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

Monday, October 31, 2016

2016/56: The Villa in Italy -- Elizabeth Edmondson

It was odd how English people had reverted to their old habits of reserve and suspicion after the war. Conversations with strangers at bus stops and on trains, being invited in for a cup of tea by neighbours you had never spoken to before, the very unEnglish sense of camaraderie -- all of that had vanished. While queues and saving string and old envelopes had stayed.[loc. 698]

The mid-Fifties: long enough after the Second World War for wartime tragedies to lose their bite, and for a semblance of normality to return, but not long enough to heal every wound. Four people are summoned to the Villa Dante in Italy for the reading of Beatrice Malaspina's will. None of them knew Beatrice Malaspina: none of them have very much to lose. So five travellers -- Delia's best friend Jessica accompanies her -- make their way across post-war Europe to the beautiful, sunny Italian coast.

They are four very different people. Marjorie was a successful author, but hasn't written for years. She hears voices, possibly as a result of an accident. Lucius, an American, is a former officer, haunted by a wartime killing. Delia is an opera singer who hates singing tragedy, and whose true love Theo is married to her sister. (Her friend Jessica is Theo's sister.) And George is a nuclear physicist who worked at Los Alamos.

Beatrice Malaspina, it turns out, had a connection to each of these people, though they didn't know it. And each of them is, in turn, connected to the others. The Villa Dante is full of surprises and clues (apparently there's a codicil to the will, concealed somewhere on the premises) and as the guests get to know one another, they also come to understand themselves -- and their roles in Beatrice Malaspina's posthumous production -- rather better.

This is a delightful novel. Elizabeth Edmondson -- who also wrote as Elizabeth Pewsey and Elizabeth Aston -- has the gift of peppering her stories with well-paced, and well-placed, scraps of information. There is never too little information, and very seldom too much (though in The Villa in Italy, the unexpected arrival of one character's father does presage a certain amount of expository dialogue).

I think what I liked about this novel is the way that the author writes about people, and their interactions. Her characters are all well-rounded, and mostly unhappy at the beginning of the novel, and mostly happy at the end: and they evolve through the course of the novel, and through their interactions with and acceptance of one another. Also, there is a canonically queer character: and those 'happy endings' are not simple romantic HEA.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

2016/55: Daughter of Smoke and Bone -- Laini Taylor

In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone's shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn't gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn't souls, either. It was weirder than any of that. It was teeth.[loc. 460]

Karou is a seventeen-year-old art student in Prague, smarting over the treachery of her ex-boyfriend Kaz and enjoying city life in the company of her friends. She is also errand-girl to Brimstone, a kindly monster who collects teeth -- or, rather, has Karou collect them for him -- and creates wishes out of them. Wishes aren't exactly magic, but they bestow powers: the more powerful the wish, the greater the chance that it might go awry. Brimstone, meanwhile, won't tell Karou anything about her origins, or about his own purpose: but he does give her a new language, wish-granted, every birthday.

Karou has more or less resigned herself to happy ignorance when she encounters Akiva, a beautiful and dangerous young man who has been sent to destroy Brimstone's workshop.

As Akiva and Karou get to know one another, they both learn of the ancient war between the seraphim and the chimaera -- and of their own roles in that war. For Karou's name means 'hope' in the chimaera language: and Akiva's hands bear the tally-marks of all the chimaera he has slain.

There are rather too many explanations and infodumps in this novel, the first of a trilogy: but that is a reflection of the complexity of the world-building and the characters' backstories. Karou's adoptive family of 'devils' -- and the questions she's never thought to ask about them -- contrast sharply with the beautiful, terrible seraphs and the centuries-old war that consumes them all.

The rules of magic in this universe are harsh: power comes from pain, and it need not be one's own pain. (The most powerful of the wishes that are crafted in Brimstone's workshop are those which are paid for with one's own teeth, self-extracted.) And when one individual can gain from another's pain, the result is slavery.

