randy_byers: (brundage)
Winged Histories.jpgLet me start of by recommending that you read Abigail Nussbaum's review of this novel at Strange Horizons, because I think she understands what Samatar is up to far better than I do. In particular, I can't do any better than her concluding comments: "There is too much here to sum up, and the book contains its own contradictions. Almost every statement that it makes—about fantasy, about gender, about identity, about language—is contradicted elsewhere. This is, perhaps, to be expected from a story about the insufficiency of stories, whose characters find their freedom by refusing to be characters anymore. So it’s perhaps inevitable that one would finish this novel feeling both thoroughly satisfied and eager for more, desperate to talk about it and convinced that it can’t be properly discussed. It is—and this, again, comes as no surprise—a major and important work of modern fantasy, and also a meditation on how fantasy is, perhaps, insufficient for all that we want to say."

With this as preface, let me back up a moment and say that I reread Samatar's first novel, A Stranger in Olondriaa, in preparation for reading The Winged Histories, which is not a sequel or prequel but is set in the same secondary world. I loved A Stranger in Olondria just as much the second time as I did the first time; it instantly became one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. I found The Winged Histories much more difficult, even as I enjoyed very much re-immersing myself in this invented world, with its ornate history full of surprising nooks and crannies, and also in Samatar's sensuous, poetic prose, full of taste, smell, and tactility. Her characters also remain sharply drawn and complicated in very human ways. A Stanger in Olondria is a more focused story, with a single central narrator, although his narrative does come to include the narratives of two other important characters, both women, one of whom is also a narrator in The Winged Histories.

At the end of A Stranger in Olondria, a religious war breaks out between the followers of the orgiastic cult of Avalei and what I described in my review as the more penitential cult of the Stone. The Winged Histories is more or less about that war, but it complicates it by connecting it to a history of political empire-building in Olondria which is essentially a struggle for power between three different ethnic groups whose main point of commonality is that they all speak the Olondrian language. There are four narrators of The Winged Histories, all of whom get their own chapter. Part of what I found difficult about the novel is that I couldn't keep the history straight, and beyond the three cousins at the center of the power struggle in the current war, I couldn't follow the references to members of older generations and their relationships with each other, despite the family tree provided at the front.

It also doesn't help that within each chapter, the narrative seems to be constantly shifting forward and backward in time and breaking into fragments of language (often Oldondrian or other invented languages of the secondary world) that echo and recur in a lyrical way but weren't clearly linked otherwise in my mind, leaving me feeling lost much of the time unless the stories being related in the fragments were about the three cousins. Fortunately three of the chapters are narrated either by one of the cousins or by a lover of one of the cousins (all four narrators, by the way, are women), so other than the one orphan chapter from the point of view the forlorn priestess of the Stone, Tialon, whom we also meet in A Stranger in Olondria, most of the book was actually more focused than I sometimes felt it was. It does build to a climax as well, where the story of the three cousins comes to a kind of resolution, albeit and ambiguous one.

Anyway, Abigail Nussbaum was obviously able to follow the story better than I was, so my problems with it may be a reflection of my current state of mental disability. One thing Samatar does here that I found fascinating is to create a mythology of monsters in the prehistory of Olondria, which appear to be a typically rationalizing Just-So story for a conquering people who want to claim that they brought civilization to a world of uncontrollable barbarity in legendary times. Samatar is doing something more similar to Tolkien in creating her own mythology and languages, but whereas Tolkien is ultimately pretty clear that the stories in the Middle Earth mythology are true, Samatar is more coy and only at the end reveals that the mythology refers to something real. It's quite a spectacular transformation when it happens, in more ways than one. As Nussbaum indicates, however, there's an overarching sense in the book that words don't suffice, so the apocalyptic finale felt strangely unsatisfactory, unlike the perhaps more romantic ending of A Stranger in Olondria. Actually, both novels end with a tragic realization that love, like words, doesn't suffice, although we can't help but try to express ourselves through them anyway, so maybe the two books are less different than I thought.

Whatever the case, Samatar remains a fascinating writer who uses words in ways unlike any other contemporary writer I can think of. She's a unique voice in the modern fantasy field, challenging herself, the genre, and her readers with a complex literary sensibility that resists genre conventions. The Winged Histories didn't seem quite as successful as her first novel to me, but there was plenty of pleasure in the reading of it and exploring more of Olondria.

I admit to feeling a special kinship with Samatar, because her mother was Mennonite (her father was a Somali Muslim), she grew up in Indiana, where I was born because my dad was attending Goshen Mennonite College, which is where Samatar got her own undergraduate degree. (My sister attended Goshen College as well.) Her next book is said to be about Mennonites who immigrated from Russia to Uzbekistan in the 17th century. Sounds fascinating to me, and I really hope I get a chance to read it.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
The Stone Boatmen.jpgI picked up this fantasy novel at the last Seattle Potlatch on [livejournal.com profile] voidampersand's recommendation, and I didn't know much about it or the author before I started reading it. Within a few pages I looked the author up to confirm my suspicion that she was a poet. She writes prose like a poet: spare, careful, precise, and a little precious. The imagery is strong, and everything feels highly symbolic and subtly ornate.

The thing that makes this novel stand out is the highly original nature of the world it's set in. It's not remotely like generic Fantasyland, and it's not really like any other fantasy world I've read about, although there are aspects of it that reminded me of Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria. Part of this similarity might by stylistic too, since Samatar is also a poet writing a fantasy novel, but part of it is just how different the imaginary worlds are from anything else I've encountered. I've seen The Stone Boatmen compared to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels too, but I have to say that I didn't see it myself. But what I was going to say on this point was that it also strikes me as poetic, in the sense that poems are often about themselves and their own uniqueness. It's almost avant garde in the way it tries to avoid being generic, and yet it also avoids the incoherence that avant garde works can suffer from their lack of connection to anything familiar, at least for an audience unattuned to their individualistic meaning.

Anyway, it's a little difficult to summarize what The Stone Boatmen is about. It's about three cities that are all across oceans from each other and long out of contact although all were founded by the same civilization. One city specializes in rituals, one in poetry, and one in visions, and the deep matter of the story is how each of these things is a type of pattern-finding or meaning-communication. It's a multigenerational novel, with almost every chapter being about a new character who is a descendant of the characters in the previous chapters. It goes at least five generations deep, maybe six. If the story does have a similarity to standard fantasies it's in the way that it's mostly about the aristocracy. In the beginning a ruling family marries into a lower class fishing family, but after that all the characters are from the upper class, with basically unlimited resources to pursue their talents.

All the characters have talents, mostly falling into the three foci of the three cities. Another way that The Stone Boatmen makes me think of Samatar's novel is that both take religion seriously. In The Stone Boatmen this comes in the form of both ritual and vision. Perhaps the poetry functions as a kind of sacrament too. There is no overt religion with a church and gods, however, unlike in Samatar. (There are priests, but no theology to speak of.) Tolmie seems to be trying to tie everything together in the final chapter, but I confess that I'm not sure I understood her argument. It may have been an attempt to rationalize the visions of the future and the deep past that some of the characters experience in terms of pattern-finding. There are a number of twins in the story, and the final seer, Fjorel, observes that they are both identical and yet unique, and that this is true of classes of things in general. She has a revelation about this that may amount to realizing that the similarity of things is true through time, and this allows us to see into the past and the future. However, as I say, I'm not at all sure I understood the revelation.

