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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

2011/61: The Flood -- Ian Rankin

Why would he sit there? To experience, and so that afterwards he could curse his maker for creating the incident. he believed in God now, but it was a malevolent thing and he would speak of it with a small, vehement 'g'. He believed in god. He believed in the cruelty and the inevitability of suffering. And he believed that he was doomed. As if to reassure him, thunderclouds gathered above the Firth of Forth ... He knew that it was all because of him. (p.221-2)
Rankin's first novel, published when he was a 25-year-old student, is not a crime novel but an attempt to mythologise his hometown, a dark fairytale of rumoured witchcraft, uncertain parentage and prejudice.

Mary Miller, age ten, is pushed into the 'hot burn' (a steaming outflow of chemical run-off from the local coal mine) by Matty Duncan and his mates. She survives, but her hair turns white overnight. Soon afterwards Matty Duncan dies in an explosion at the mine, and the whispers of 'witch' begin.

By fifteen, Mary is something of an outcast. Then she compounds the problem by falling pregnant and refusing to reveal the father's identity. Her beloved brother Tom emigrates ('hastily', say the whisperers) to Canada. Walking home drunk one night, her father is struck and killed ('suicide') by a car.

Fast forward to the mid-Eighties. Sandy, Mary's son, is fifteen, and thinks of himself as the man of the house. He's accustomed to his mother's strange ways (talking to her mother and father at their graves, attending church despite the stares and whispers, dating Sandy's English teacher) and is making a place for himself in the community. Then he falls in love with Rian, a gypsy girl, whose brother Robbie may or may not have rather too much influence over her. His mother's sure to approve: after all, she knows what it's like to be an outsider, like Rian ...

I didn't find this a very satisfactory read. It's very much a young man's book: the older characters, and the women, seem one-dimensional. Sandy acts, thinks and exists in a teenaged maelstrom of melodrama. (More than once his choices are explicitly influenced by 'Hollywood films'.) Perhaps the most vivid depiction is that of the town itself: Carsden is small, close-knit (apart from those it shuns) and very much a victim of the changing economic climate. Carsden, of course, not being an actual person, doesn't get any closure or resolution: but then, neither do Sandy or Mary or Rian.

I'm not very familiar with Rankin's later, better-known work, but I get the impression that The Flood is not typical.

2011/59-60: The Sharing Knife: Beguilement / Legacy -- Lois McMaster Bujold

"Groundsense. It's a sense of everything around us. What's alive, where it is, how it's doing ..."
"Not the way farmers use the term. It's not like getting something for nothing. It's just the way the world is, deep down." (Beguilement, p. 68)

Again, books I've owned for a while but only just got round to reading. I'm a fan of Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, and I like the first two of her Chalion novels (not so keen on the third), but these two volumes -- really two halves of a single long novel -- weren't as enjoyable a read, for me, as I'd expected.

Some elements are familiar from Bujold's other works. The maimed hero (like Miles); the  vulnerability and strength of a pregnant woman (like Cordelia); the quiet feuds of domestic life (nothing quite as hilariously awful as the dinner-party scene in A Civil Campaign); the tension between the peaceful majority who must be protected and the warrior-class who protect them (ImpSec, Simon Illyan); a protagonist set apart by their ability to see through superficial appearance to the underlying essence of a person (Ista, Miles ...) Other elements seem new: The Sharing Knife has a distinctly rural ambience, drawing on the trope of pioneers settling an empty land; there's a romance between two characters at greatly different stages of their lives; there's an enemy that seems wholly evil.

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement and Legacy fall further towards the 'romantic' end of the 'SF&F Romance' spectrum than Bujold's other works. There's a strong fantastical element, but the plot is more focussed on the relationship between Dag (a Lakewalker, or magic-user, half in love with easeful death, who's spent many years combatting malices -- beings of pure magic, or 'ground', who enslave and corrupt mortal life) and Fawn (teenaged farmgirl runaway, feisty as all get-out, who finds that life on the road holds more hazards than brigands and sore feet).

The emotional weight isn't in the magical conflict or the mystery of the malices, but in the interactions of Fawn and Dag with one another and with their respective families. There's a striking contrast between Dag's 'family', the Lakewalkers, who respect but don't truly love him, and Fawn's farmer-folk, who love her but don't respect her.

And in the end, the finale of Legacy doesn't feel like any kind of ending: Dag and Fawn step back from their situations and choose a third path. I expect that there's much of interest in later books about malices, about the ancient history of this world, about the gods and their absence: but I'm not intrigued enough, nor fond enough of the protagonists, to rush to read more.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

2011/56-8: Arthur trilogy -- Kevin Crossley-Holland

Sometimes what happens in my life echoes what happens in the stone, sometimes it's the other way round. But my stone also shows me people and places I've never seen before -- the fortress of Tintagel, King Uther, Ygerna, the hooded man. (The Seeing Stone, p. 301)

I've owned these books for many years, and only read them recently (enforced inactivity plus Indian summer). The first volume was lauded for the quality of the prose and the format (one hundred short chapters): it was awarded the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, the Tir na n-Og prize, and the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize bronze medal, and shortlisted for the Whitbread Awards.

