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

Friday, July 30, 2010

2010/56: Daylight -- Elizabeth Knox

He thought of the glow on Eve Moskelute's face as she said, "Someone had seen the butcher ... someone had followed the soldier." "There's always someone," she'd said. The butcher killed the soldier, and someone broke a chamois's neck and placed it on the butcher's doorstep, as though in payment. Bad wondered, Who was 'someone'? (p. 110)

Two men are visiting Monaco independently, both in search of meaning, explanation and resolution. Brian Phelan (known as 'Bad') is a New Zealander, a policeman and a born survivor: he's walked away from a viewing-platform collapse that killed several of his friends, a flash flood in a French cave, and most recently a bomb in an underground carpark. Recuperating from this incident, he takes a holiday to his old caving haunts, swiftly parting company with his sensible (and rather controlling) girlfriend. By chance, Bad becomes involved in the retrieval of a body from the sea: despite the blistered skin, the dead woman -- with her striking hair, blonde at the roots and dark at the ends -- bears a strong resemblance to the woman who rescued him from the cave nine years before.

Also in the area is Father Daniel Octave, mixed-race, Canadian, Jesuit: he's hoping to gather sufficient evidence to progress the canonisation of Martine Dardo, a nun who, during the German occupation of the area, led a group of villagers through a dark cave to safety and was subsequently executed. Daniel doesn't know what to make of the fact that the body in Martine's tomb is not Martine at all, but a Nazi officer.

There's a third protagonist, Eve Moskelute, though less of the story is seen from her point of view than from those of Bad and Daniel. Eve is a writer, most famous for her translation of an obscure work of French literature, an eighteenth-century novel called Lumiere du Jour (in English, Daylight): 'a romance with a touch of the infernal' (p. 101). Eve is the widow of Jean Ares, a celebrated painter, old enough to be her grandfather, who immortalised her in his art. Now she lives quietly fends off her dead husband's would-be biographers and curious admirers, and keeps the secret of her twin sister Dawn, who's generally believed to have died in 1969.

The dark 'world beneath the world' of caves, tunnels and medieval passageways is explored and examined as thoroughly as Knox's perennial themes of God, mortality, belonging and looking in from outside. Daniel and Bad are both outsiders, without roots, in search of meaning. It's through their eyes -- and their emotions -- that this unusual variation on the vampire theme plays out.

Knox's The Vintner's Luck is one of my favourite novels. Daylight, in which vampires lurk in the subterranean caves and tunnels of the French-Italian border, didn't engage me as much. This is not a horror novel (though there are unsettling passages); it's not a murder mystery; it's not a romance. It's not a philosophical treatise, though the theological debate underpins the narrative like a bass line. Daylight brings together many elements, but it never quite gelled for me: I didn't engage.

Knox's prose is by turns poetic, startling, deliberately remote. (There are passages where most of the speech is reported -- "Daniel must have said something ... because Ila answered him." (p.339) -- which technique distances the reader from the characters, deadens the emotional affect.) The landscape Knox describes is as alive, as real, as the characters -- and frankly more appealing.

Oh, and I wish the copy-editor had corrected 'Alan Turling' to 'Alan Turing'.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

2010/55: Havemercy -- Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

I volunteered at the right time, just when Havemercy was fresh off the table, and she was being real picky and real precise about not having anyone fly her no matter how they coaxed, until she took one look at me and it was love at first sight, only we both knew the other one didn't have any heart for loving to speak of. She was beautiful then and she's still beautiful now, though there's a clip off her left wing from getting in too close to the real fighting one time, but we turned the tide of the skirmish and sent the Ke-Han packing ... so I guess we did all right by that. (p. 73)

Steampunk dragons, wizardry, lost love and wild romance: what's not to love?

For a hundred years Volstov and the Ke-Han empire have been at war, neither power's magical or military might sufficient to conquer the other. Now something seems to be tipping the balance -- but there's something odd about the way the war's being won. Magicians are falling ill, dragons are malfunctioning, the Esar (Volstov's ruler) isn't being wholly honest with his advisors, and the Ke-Han aren't behaving like the losing side.

Havemercy is told from four different viewpoints. Royston is a magician, exiled from court to his brother's country estate; Hal is the tutor of his brother's children and an avid reader of novels ('romans') and legend; Thom is an academic, volunteered by his mentor to reform the notoriously lawless Dragon Corps; and Rook is the reckless and arrogant bad boy of said Corps. Each of the characters has lost something; each is an agent of change; each passes through danger, finds love, makes a difference, ends up somewhere he didn't expect. Each is affected, changed, by his relationships with one or more of the other protagonists. And each man's story is different, distinct, grounded in his character.

This is a world with an eighteenth-century sensibility. Volstovian society values both arts and science (magic very firmly in the latter camp: those steampunk dragons are masterpieces of engineering with a touch of magical power). A man's wit, style and attire are as important as his wealth or prowess. With four protagonists, we're given a representative cross-section of society, from Royston's cynical charm ("it would not do to offend my brother's wife all at once. There would be no sport left for later on" (p. 21)) to Rook's rough contempt for a social order that would ordinarily have doomed him to poverty.

I'd have liked to see more female characters: I know these authors can write strong, fascinating women. And the last few chapters felt hasty after the measured (though never sluggish) pace of most of the book. But I liked this very much indeed, and would recommend to anyone who enjoyed Melusine, Swordspoint, The Well-Favored Man, Temeraire ... Or, indeed, anyone who enjoys well-written, humorous and pacy fantasy, with or without a steampunk dimension.