This is also a non-genre story in the way that nothing much happens. There are adventures of a type, but not much in the way of swashbuckling. Characters and their relationships change, sometimes surprisingly, but it's not really a story of character either. Ultimately it's a story of discovery and ideas, and while I found it a little slow-going at times, I really appreciated the attention to detail and the strangeness of the whole endeavor. The uniqueness of the world is reason enough for the visit.
randy_byers: (Default)
fall of the kings.jpgI knew that there had been two other books in the Riverside series published since Swordspoint, but I incorrectly assumed that the next published book, The Fall of the Kings, must be the next in the series. Turns out that the third published book, The Privilege of the Sword, is actually chronologically next in the series. Alas, it features the one character from The Fall of the Kings that I actually liked, even though she only makes a very late, deus ex machina kind of entry into the story. Worse, The Fall of the Kings is not a complete story in itself and seems to be the first half of a duology. I say "alas" and "worse" because I disliked The Fall of the Kings enough that, following my disappointment with a second reading of Swordspoint, I've lost interest in reading any more of the series. I might have been better off reading The Privilege of the Sword instead, but who knows? Maybe a full novel about the mysterious Jessica Campion wouldn't have worked for me either.

Anyway, The Fall of the Kings was co-written by Ellen Kushner's wife, Delia Sherman. I remarked in my review of Swordspoint that it still stands out as unusual in the fantasy genre for lacking magic and for being set in an imaginary world that's completely separate from our own, not a fairyland or otherworld that we can access through a portal, as in much traditional fantasy. The latter continues to be true in this novel, but this time there's a vastly richer history developed for this imaginary world, and the richer history includes magic. Somewhere on the internet I ran into a review describing the Riverside books as "alternate universe historical fiction." That's pretty close to it. It's an alternate universe in which things developed very much like they did in our universe's Europe up through the Renaissance, in terms of political organization and technology, but with almost none of the specifics the same, and of course now with real magic too.

If magic was non-existent in Swordspoint, it's contested here. Specifically, it's contested academically. This is very much a university novel, and one focus is an academic debate within the History department over whether references to wizards and magic in the historical past were metaphorical or real. Everybody agrees that a kingdom was formed when kings from the north came south with their wizards and formed a union via marriage with a queen in the south. This kingdom lasted for a few centuries before the last king was murdered by a cabal of southern nobles, leaving a noble-run polity without a king as discovered in Swordspoint. Historians are clear that every one of the ruling kings in the past had a wizard, but what they disagree about is whether the wizard actually practiced magic or whether they were frauds manipulating the credulous in order to gain power.

One of our protagonists, Basil St Cloud, is a revolutionary new historian who believes that the textual evidence that magic existed should be taken at face value and not dismissed as metaphorical nonsense. He delves into paraliterary sources such as ballads and personnel lists looking for more proof of his theory, while his rival, Crabbe, accepts the received academic wisdom of the day. If this sounds a little like the debate between scholasticism and empiricism in the Renaissance, it should, and that's part of the problem I had with the book. Why reinvent these debates in an alternate history? Well, I guess it's because they really want it to be about magic, and so they overlay another layer of secret history similar to The Golden Bough or The White Goddess regarding a past religion of a sacred king who is sacrificed to fertilize the land, which history has been masked, as Frazier and Graves claimed, by later religions who for political purposes appropriated parts of it while rejecting other parts.

What's weird about this to me is that Frazier and Graves were specifically arguing that there was an old matriarchal pagan religion that was overthrown by the patriarchal monotheistic religions such as Christianity, but at least in this first book, that dimension is missing. Here we get into the other thing I disliked about the book (and about Swordspoint on second reading too), but I have to tread carefully here, because I'm highly aware this may be my own bias speaking. Which is to say, the other focus of the story is the sexual relationship between St Cloud and the noble descendant of not only Alec from Swordspoint but of the Duke who killed the last king. This is Theron Campion, who is heir to the Duke of Tremontaine and an itinerant student at the University. Campion is actually bisexual (as were Alec and St Vier in Swordspoint) and a great beauty much lusted after by many characters in the novel. He has a passionate relationship with St Cloud, which reaches derangement of the senses levels. This is not a pornographic work, but there's a lot of description of male beauty, studly strutting and rutting, swelling members, tormented lust, and sweaty sheets. A lot. I can appreciate male beauty with the best of them, but I got really tired of the sexual obsessiveness. If you're into hot gay sex, your mileage may vary.

I do think it's daring and different to make a gay relationship the center of story like this, but I'm not sure that it makes sense, unless I'm completely misunderstanding the allusions to Frazier and Graves. Why make a gay relationship the center of a fertility cult? Possibly this is part of a subversive move that will be made clear in the next book, and we'll find that the mystical Land is the female principle that can only be fertilized by sex between two men, I don't know. That could actually end up being an interesting idea, but what I found in this part of the story seemed repetitive and non-sensical. I'm tempted to throw in a joke about ineluctable masculinity, just in case I turn out to be completely wrong-headed in my interpretation.

Well, as with Swordspoint, I was continually distracted by the ways in which this world seemed like a thinly disguised version of our own history transposed for some reason into this Neverneverland, from the conflict between Medieval scholasticism and Enlightenment empiricism, the allusions to Frazier and Graves, and the twentieth century academic bohemian experience reimagined as nobles slumming it in crime-ridden but gentrifying lower class taverns. (Way too many scenes of students arguing in taverns, too.) The mix certainly didn't work for me, even though some of the elements are of interest. It was slightly maddening, because I felt I should like it, but it just irritated the hell out of me instead. Late in the book, Theron's bastard lesbian pirate sister enters the story and enlivens the proceedings immeasurably by being smarter and more competent than everyone else in the room, which makes me curious about The Privilege of the Sword, which is apparently all about her, but after not enjoying either of these other Riverside novels, I'm not willing to give a third a try without strong evidence that it's something I actually would enjoy.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Swordspoint.jpgI pulled Swordspoint off my shelf because reading Georgette Heyer reminded me of it. Apparently I'm not the only one, because there in the first edition jacket copy is this quote from Peter S. Beagle: "Charming, exciting, and ironically provocative, rather as though Georgette Heyer had turned her hand to fantasy." I remember loving this novel when I first read it around the time it came out, but I didn't care for it as much this time. I'm not sure what the problem was the second time around, but it could be related to why Heyer almost immediately lost her appeal for me after the first novel I read. Maybe I don't actually like romance novels. Because Swordspoint is very much a romance, as in a story of love, and one of the things that was so striking about it back when it first came out (so to speak) was that it's a gay romance with more than a hint of S/M to it.

Of course another striking thing about Swordspoint that I found troublesome the second time through is that it's only a fantasy in that it takes place in a completely invented world. There's no magic, and it's not an Otherworld like Faerie. Neither is it a Ruritanian story, where the action takes place in an invented country that's still somehow part of our world. Swordspoint is set in an imaginary country that seems to be at the same level of technology as Europe in the Renaissance, so it does feel a little bit like traditional fantasy in that it's a world of swords, horses, ale houses, and aristocracy. While the story moves back and forth between the high class world of ducal places and the lowlife haunts of the impoverished, criminal Riverside district, where swordsman-for-hire Richard St Vier lives with his mysterious lover, Alec, it's mostly a novel of court intrigue, involving political machinations amongst the nobility, who are vying against each other for power and who hire St Vier to do their killing for them.

Part of my problem this time was that none of this felt very real to me. I know, it's a fantasy, what does reality have to do with it, right? Well, maybe nothing. But because it's all invented and because it's tied neither to history nor the alternate history and secret lore of Faerie, it felt like it was happening in a void in which none of the machinations really mattered. Again, maybe this is further evidence that I just don't care for romances, because the meat of the matter is the torrid, if playful, love of Richard and Alec. If you don't care about that (and I didn't this time), it's hard to care about the political intrigue that embroils them, although I will say that there are some ironic twists to the action invoking the law of unintended consequences that I did find very effective. But for me it lacked the weirdness and sense of alternate reality that I crave from fantasy and find in classics like Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter and Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist (which Kushner cites as an influence).