The trilogy begins in the year 1199. Arthur de Caldicot is thirteen years old, living in a castle in the middle Marches (English / Welsh border) at the heart of a community of sixty. He fights with his elder brother Serle, comforts younger sister Sian when her cat goes missing, trains to become a squire and eventually a knight, and cherishes dreams of marrying his cousin Grace.

Merlin, a mysterious and unholy wanderer who comes and goes as he pleases, gives Arthur a piece of polished obsidian, telling him it's the most valuable thing he will ever have. Arthur sees visions in the stone: he watches, and recounts, the story of the legendary king whose name he shares, colouring what he sees with his own experience, perception and perspective.

The first novel, for me, is the most successful and the most interesting: it contrasts an intimate and vivid description of medieval life, the rhythm of the seasons and the equalities and inequalities of feudal society, with the glories of King Arthur's birth, youth and ascension to the throne.

The second novel, At the Crossing-Places, is about the imminence of change. Arthur, now wiser as to his own heritage, is preparing to go on crusade with Lord Stephen de Holt. He's becoming more aware of the wider world, and thinking more rigorously about his place in it. And in the stone, he sees the glory that was the legendary Camelot -- and begins to wonder if he, too, might bring about an age of justice and honour.

There's a long hiatus, in story-time and in Arthur's personality, between the second and third novels. Some of the events that occur in that hiatus are described, with benefit of hindsight, by Arthur: others are merely alluded to, or left implicit.

King of the Middle March -- the title itself is the spoiler -- mostly deals with Arthur's experiences abroad. There's a great deal of frustration: Crossley-Holland really brings to life the sheer logistic challenge of mounting a crusade; recruiting tens of thousands of fighting men, feeding and watering and transporting them, and keeping them spiritually pure.

Arthur comes to question the morality of war against the 'infidel': he meets Saracens, sees the horrors perpetrated against them in the name of God, and watches as Arthur-in-the-stone strives for, and fails to achieve, peace.

King Arthur is standing on the beach at Dover, under the white chalk cliffs. He's up to his knees in water, and around him pairs of men are locking, arrows are whirring, pikes are jabbing, swords are swinging, soldiers are lurching, landing-skiffs are bobbing, blood is staining, words are cursing and praying, ordering, threatening, begging... (King of the Middle March, p. 311)

The language is lovely, with Anglo-Saxon rhythm balanced by Arthur's own lyricism and knack for the detail that unlocks a description and makes it real. (Ocean waves make 'short sounds without memories'.) The parallels between his story and that of Arthur-in-the-stone aren't always as clear as they might be, but over the course of the three novels Arthur progresses from wondering if Arthur-in-the-stone is himself to turning away from the blood-stained history he perceives in the polished obsidian. Crossley-Holland ties in myth, folklore and superstition -- hunting the hare on Easter Sunday, turning back from a journey if there are too many bad omens -- with Arthur's own Christian beliefs and the pervasive influence of religion in his world. That contrast brings to life the medieval period, and makes for an absorbing and fascinating read.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

2011/55: Ombria in Shadow -- Patricia McKillip

Mag never told Faey that she knew she was other than made. Human being what it was -- raging, messy, cruel, drunken and stupid -- she decided to remain wax. If, she reasoned, she did not say the word, no one would ever know. Saying 'human' would make her so. (p.20)

Ombria is a bright city sparkling with the decadent seeds of its own downfall. Its Prince is dying and Domina Pearl, the malevolent Regent, sets courtier against courtier and banishes the Prince's mistress Lydea to the streets from whence she came. Beneath those streets lies the city's own shadow, a maze of forgotten alleyways, disused cellars, sunken houses and gardens buried beneath dead leaves. The undercity is the realm of Faey the sorceress, who has a thousand faces and sells her magic to whoever might buy. Her waxling, Mag -- who Faey makes out to be a made thing, a magical construct, but a spell goes astray and Mag discovers the truth -- runs Faey's errands, slipping through Ombria's streets, watching and reporting and helping those who Faey makes her business. Among those she watches are Ducon Greve, the dead Prince's bastard nephew; Kyel, the young heir, who misses his friend Lydea; and Kyel's tutor Camas Erl, who's fascinated by the legends of a catastrophe that will transform Ombria from a city of despair and fear into something light and full of hope.

McKillip's prose often feels, to me, like a medieval tapestry, rich with colour and detail and odd, precise glimpses of magic. (The mirrors in Faey's sanctum are old, 'overused, shadowy with images'. Outside the palace gates, a garden of sunflowers stands guard.) Ombria in Shadow is beautifully written, and the protagonists rounded and realistic, heartsore with grief but not incapable of action. Despite the urban setting and the convolutions of shadow and light, the ambience of this novel brings to mind McKillip's Riddlemaster trilogy in ways that some of her more recent fantasy novels don't: perhaps it's the comfortable and credible quasi-medieval setting, without much overt magic, where characters are as likely to do laundry or visit a brothel as they are to cast spells or fight enemies.

The ending, which I shan't spoil here, felt sudden and hollow on first reading, but on reflection I find it wholly satisfactory. I'd love to encounter these characters again.