I'm looking forward to reading the other two volumes in this trilogy, though I am faintly disquieted by the relationship between Akiva and Karou: perhaps when Karou is more fully herself, and has assimilated her own past, things will feel more balanced.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

2016/54: We Have Always Lived in the Castle -- Shirley Jackson

... all during those days when the change was coming Jonas stayed restless. From a deep sleep he would start suddenly, lifting his head as though listening, and then, on his feet and moving in one quick ripple, he ran up the stairs and across the beds and around through the doors in and out and then down the stairs and across the hall and over the chair in the dining room and around the table and through the kitchen and out into the garden where he would slow, sauntering, and then pause to lick a paw and flick an ear and take a look at the day.[loc. 679]

Mary Katherine Blackwood -- Merricat -- is eighteen. She lives with her cat Jonas and her elder sister Constance in a grand old house. All the rest of her family are dead, except for enfeebled Uncle Julian, confined to his wheelchair and obsessed with the events of the night when the rest of the family died. To Merricat falls the task of going to the village to buy food: the villagers hate her, and it's mutual. Merricat has also assumed responsibility for protecting the house: her methodology includes burying teeth and jewellery, nailing a book to a tree, establishing magic words, et cetera.

But one day her efforts fail, and Cousin Charles shows up. He has their best interests at heart, but he and Merricat take a more or less instant dislike to one another. Cousin Charles is an agent of change, and Merricat does not want anything to change: so Cousin Charles will have to go.

I have never really understood why We Have Always Lived in the Castle is described as a horror novel. There's certainly that sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped, that I associate with the genre. It is true, too, that an act of mass murder looms large in the background of the novel: but that is not the focus of the story. Nor is magic: Merricat, for all her rituals and observances, is probably not really a witch (though I could make a case for a degree of solipsism). She is not a reliable narrator, either: the slow unfolding of this novel is especially intriguing because of the things that Merricat never thinks to tell her audience.

This was a reread after many years: I was (as usual) surprised by what I remembered -- Jonas' stories, the spider in the sugar bowl, the house on the moon -- and what I'd forgotten. I think when I first read this novel, I felt as though I might have a certain amount in common with Merricat. Those familiar with the novel will be pleased to hear that I no longer feel that way.

Friday, October 07, 2016

2016/53: Kingfisher -- Patricia A. McKillip

Rituals with letters, rituals with cauldrons, a bloody gaff, a missing knife, everyone in a time warp, looking back at the past, wishing for the good old days, hinting of portents, speaking in riddles, knowing things but never saying, never explaining — [loc. 760]

Pierce Oliver is sorting crabs on the pier, for his mother's restaurant Haricot. Along come three knights in a black limo. Their shadows reveal their ancestry, though they seem surprised that he can see those shadows. They're somewhat bemused, too, about where it is they've ended up. Cape Mistbegotten, says Pierce. If it's not on the map it's because my mother hid it.

This encounter, and the knights' invitation -- "Look for us if you come to Severluna. You might find a place for yourself in King Arden's court" -- prompts Pierce to go home and announce to his mother, the sorceress Heloise, that he is leaving home to seek his fortune. Heloise is not happy, but tells him enough about his father (also a knight at King Arden's court) to whet his appetite. Pierce charges his phone, gets in his car and drives south.

On the way to Severluna he stays the night at the Kingfisher Inn, whose owner is crippled and estranged from his wife, but who hosts the famous Friday Nite All-U-Can-Eat Fish Fry. There is something very odd about the Kingfisher Inn, its staff and its clientele. And something odd about the kitchen knife that Pierce feels compelled to steal as he leaves.

Pan out to Severluna, a cosmopolitan city where the younger royals are frequently in the headlines, and the king's bastard son is enamoured of a mysterious young woman who may have a hidden agenda. Skim sideways to the quest announced by King Arden (which pretty much boils down to 'go and look for something special -- you'll know it when you see it') and the ensuing adventures of the motorcycle-riding Knights of the Rising God.

Kingfisher has a large cast and a complex plot -- or, rather, a complex layering of plots plural, from Pierce's search for his father to the knights' quest for a bowl which may belong to their god or to a goddess; from the legendary Friday Nite Fish Fry to Stillwater's legendary restaurant where exquisite morsels leave the customers as hungry as before; from Dame Scotia Malory, intellectual and warrior, to Carrie Teague, exasperated daughter of the rather shamanic Merle; from plush limos to ancient shrines ...

It's easy to tease out threads of Arthurian and Greek myth, but the blend of Americana and arcane, all laced with McKillip's rich prose (not quite a lush as in some of her work, but though the lyricism may be sparser it still glows) and some images that reminded me of her earlier works, especially the Riddlemaster books. I liked the ways in which the characters accepted and worked around the occasional incursions of the magical, the mythic and / or the antique into their lives: the ways in which the material and spiritual worlds interwove. At times the novel feels overfull, with too many strands and characters and levels: at others, I'm delighted by that same complexity. I don't think I've enjoyed one of McKillip's novels this much since Fool's Run.