Maybe I'm also in a sour enough mood right now due to personal circumstances that "witty" novels just aren't doing it for me. I remember thinking this was, in fact, a very witty, effervescent novel the first time I read it, but all the wit and high spirits seemed very flat to me this time around. The novel I read before this, Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, was also a romance but a very sour one, and it was much more to my taste. So I'm strongly hedging my review on this one, because I suspect that I'm just not in the right mood for Swordspoint right now. Alas, this has been even more the case for the sequel, The Fall of the Kings, which I've been reading since I finished Swordspoint and which does involve magic and secret lore, so maybe my problem isn't just with the romance. Your mileage is very likely to vary from mine, so make sure to read around about this very influential novel before you make a decision about whether to read it yourself. But of course, that's what you should always do.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Dread Companion Richard Powers.jpgDread Companion is my favorite type of Andre Norton novel. A lot of her novels have grim subject-matter -- orphans, refugees, war, crisis -- but her best novels add a weirdness to the darkness. She can create a twilight mood with the best of them, in which the uncertain light threatens to reveal inner monstrosity.

Dread Companion is a science fiction wrapper around a fantasy core. The opening is a very sharp depiction of social customs in the future history that Andre Norton used in most of her science fiction stories. Protagonist Kilda c'Rhyn is the child of a Survey scout father and a mother from a trading family. Her parents entered a standard three-year marriage contract common for Survey scouts, who can't stay in one place for long, and Kilda was raised in a creche after he left for his next mission. She never saw either parent again. The children of such "cross-births" are usual male and can qualify for government service, but as a female she's blocked from this career path. (An interesting bit of feminism in this 1970 novel.) Instead she uses her mutant outcast mentor, Lazk Volk, to find her a governess job with the wife of a government archaelogist and their teenage daughter and son. The husband has been assigned to the planet Dylan, where his job is to judge whether the mysterious ruins ("it might once have either had native inhabitants or been a colony of one of the Forerunner race"), and they travel by spaceliner to meet him there.

The daughter, Bartare, is a difficult personality who is clearly hiding something. Both she and the boy, Oomark, refer to a Lady who is invisible to everyone else, and Oomark shows signs of extreme anxiety regarding Her. Eventually all three characters are transported to an alternate reality, which even the characters themselves compare to Faerie. Both Ooomark and Kilda begin to transform into strange creatures, although Kilda resists it. This theme of becoming alien is also quite common in Norton's novels, and it's where the weirdness really starts to enter the story, as Kilda finds her toes becoming rootlike and attempting to dig into the ground for nourishment. This is yet another rite of passage story, which is usually what Norton's young adult novels are, and Kilda is another orphan/outcast who finds herself thrust into an existential crisis in which she struggles to find the inner grit, the external resources, and the allies to help her survive.

Because of the reference to Forerunner races early on, I kept expecting the strange twilight world they find themselves in to be rationalized in terms of a lost superscientific technology, but in fact the story becomes a straight magical fantasy in the long middle section. However, as in Ordeal in Otherwhere, the alternate reality and magical powers of its inhabitants have rules that do give even this part of the story a science fictional cast, and Norton is particularly good at depicting the shifting transformations of the characters from human to alien/supernatural and back, depending largely on the food they eat but also on certain talismans of power. As is also typical of her work, there are several contending factions in a complicated array, with the beleaguered protagonists stuck somewhere in the indefinite middle of the conflict between multiple sides. My one complaint about this section is that the character reactions seemed a little repetitive at times.

What really lifts Dread Companion above the run of Norton's mill is the ending, and I don't think I can really discuss this without SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Of course Kilda and the two children and another character whom they meet in the alternate reality escape back to the planet Dylan. But like other visitors to Faerie, they discover that a great deal of time has passed while they were away. Basically the world they return to has been completely transformed. An alien invasion destroyed civilization in that sector of the galaxy, and Dylan was evacuated, leaving only a rump colony. Everybody the characters knew is long dead, and their choices are either to join the rump colony and breed children, or ... what? There's another option involving the stranger they met in the alternate reality, who was there even longer than they were, but while it gives Kilda some hope for the future, the uncertainty of the situation she faces is, if anything, even greater than her uncertain prospects at the beginning of the novel. Now all four characters are orphans of a sort, having lost not just their families but pretty much everything else as well. We've seen Kilda survive a terrible ordeal, so we expect she'll do okay, but nothing has gotten easier, despite her rite of passage. This is pretty powerful stuff, and I could easily see this one as a direct influence on C.J. Cherryh, who has acknowledged a debt to Norton. I also think Dread Companion is another great title, invoking an anxious, threatening intimacy.
randy_byers: (brundage)
Claimed is a fantasy novel with elements of horror. It opens with a ship discovering a volcanic island recently thrust up from the ocean and bearing what appears to be ruins of an ancient city. One of the crew finds a green oblong box and takes it with him. We next see him sell the object to a dealer in ancient artifacts in San Francisco. We switch once more in this fitful beginning to an old millionaire who has acquired the object and has some kind of seizure in the middle of the night. A young doctor is called in to tend to him, and an element of romance is introduced into the mystery when he immediately falls for the old man's beautiful silver-haired niece. The old man hires the doctor as a kind of guard, and bizarre events begin to unfold as the doctor gradually becomes aware that there's something unnatural about that oblong box.

argosy_19200306.jpgThis novel isn't quite as compelling as Stevens' Citadel of Fear or The Heads of Cerberus, but it still has a number of things to recommend it. Chief amongst these is the eerie, foreboding atmosphere she's able to conjure at times and the full bore explosion of fantastic imagery in the finale, which many people have pointed out bears some resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," published six years later. The other strength is the character of the old man, who is a successful capitalist who is notable for his fierce possessiveness -- which is depicted as a source of both strength and weakness and really gives the story its shape, leaving the protagonist doctor seeming a bit secondary despite his acts of heroism.

If Stevens has a failing as a writer, it's a lack of so-called narrative drive. All of her longer works suffer from too many scenes in which the characters sit around interpreting what has just happened, rather than doing something. Claimed suffers from this narrative passivity more than her best stories, and the insipid romance that she often manages to keep in the background is too much in the forefront in this one. Or maybe it's just that the doctor is such an uninteresting characters compared to the brash Irishmen of Citadel and Cerberus. The niece is practically a non-entity, so she also pales in comparison to the female protagonists of those two books.

This is not the kind of lost world adventure that was something of a specialty of Stevens', but more of a metaphysical fantasy along the lines of her novel Possessed: A Tale of the Demon Serapion, which was also serialized in 1920. On that front the novel succeeds in creating an otherworldly feeling, particularly in the climax, but also in a fine scene involving the doctor's aunt, who arrives on the scene as a blithe spiritualist whom he shamefacedly (as a man of science) asks for help. Indeed, it's really only the doctor and niece who are weak characters, since many of the secondary characters come off better. Stevens' descriptive powers as just as strong as always, and here she does a good job of characterizing the sea, which has a central role in the story. She also does a good job of evoking the foggy atmosphere of San Francisco, which makes me a little curious whether she had visited before she moved there after she stopped writing. Well, she could just as easily have picked it up from reading other adventure stories.

I believe I've now read everything that Stevens published except her first short story, which came out when she was 17, and the novel Avalon, which has never been reprinted perhaps because it has no elements of fantasy and is thus of little interest to the readers who have kept her name alive. She only wrote for a short period, so her body of work is not large. I'm still not sure what to make of the claims that she was influential on the developing genres of dark fantasy and science fiction, because I simply haven't read widely enough in that era to have much sense of what was common and what was new, but she is certainly a writer worth paying attention to. She's not doing too badly for a forgotten writer, since she's had a pretty good history of being reprinted. I highly recommend her to anyone interested in the pulp era of the fantastic.

