. (Don't blame them: there's magic fogging the gaze.) The members of the Faerie court -- Robin Goodfellow, Geoffrey, the Lady Amaranth -- are as idiosyncratic and individual as Francis Walsingham or Richard Burbage or Edward de Vere. Morgan is compelling, and utterly credible throughout; Murchaud, though, I felt as though I hardly knew.

Bear's prose is ... I'm trying to think of a way of saying this that doesn't sound negative, because that's not how I mean it. The words flow, smooth and simple. (The pace of the novel flows nicely too, from hectic action scenes to quiet introspection.) There aren't passages that make me want to quote at length: the beauty of her writing is in well-chosen words, in images or oddities that halt the eye on the page. the kind arch of wings, Occasional anachronism, but again, it flows -- though I was jarred by the notion of any Elizabethan regarding themself as young at the age of 29.

Though there is sex in this novel (both homo and hetero) it's seldom explicit, and when there is detail it isn't pornographic: rather, the sex scenes do what all scenes should do, which is illustrate and reinforce character. (I'm thinking especially of the scene near the end: "Christ ... Christ ... Christ.")

I am very likely to be reading Hell and Earth in the next week or so: it's in the mail ...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2010/01: The Fall of Troy -- Peter Ackroyd

"The eagle with the snake in its mouth is a sacred sign to the people. If the bird had approached us from the left, it would mark calamity. But from the right it signals triumph."
"I did not know such things were still believed."
"We are in Troy now. The age of omens has not passed." (p. 48

The Fall of Troy is based on, but doesn't exactly mirror, the career of Heinrich Schliemann and especially his excavations at Troy. Ackroyd's Obermann is overbearing yet curiously childlike, driven and inspired by his vision of the Homeric past and not above deception to further his aims. Sophia, much younger than her husband, is innocent but not naive: she resolutely refuses to think about the inconsistencies in Obermann's anecdotes, the questions that those around her are too polite -- or too embroiled -- to ask. Instead, Sophia settles into the life of an archaeologist; excavating the windy hill that was Troy, cataloguing finds, listening and learning.

"We are all beasts in Troy. We are all wooden horses." (p.133)

The first visitor to disturb her equilibrium is Professor Brand, an American professor who dares to question Obermann. A mythic fate befalls him. Then comes Alexander Thornton, a young archaeologist employed by the British Museum, to see the marvels that Obermann has publicised so inventively. He's soon at odds with Herr Obermann, complicated by his growing admiration for Frau Obermann. Thornton's discoveries -- a skeleton that bears the marks of sacrifice and something worse, tablets that indicate the roots of Trojan language -- are unacceptable to Obermann. "He is what we call in Greece one-eyed," explains Sophia. "He sees only what he wishes." (p. 144) Retribution is, again, mythic; rooted in story, enacted by humans but with a sense that something other is at work.

The novel is short but powerful, and seems at once a reflection of ancient legend and a metamorphosis, of it. I'm finding more significance in secondary characters such as the blind Frenchman Lineau, who can tell the truth by touch; the young man, son of Obermann's business associate, who's nicknamed Telemachus; the Turkish overseer Kadri Bey, whom Obermann sees as an enemy ... There's a strong sense of myth woven through the story, not only through Obermann's frequent references to Homer and Virgil but also in the folk memories and beliefs prevalent throughout the villages, and in Sophia's perceptions of the land around her: the light across the Hellespont, the sense of something circling in the forest, the rush of the oncoming storm.

"... you believed his stories?"
"Of course. They had the truth of vision. What is the world without vision?" (p. 215)