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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

2016/23: Indexing: Reflections -- Seanan McGuire

If you dug deeply enough into the Snow White story, what you found was blood on the snow, and the sacrifice at the heart of winter. There had to be something similar in all the narratives, something dark and enduring and cruel. It gave them the strength to feed, generation upon generation, on the hearts and lives of children. It gave them the strength to create people like me. [loc. 1338]

In this sequel to Indexing, McGuire explores more aspects of the narrative -- the driving force behind fairy stories, with the power to reshape reality to fit those stories. Henrietta Marchen (known as Henry) works for the ATI Management Bureau, which aims to track and contain the narrative's incursions into the mundane world. Not everyone can be a fairytale heroine: which is fortunate, because for every triumphant hero or heroine there are numerous villains, sidekicks, wicked sisters and hapless bystanders. Once upon a time doesn't imply happy ever after for everybody.

Henry and her team encounter a young woman who has learnt to subvert the narrative by rewriting and recasting her own story. In brief, she starts off as one Disney heroine and ends up as quite another. Elise breaks all the rules, but ends up with more power and more choice than anybody else who's been touched by the narrative. Does she use her powers for good? I'll give you three guesses. And those who have struggled to shape their archetypal roles into something they can live with -- Henry with her Snow White looks and entourage of suicidal bluebirds, Sloane with her Wicked Stepsister habits and, ah, offputting manner -- have to delve deep into the hearts of their own narratives to deal with the chaotic potential that Elise represents.

I'm most fascinated, here, by McGuire's unpacking of the monomyth at the heart of the Snow White story: the 'whiteout wood' where it's always winter, where blood on the snow heralds the hope of spring. Sloane's story, though, is unfolded more gradually and in unexpected directions. And we encounter a new character, Ciara Bloomfield, who's keeping her husband's Bluebeard story in abeyance by happily agreeing not to open that door ...

As with Indexed, Reflections was initially published in serial form, and it shows: the first few chapters feel relatively standalone, though the overarching story does cohere quite quickly after that. Plenty of old tales told new, including Puss in Boots (pretty grim(m), when you think about it), Hansel and Gretel, Godfather Death. And there are a couple of strong themes that hold Reflected together as a novel: the idea that a character can shape their own story (Sloane, Ciara); the Bureau's dirty laundry and underhand techniques (Sloane again, Elise, Demi); the nature of love, and its many forms. We meet Henry's brother Gerry again, and note that the narrative doesn't misgender Gerry, even when the characters do: some interesting asides on how the original story might have played out if Gerry had been gay, too. Reflections is fun, thought-provoking and occasionally pretty nasty -- just like all the best fairytales.

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