[Magazine cover scan from isfdb.org.]
randy_byers: (brundage)
Infernal Desire Machines.jpgAngela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a ferociously intellectual novel, and I'm frankly not sure I'm fully up to the task of analyzing it. The story concerns an assault on reality by Doctor Hoffman and his infernal desire machines, which cause imaginary things to appear real. The protagonist, Desiderio, is a government functionary who is more or less impervious to this assault, and he is sent by the uber-rationalist Minister of Determination to assassinate Hoffman. Complicating matters is that Desiderio is hot for Hoffman's unattainable and shape-shifting daughter, Albertine. He embarks on what even the novel itself calls a picaresque journey through a fantastic realm in which his goals are constantly transformed, but in the end (as he tells you in the beginning) he gets his man and restores the world to unmagical realism.

So much for the plot, and I have to say that for a ferociously intellectual novel it really does tell a story -- even an adventure story, an old-time romance of sorts. There's plenty of sex, quite a bit of death, gunshots, narrow escapes, river boats, exotic tribes, pirates, landslides, cannibals, centaurs, you name it. There's a bit of Gulliver's Travels to it (and at least one direct reference to the same), a bit of Heart of Darkness (probably including the racism), and more than a bit of the quest for the Holy Grail. It's a Romance, but it's very anti-Romantic too. It's about desire and how it mediates our perception of what is real, and about how the object of our desire is always out of reach. It's about love and death, and the love of death.

Jeff Vandermeer has called it "the finest surrealist novel of the past 30 years" (which dates the comment, since the novel is now over 40 years old), and it does seem Surrealist in a pretty direct sense, not just the common sense of surrealist as something weird or dreamlike. It is about irrationality and the human predisposition to it, about the fragility or artifice of meaning and causality, about the bestial impulses that we try to paper over with morality, decorum, and reason. It flaunts taboos and any sense of the obscene, and it features a character in the Count who seems clearly modeled on the Marquis de Sade -- a self-aggrandizing champion of the overthrow of all civilized hypocrisy. In fact, it feels very French to me in the way it embraces critical theory and uses it to tear down consensual understandings of reality through proclamations of the self-annihilating nature of ideas. Characters speak in manifestos, thrusting their theories into the soft underbelly of common sense.

As a bravura performance, it's impressive, but at times I found it exhausting in the same way I find Samuel R. Delany's exploration of critical theory and French philosophy exhausting. As I've said before, Carter's last two novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, have a warmer, more humanistic feel to them, and perhaps I'm showing my age in preferring their more accepting view to the testier feel of The Infernal Desire Machines and The Passion of New Eve. That said, I was completely fascinated by Carter's wild imagination in this one, and her ability to shift not only from one remarkably strange setting to another but also to shift literary modes as she did so. Science fiction, romance, surrealism, fable, myth, magical realism, erotic daydream, philosophical treatise, swashbuckling adventure -- all are grist for her literary mill, and she seems to handle all these modes, and the blending of them, with ease. She has a real genius for synthesizing her different obsessions, and the flipside of the uncomfortably challenging nature of this work (as with Delany's) is that the lack of easy answers is invigorating. Once again she pries open the contradictions of desire, and while she folds it into a melancholy that feels comfortably familiar, she never settles for a nostalgic sense of loss or separation. Desire for Carter is uncontainable, unfathomable, disruptive. It makes monkeys of us all, and there's something magical in that transformation.
randy_byers: (brundage)
After reading The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, I was left with the impression that Francis Stevens (pen name for Gertrude Barrows Bennett) was a kind of outsider artist who used genre tropes in eccentric ways, perhaps due to her inexperience as a writer, and wasn't always in complete control of her material. Now having read the two novels she is perhaps most famous for, I've revised my impression. Theses are both supremely accomplished pulp novels in which she exhibits full control of the tropes and material. If they are somewhat eccentric, it's in the way that she blends genres, although it's important to bear in mind that she was writing at a time (her stories were published between 1917 and 1923) when the pulp magazines were only on the verge of specializing into specific genres of the fantastic such as horror and science fiction. But in terms of the skills of the writer, these novels seem superior to me than anything written by Homer Eon Flint, for example. Her imagination is similarly outrageous, too, although it runs more toward the occult and the weird than Flint's did.

Stevens Citadel of Fear Argosy.jpgCitadel of Fear was serialized in The Argosy magazine in September and October 1917. (I read the 1984 paperback from Caroll & Graf.) It's a remarkable novel that starts out as a lost world story set in Mexico. Two American gold miners -- one a big bull of an Irishman, who is the protagonist, and the other a clever sneak, who is the antagonist -- are lost in the Mexican desert when they stumble upon a mysterious hacienda. Soon they are taken to an underground city inhabited by pre-Toltec giants. A conflict amongst this strange race results in our hero being expelled from the hidden city. The action then moves forward fifteen years, when our hero visits his sister in the suburbs of a large city in the Eastern US. Soon the household is under attack from bizarre and mysterious creatures, and the main suspect is a sinister man who lives in a walled compound and claims to be breeding livestock. What he's really up to is much more outlandish than that, of course, and the novel climaxes in a supernatural conflict.

Citadel of Fear is very conventional in many ways, with a manly man as the hero and an early form of the manic pixie dream girl as his love interest. The lost world section of the story is fascinating for the way it creates its exotic pre-Columbian fantasy world, in which ancient Mexican gods vie for power. The action bogs down a bit in the middle part of book, as perhaps too much futile coming-and-going and vague bumpings in the night and comical-skeptical detectives prolong the slow reveal of what then becomes a wonderfully grotesque premise leading to the finale. As others have commented, if the early parts bear the imprint of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, there's more than a little bit of H.G. Wells' Island of Dr Moreau in the latter part of the book, although this is more science fantasy than science fiction when push comes to shove. It's here that Stevens' grotesque imagination is set free, and there is a nightmare quality to the climax that still carries quite a charge. It's also fascinating how Stevens retains a conflicted, mixed perspective of skepticism, Christianity, and paganism in the denouement, with a slight emphasis on the latter that seems a hallmark of the fantasy genre.

The Heads of Cerberus was serialized in The Thrill Book magazine in August through October 1919. (I read the 1952 hardback collectors edition from Polaris Press.) The Thrill Book was a short-lived attempt to publish a magazine specializing in the fantastic, and Stevens apparently sold them other stories that were lost when the magazine quickly folded. This novel begins in contemporary Philadelphia when another big bull of an Irish-American finds his friend blacked out from a blow to the head in an upstairs bedroom. Soon we learn about an ancient crystal vial with a Cerberus-headed stopper and supposedly containing dust of magical properties. When the dust is poured out, the two men and the Irishman's sister (where have we seen that before?) are transported first to a weird twilight fantasyland and then to a dystopian Philadelphia of two centuries in the future. Satirical and yet cracking adventures ensue, with a wonderfully unsettled resolution in which the transformative dust disappears with a gentleman of uncertain intentions.

Stevens Head of Cerberus Thrill Book.jpgThe Heads of Cerberus is touted as possibly the first alternate world story. What's interesting to me about that aspect of the story is that the alternate Philadelphia ends up being specifically a kind of imaginary world even within the story itself. It isn't so much a parallel world as one that is conjured up by the imaginations of the protagonists, and thus it becomes a kind of metaphor for science fiction itself: a work of the imagination. I also found it interesting that the rationalization for how this other world was created/reached was very reminiscent of the rationalization for the parallel world in The Blind Spot by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint, which was serialized in Argosy All-Story in 1921. Hall is usually credited for the occult aspects of that hybrid novel, and it must be said that Stevens handles the occult aspects of her novel much more competently than Hall does. Still, both novels have occult and science fictional aspects, and I'm not enough of a scholar of the era to surmise whether it's a matter of influence or of common practice in the pulps in those days.

A lot of claims are made for Stevens' influence on the developing genres of the fantastic. It appears that the admiring quote about Citadel of Fear that's still widely attributed to H.P. Lovecraft was not in fact written by him. It was written by someone named August T. Swift, which was long wrongly thought to be a pseudonym of Lovecraft's. I haven't seen any indication that Lovecraft commented on Stevens at all, although people see signs of influence, and I can see why. As for the claim that A. Merritt admired her work, there is no direct evidence that I've seen. Apparently for many years people thought Stevens was a pseudonym of Merritt's, and this was only debunked in the '50s. Again, you can see the similarities in the works of Stevens and Merrit, but is that a sign of influence? Whatever the case, Stevens remained a name to be conjured with amongst the cognoscenti of the fantasy pulps, and the fact that her work has been reprinted over the years attests to a continuing admiration, even if this has never led to fame.

One of the best articles I've found about her is Andrew Liptak's Kirkus Review piece, "The Influential Pulp Career of Frances Stevens". Here I learned that Gertrude Barrows published her first story in 1904 at the age of 17, thus establishing that she was interested in writing at an early age. (Other pieces I've read indicated that she was more interested in drawing early on.) Another interesting tidbit is that when she picked up the pen again in 1917, the pen name she wanted to use was Jean Veil, but Munsey magazine editor Bob Davis stuck her with Francis Stevens for some reason. Maybe he thought "Veil" was too obvious, but I like its artificiality.

Both of these novels are available in etexts, but I've read that a lot of the e-versions of Citadel of Fear don't include the whole novel, so be sure to dig a bit before you download one. Last time I checked, neither novel was available at the Gutenberg Project, and I think I only found one work by Stevens there. Another sign, perhaps, that she is arill undervalued. Whether she was influential or not, her stories and novels strike me as more than worthy to be included in the roster of forgotten writers mentioned in the jacket copy of Polaris Press: "Some of these old masters of fantasy -- and there are many others -- were A. Merritt, Murray Leinster, Homer Eon Flint, Ray Cummings, Garrett P. Serviss, J.U. Giesy and Francis Stevens." For me she joins Serviss and Flint as previously unknown writers of early science fiction who are worth exploring in depth.

[NOTE: The scans of the magazine covers were taken from isfdb.org.]
randy_byers: (brundage)
stevens nightmare.jpgI previously wrote about the first story in this collection, "The Nightmare," in February 2010, and it has taken me this long to get back to the rest of the stories. As I noted then, Francis Stevens was the pen name for Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who wrote a variety of fantasy stories for mostly the Munsey magazines from 1917 to 1923. Her work was admired by A. Merritt and H.P. Lovecraft, and several of her novels have been reprinted over the years. The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2004, and it appears to contain all of her short fiction, although "The Labyrinth" has apparently been published as a stand-alone novel in its own right.

Gary Hoppenstand, in his introduction to this edition, argues that Stevens was not only an influence on Merritt and Lovecraft but one of the inventors of the dark fantasy subgenre, which might be described as a merger of fantasy and horror. That may be the case, but these stories aren't all dark fantasies. Even the ones that are seem to come at it from an odd angle. For example, "The Labyrinth" starts out as a mystery about the disappearance of a young woman, who is the cousin of the narrator and the love interest of two other men. As in "The Nightmare," the protagonist is not a very heroic figure and basically bumbles his way into the titular labyrinth in the company of his cousin and her suitors. The labyrinth is full of strange devices and inexplicable designs which menace the lives of this variably intrepid crew, but ultimately it becomes merely a backdrop to the real matter of the story, which is the choice the young woman has to make between the two suitors. So instead of a metaphor for the mysteries of life and death, the labyrinth becomes a metaphor for the mystery of love. The story is most effective as an exploration of the challenges and convolutions of choosing a good partner, and it keeps you guessing until the end on that score.

"The Elf Trap" is likewise a romantic story with supernatural elements. "Friend Island" is the real oddball in the collection, set in a feminist future in which women are the dominant gender and one aviator-adventuress nearly finds paradise on a strange tropical island before a man spoils all the fun. It's really a remarkable story. "Sunfire" is more like "The Nightmare": a lost world adventure story set in a South American milieu, but while there's a monster in this one what's unusual about the approach is how much it plays like a comedy of errors, with once again a band of "heroes" who basically come across as a bunch of bumbling, egotistical, selfish idiots.

That said, a number of these stories do play the horror aspects fairly straight. "Behind the Curtain" is a revenge story that is very upfront about its debt to Poe, specifically "The Cask of Amontillado". "Unseen-Unfeared" is a macabre story about grotesque monsters invisible to the human eye. "Serapion" is another long story that is perhaps the most effective dark fantasy of the lot. The protagonist gets involved in a paranormal experiment that seems to summon a spirit of the dead that desires to possess him. I wondered in my review of Brackett and Bradbury's "Lorelei of the Red Mist" whether Brackett had borrowed the trope of the protagonist with a divided/conflicted consciousness from Merritt, and here we find it in Stevens, as the haunting spirit attempts to merge itself with the protagonist. This leads to a remarkable duel of wills that reaches a very strange and conflicted conclusion.

When I read "The Nightmare" five years ago I wasn't sure whether Stevens was in control of her material. Now I would say that her writing reflected a lack of experience and was almost a kind of outsider art. She had a vivid imagination, and there's something eccentric about the way she expresses it. I found the eccentricity compelling even when the stories were a bit clumsy or unfocused. Her approach comes across as unique, even in a standard form like the lost world adventure. If nothing else, her approach feels fresh because it doesn't use the standard heroic, alpha male tropes so beloved of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators. That said, the casual racism in her work seems all too standard and familiar, even though it does seem casual rather than ideological. Less loathsome than that in, for example, George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn trilogy. And indeed, while I didn't find the stories in this collection quite up to the level of Merritt's The Moon Pool, I did find them superior to England for all that he's a more polished writer. I was inspired enough by Stevens' oddball imagination that I ordered a copy of her novel, Citadel of Fear. Sounds like one of Kuttner and Moore's science fantasies, doesn't it?
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Goblin Emperor.jpgI read this book because it's a nominee for the Hugo for Best Novel, although even before I knew it was a nominee I had been intrigued by the title and the cover. When I found out that it was a novel of court intrigue, I developed doubts, but I remained curious. I have read novels of court intrigue that I enjoyed, but it's not a sub-genre I seek out. Also, Elfland and court intrigue are not something that I associate with each other. But I do love stories about Elfland and Faerie, so yeah, I was curious.

The protagonist is Maia, who is the half-goblin, half-elf son of the elvish emperor, living in exile since his mother's death because the emperor thinks nothing of him. The novel begins with Maia learning that his father and all his other sons (by other, elvish wives) have died in an airship crash, leaving Maia to inherit the throne. Maia enters a world of hostile high born elves, and he is completely unprepared. As he negotiates his way from one personal and/or political crisis to another, it quickly becomes clear that the airship crash was not accidental. Someone plotted against Maia's detestable father, and it appears they are plotting against Maia too.

Indeed, if the airships weren't enough, the court intrigue tells us this isn't the Elfland of Lord Dunsany. In my list of quibbles and complaints about the book, the primary one would be that it falls afoul of some of the criticism Ursula Le Guin leveled against Katherine Kurtz's Deryni books in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie". The injection of Machiavellian (and later, Marxist!) politics into Elfland feels like the injection of the mundane into the magical. I suspect I'm out of touch with modern trends in Elfland, but I was actually uncertain why this particular story involved elves and goblins at all. Traditionally Elfland has been an otherworldly realm that works by different rules than the human world. Why bring what looks like human political struggle into Elfland? Why create an Elfland where time flows just as it does in the human world, where elves are mortal, and where magic is rarely spoken of and never actually practiced? By the end of the book I was beginning to see a glimmer of an answer to this question, but more on that later.

Related to this primary complaint was my feeling that the elves weren't very elvish. To reverse William Atheling's old formula, calling the people in this book elves is like calling a smeerp a rabbit. They look like elves, but they don't act like elves. Again, partly this is because what these elves do is plot and scheme for political power, which is a terribly worldly thing for an elf to do. But even physically there's a major oddity, which I struggled with from the start: the elves (and goblins) apparently have floppy ears that can be moved around, drooped, and pinned back to express emotion. They are like animal ears, specifically dog ears. This is a new feature in elves, and for the most part I didn't like the bathetic animal overtones it created. However, if the intent was to bring elves down to the level of the human animal, which is what I suspect is going on in a variety of ways in this book, it does succeed.

I felt equally unimpressed by the steampunk aspect of the novel in the beginning, because it just seemed as though airships and pneumatic tubes had been pasted on in a completely ornamental, unintegrated way. As the story progressed, however, the steampunk engineering ideas became more central to the plot, and in fact a big steam-driven engineering project developed thematic resonance with the story of Maia's unique political temperament. Furthermore, the steampunk elements were used to introduce a theme of Enlightenment and of scientific revolution in Elfland that seemed to directly challenge the idea of Elfland as a magical realm. As much as I continued to feel that this was a misuse of Elfland, this was the point at which I began to understand what the book was really up to. This wasn't really fantasy, this was a form of science fiction, and the intent was very much to haul Elfland into the mundane, mortal world. The elves were the aristocracy, and they were being dragged kicking and screaming into modernity. Once I understood this I thought, well, okay, if that's what you're up to, why not give us elves building steam spaceships and landing on the moon? That might be fun, actually, and this seems pretty obviously the first book in a series.

And despite my complaints and quibbles (elvish comic strips, really?), I did find this book completely gripping and enormously fun. It's a real page-turner. The death of the emperor and his heirs and Maia's succession to the throne are announced in the very first chapter, and the story moves from crises to crises, problem to problem, and from mystery to mystery after that. The science fiction novel it most reminded me of was C.J. Cherryh's Hugo-winning Cyteen. Both feature smart, isolated young people thrust into a world of constant crisis, constant confusion and fear, groping their way through an obstacle course of hidden menace toward an uncertain goal with only their wits and compassion as guides, desperate for any kind of kindness or friendship. Like Cyteen, this seems like a very fannish novel to me, with the half-breed Maia standing in for the kind of awkward, anxious, blushing, knowledge-hungry, socially-clueless, ostracized adolescent who reads the literature of the fantastic. He's ugly, and he doesn't know what to say to girls (or anybody else, for that matter). It's also a feel-good fairytale about kindness and justice being rewarded with power and loyalty. Maia must overcome the racial intolerance of elves (whose extreme whiteness is constantly emphasized and contrasted with goblin blackness), and he shows an enlightened attitude toward women, gays, and lesbians, too.

The Goblin Emperor has a pretty good shot at winning the Hugo both because it wasn't on a Puppies slate and because the other novel that wasn't is a sequel to the book that won the Hugo last year. The high fannishness of it doesn't hurt either. I would still say that this elves-without-glamor approach to Elfland is highly problematic in all the ways that Le Guin enumerated in her great essay (including a not very convincing attempt to Elizabethanize the language), but if Katherine Addison (a pen name for Sarah Monette) sends elves to the moon, I might just take the trip with her.
randy_byers: (brundage)
F-327Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore wrote a number of science fantasy novels that as far as I can tell aren't highly regarded except for this one. Roger Zelazny, for example, cited The Dark World as an influence on his Amber series. It was originally serialized in Startling Stories in 1946 under the Henry Kuttner byline, and it appears that it has always been published under his name alone, while others of these science fantasies have been published as by Kuttner and Moore. I have no idea what this means in terms of who actually wrote the damned thing, but for this review I'll just tag it with Kuttner's name.

The novel starts out on Earth, where a shell-shocked WWII veteran named Edward Bond is starting to have strange visions of shadowy figures. Eventually he finds himself transplanted to the Dark World, which is in an alternate universe where Edward Bond is a demi-god named Ganelon. Ganelorn gradually becomes the main identity of this cross-dimensional hybrid point of view, but he is a torn personality. We learn that Ganelrn was part of a group of super powered mutants, including a vampire named Medea (that name has certainly been popping up a lot lately) and a werewolf named Matholch, who have been ruling oppressively over the people of the forest. Ganelon is soon playing both sides against the other as he seeks his own advantage. He is not a very nice person.

This felt very derivative in the beginning but became more interesting as the conflicted nature of Ganelon/Bond was further explored. It reminded me at times of Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon with the conflicted dual identity of the protagonist and his murky morality. Ganelon is basically a villain, and that probably makes the novel more interesting than the general run of heroic fantasy. His mixed feelings about various desirable women he encounters (and their mixed feelings about him) reminded me of Moore's Doomsday Morning. The resolution of the struggle between Ganelon and Bond is quite satisfying in a pulp fiction kind of way, and there's a stinger in the the final line involving feelings for one of the women that leaves us with a properly conflicted feeling to the end.

Science fantasy is basically a subgrenre of science fiction in which magic is rationalized as super science, and there's plenty of that in The Dark World, with all the requisite bafflegab about radiation and genetic mutation to explain the various fantastical powers on display. I think of this as the world that A. Merritt made, and perhaps that's who this novel feels derivative of. I've got a couple more of these novels by Kuttner and Moore in the small Ace paperback format, but I'm not sure whether to read further. One nice feature is that they're very short.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
stranger in olondria coverThis is the first novel by Sofia Samatar -- a new writer who has burst on the scene with some big time award nominations. A Stranger in Olondria has been nominated for the Nebula, and her excellent short story, "Selkie Stories Are for Losers," is up for the Hugo.

Samatar writes poetry as well as prose, and it shows. (Sorry, I couldn't resist!) A Stranger in Olondria is full of well-wrought metaphors, one of which can be found in that QOTD I posted here the other day: "Sorrow followed my mother like a lover." The novel is a secondary-world fantasy that's notable for evoking not Northern or Middle Europe but Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The protagonist, Jevick, is the son of a pepper merchant. They live on a backwater island off the coast of Olondria, and Jevick's father hires a tutor to teach his boy the Olondrian language -- the language of civilization. Jevick learns to read, and he falls in love with books. Thus A Stranger in Olondria is full of quotes from Olondrian tales and poetry, and the novel is very much about the joys and perils of stories and reading. It's also, unexpectedly, a portrait of a saint as a young man. That's where the fantasy comes in.

As well as being a story about stories, it's a story about religion. In particular it's a story about a religious battle in Olondria between two cults, one orgiastic and the other (currently the state religion) penitential. When Jevick travels to Olondria as a young man, after the death of his father, he gets caught up in this clash of cults. He is devoted to neither, coming from the islands, which have their own pantheistic-animistic beliefs. However, he is visited (or, you might say, possessed) by a ghost, and thus he is considered a holy person by one of the Olondrian cults.

Samatar's poetic way with words is certainly a great draw, but she's equally adept at characters and their complicated relationships. We follow Jevick on a journey that brings him in contact with many different people, and all of them spring alive on the page. Many have elaborate stories that they tell Jevick. A Stranger in Olondria in some ways feels like a compilation of stories. Again, it's the drama of a reader in that way. The way these stories are woven with Jevick's own adventures and with the books he reads is truly marvelous. Nor is this a bloodless, scholarly exercise, even with all the quotations from other (imaginary) books. The novel builds to an emotional catharsis that I found quite powerful and profound. Sainthood comes from suffering and exile.

That said, there's material left unresolved. For example, the outcome of the battle between the two Olondrian religions, and for another the ultimate fate of the ghost's father. I believe Samatar has said she intends to write a follow-up, although the first one took her ten years, so I don't know if we should hold our breath. Even with the unanswered questions in this one, it's a very satisfying read. It's one of those books that I immediately want to reread, because the pleasures and the richness of the text were so extraordinary. It's an extraordinary debut, and "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" tells me she's not just a one-hit wonder.


May. 2nd, 2014 08:40 am
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
'If my father married for sorrow, then he married the right woman. Sorrow followed my mother like a lover. Her father died in his boat of a fever, his body absorbed into the river to find its way to the sea alone, to rot, to be devoured by the squids. Her brother died of a snake bite, blackening, his leg growing swollen and so pestilential in odor that he could not be kept in the house. He slept in a boat until he died, singing the songs of death and trying over and over to pluck the moon from the sky. And her sister. Her sister was last seen walking at the base of the hills. One of her sandals came to shore two days later. Her basket was found, too, her lunch still wrapped in banana leaves, but no one knew whether she had fallen or jumped.

'One could reason about it. There was plenty of sorrow in Kiem, particularly among us, the hotun, the low. There was not a family who had not suffered some disaster, an accident with sharks, an attack from the pirates who lived in the caves. A fall, an encounter with crocodiles, a wound that refused to heal. Rape, madness, river blindness, kyitna. One could say that my mother was not unusual among these people, all of whom were lacerated with misfortunes.'

--Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria
randy_byers: (brundage)
the city and the cityThis is the first novel by China Miéville that I've read, and I was certainly impressed. I read it because it's the book of honor at this year's Potlatch. The basic conceit is that two vaguely Middle European cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, exist as separate cities in the same geographical space. Inhabitants of one city "unsee" the inhabitants and buildings of the other in order to maintain a fiction of separateness. A mysterious organization called Breach enforces the separation and the unseeing. The plot of the story involves the murder of a woman whose body is found in Besźel but who appears to have been killed in Ul Qoma. Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in Besźel, is ultimately required to work with his counterpart in Ul Qoma, as they begin to wonder if the legends are true about an invisible third city named Orciny existing in the interstices between the other two.

While the murder mystery is treated with full seriousness and given all the requisite genre trappings, to a large extent it also functions as an excuse to investigate the nature of the dual city, and Miéville has here created an endlessly fascinating sociological and political conundrum. It works like a piece of extrapolated science fiction even as it feels like something more Ruritanian. It's a what-if that could be located in the here and now. When you throw the crime story on top of that, you get a cross-genre work of the sort that used to be called slipstream and now sometimes gets classified under the category of interstitial arts. What is particularly clever about the book is that it's precisely about the virtual borders that cross-genre works live to straddle. The dual city occupying a single space becomes the perfect metaphor for the type of fiction Miéville has created here.

My only complaint about the novel is that the final reveal of the murderer is a monologue by Borlú that wasn't very interesting, at least dramatically. This is a problem for a lot of convoluted mysteries, where the explanation is less interesting than the mystery itself, and fortunately Miéville doesn't end on the reveal but gives us a coda about Borlú that's much more satisfying. The real raison d'être is the dual city, and the book does full justice to it. Each city is individual and eccentric, full of odd characters and odd details that leave a powerful feeling of lived-in polyglot history. Perhaps even more impressive is the way that Miéville grounds these cities in contemporary details and pop references, so it feels like part of our world of cellphones, internet, and globalization. It enhances the sense of estrangement by giving it a familiar 21st century context. This is not Cold War Berlin, or a segregated city in Jim Crow America, or even modern day Jerusalem, but it's a beautifully conceived imaginary city/city that makes us think about those historical cities and many other divided social spaces as well. I found it utterly captivating and alive.
randy_byers: (brundage)
William Morris was a man of many talents, perhaps most famous now for his design work in several fields and as a founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was also a prolific writer who amongst other things is often credited as the father of the invented-world Medievalist fantasy, of which The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) is an example. Morris was trying to write something like Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and other Medieval courtly romances, and his twist was to set his own romances in a slightly different world than ours that resembles that older literary world where magic and supernatural beings exist alongside a pre-industrial political and economic system. In The Water of the Woundrous Isles, a woman named Birdalone is kidnapped by a witch as a child and is raised in isolation before she escapes and has a number of adventures while befriending a group of knights and their ladies (or I guess it's actually ladies and their knights).

Page from the edition of the book that Morris designed and published himself

Morris imitated or reinvented the style of the old romances as well, using archaic words and diction. I found this prose style repetitive and not very sprightly. He was probably better at it than a later imitator like William Hope Hodgson, but not so good as a writer like E.R. Eddison, whose writing in The Worm Ouroboros (1922) I remember as being more energetic and wide-ranging. Morris' writing is very placid and low-key, which is apparently one of his general traits. I found it a little boring at times, and I got tired of the word "dight" pretty quickly. Others find much to admire in Morris' style, so perhaps this is a personal problem.

The story, as others have commented, is also pretty placid and wandering. If there is a core to it, it's probably Birdalone's discovery and pursuit of sexual desire and love, but there are a lot of other things going on that don't really cohere with this central thread. In fact, Morris doesn't seem to be real concerned with tying it all together. The Wondrous Isles of the title are visited by various characters, but the wonders seen there are never really explained and mostly don't have much bearing on the plot. The last time Birdalone visits them, they have been transformed completely from when she first saw them, and I don't think those changes are explained at all. The isles and their wonders seem almost completely tangential to the story, although it's possible that the wonders are working on a symbolic level that I didn't understand on a first reading.

So I found the book a bit of a slog, and yet there were aspects of it that I still found fascinating. Foremost is the character of Birdalone. Holly E. Ordway has some interesting things to say about the book's feminism in "Subverting the Female Stereotype: William Morris's The Water of the Wondrous Isles," and she gets at a lot of what I found so attractive in the portrayal of Birdalone. It's not just that a heroic adventure story is centered on a female character, which seems remarkably modern in itself, but that Birdalone is a heroic character in a completely different mode than a typical heroic fantasy character. She is brave but not fierce, bold but not aggressive, strong but not violent. As Ordway argues, Birdalone represents a new ideal of the feminine, who incorporates the old ideal into new purposes.

There's another fascinating female character as well, called Habundia. Morris doesn't come right out and say what Habundia is, exactly, but he associates her with Faerie a number of times. Is she the Faerie Queen? She is magical, but her magic is mostly limited to the forest Evilshaw in which she lives. She seems to be a creature or avatar of the forest, which is feared and avoided by most members of "the race of Adam" as people are frequently referred to in the book, and Habundia herself says she is not of the race of Adam. As Birdalone's protector and mentor whose aid Birdalone is able to summon by burning one of her hairs, there are aspects of a goddess to Habundia. One of the strange little details of the book is that she first appears to Birdalone as her spitting image, and as Birdalone ages Habundia continues to look like her younger self, except for one section where she takes on the appearance of Birdalone as a fifty-year-old. All of this seems to make Habundia an avatar or projection of Birdalone herself, but I'm not sure what to make of that. Habundia seems to have a will of her own, and perhaps she takes on Birdalone's image as a way of connecting to or imprinting on her.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that if there is a central conflict or problem, it's that Birdalone falls in love with someone who is already the lover of a woman that Birdalone has befriended. It's a classic three-body problem, and the grief that Birdalone's love causes her friend is a complication that leads to no end of pain and trouble. Actually, Birdalone's desire for Arthur (no, not King Arthur, but a knight also called Arthur) also leads to the death of yet another friend, and the section in which this happens is probably the dramatic peak of the story -- the point at which I thought, "Wow, this is really getting good!" If the drama recedes again after that, it still leaves an emotional and moral conflict in Birdalone that she spends the rest of the novel working her way through in her wandering way. Habundia is her ultimate savior on this front as well, but Morris carefully ends his tale on a description of the pangs still felt by the jilted lover/friend, Atra. Some commenters see in this a hint of Morris' feelings about his wife, who carried on an affair with his friend, the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but whatever the case, it carries real freight.

I think it's safe to say that the fantasy writers who followed in Morris' footsteps improved on his story-telling and world-building. He was clearly very influential. I read the old Ballantine edition of the book that Lin Carter published in the early '70s, with its beautiful wraparound cover by Gervasio Gallardo and glowing quotes in praise of Morris from H.P. Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis. Wikipedia says Eddison, Lord Dunsany (another superior prose stylist), and James Branch Cabell were familiar with his work, and that Tolkien "considered much of his literary work to have been inspired by an early reading of Morris." Despite my struggles with the prose style, I found enough of interest in The Water of the Wondrous Isles that I may well try one of his other romances. I'm also tempted to finally read Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and this also gets me thinking about finally giving Spenser's The Faerie Queene a go. Maybe's it's also time to reread Eddison again! And so another potential path through the world of literature yawns wide.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)

I was young when I first learned that, while the incidents that can befall a man or a woman are as numberless as sunlit flashes flickering on the sea, what the same man or woman can say of them is as limited as the repertoire on the platform of some particularly uninventive mummers' troupe. Indeed, it is that repertoire. (Delany, "The Game of Time and Pain")

The final volume of Delany's Nevèrÿon series (which, over all, is also called Return to Nevèrÿon) ends with the same story that begins it, "The Tale of Gorgik". After reading all the intervening stories, returning to "The Tale of Gorgik" is like reading a brand new story. Everything in it, from the glancing views of Noyeed to the curious importance of the astrolabe that Myrgot gives to Gorgik, has been transformed repeatedly over the course of the series in such a way as to become practically unrecognizable. In fact, there was a section early in "The Tale of Gorgik" that connects it beautifully with "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" that I could not for the life of me remember reading when I read the tale in the first volume just last July! So I dutifully pulled out my copy of Tales of Nevèrÿon, and sure enough, that section of the story wasn't in the earlier version. This is a master stroke by Delany, "returning" us to a tale that is no longer the same as the original. The impossibility of recovering origins is one of the main themes of the series, and Delany embodies it beautifully in his anti-narrative.

But this raises questions about how the series was structured, because the final appendix of the third volume, Flight from Nevèrÿon, made it clear that it was intended to be the final volume of the series. Return is thus an excess volume of sorts, which again fits Delany's theme. But was it planned that way? In the appendix/preface to Return K. Leslie Steiner (a fictional scholar) tells us that the second story in the book, "The Tale of Rumor and Desire", was originally written to serve as a bridge (of lost desire?) between "The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers" and "The Tale of Fog and Granite" in a proposed collection of the shorter works in the series, excluding the long novel, Neveryóna, which "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" would replace in the sequence. The collection never happened, leaving "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" stranded. But what of the first story in Return, "The Game of Time and Pain"? Chronologically, this would be the final story in the series, showing us as it does the final success of Gorgik's efforts to free all the slaves in Nevèrÿon. Was it the lack of this closure in Flight from Nevèrÿon (in which Gorgik himself turns into an offstage rumor or legend in the end) that begged the question that is Return? Yet Delany uses this "closure" as a way to bring us back to a beginning that opens a whole new can of worms.

We are warned at the very beginning that we may want to read the book in reverse order, presumably starting with Steiner's appendix/preface, which comments on the entire series. The stories run in reverse chronological order, but it's easy enough to read "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" as a thematic comment on "The Game of Time and Pain", which is also very much about desire, and as mentioned above, "The Tale of Gorgik" has been revised to connect to "The Tale of Rumor and Desire," thus making it follow very nicely even though it is chronologically earlier. Complicating all this is the fact that "The Game of Time and Pain" tells us the final fate of Clodon, who is the protagonist of "The Tale of Rumor and Desire", but who is also a nameless character -- and impersonator of Gorgik -- in "The Tale of Fog and Granite" in the previous volume. The flow of chronology and causality and commentary in these tales is intricate and elaborate -- a tapestry as complex as any woven by the characters in this world, where the loom and spindle have only just been invented.

I've commented a lot on structure here, perhaps because it's easier for me to talk about than some of the more difficult thematic material. Another piece of structure: In "The Game of Time and Pain", we start with characters outside an abandoned castle arguing about whether someone is lurking in it. We move to Gorgik, bedding down alone in the castle for the night and then discovering another camper there and telling him a long story about how he found and lost himself, as a slave and as a liberator of slaves. Gorgik falls asleep and dreams of his dying old aristocratic mentor, Myrgot, who meditates on Gorgik's final visit with her, which intersects with a number of other characters introduced in the first book. Gorgik wakes up alone in the castle again. Finally we return to the characters outside the castle arguing again, this time comically, about whether anyone had been lurking in the castle the previous night. The frames of the tale are thus completely symmetrical, except for the dream of Myrgot, who represents a point of view that cannot be accounted for by strict narrative logic -- an intrusion of fantasy? (Even calling it a dream is an interpretation only barely suggested by the text itself.)

"The Game of Time and Pain" is, from one angle, a story about how Gorgik found himself, or perhaps liberated his own imagination (and thus himself), by realizing that he, a slave, shared a sexual kink (the fetishization of slave collars) with an aristocrat who owned slaves. "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" is about a drunken, dirty thug named Clodon -- a rapist, thief, and fraud whom we have in other stories seen impersonating Gorgik to criminal ends -- who fetishes women's feet and hands and has a tender encounter with the woman of his dreams. In tracing Clodon's history, Delany takes us back to an incident in Kolhari when the young Clodon, then a prostitute on the Bridge of Lost Desire, was talked into wearing a slave collar for a time to see whether he might like the S/M trade, which it turns out he doesn't. The added material in "The Tale of Gorgik" (which also adds a passing reference to the Bridge of Lost Desire that isn't in the original version) involves an even younger, pre-slavery Gorgik observing the young Clodon wearing the slave collar and then taking it off and tossing it into a cistern. It's implied that some of Gorgik's inchoate sexual feelings about slave collars started to take form in this wordless, distant, completely impersonal series of observations.

The series circles around sadomasochism from the very beginning, but it's probably safe to say that the theme of desire and sadomasochism grew richer and deeper over the course of the tales. I'm not the best person to comment on this theme, as my own understanding of desire is not particularly rich or deep itself. Still, I found the growth of Delany's accounting fascinating to watch, and it's also fascinating to consider how his career after this series has delved deep into the realm of pornography. The tales of Nevèrÿon are obsessed with discourse, desire, and power, and sadomasochism is in many ways the ultimate metaphor for all of these. The slave collar becomes one ring to riddle them all. Used as a sexual fetish, the slave collar catches but does not lock, and there you have an image of the incomplete or temporary closure that we see again and again in these stories.

Delany brings secret sexual desire to the center of his tales, and it is no doubt no accident that he incorporates commentary on Freud and Lacan into the stories as well. He insists that the hot, messy realities of sex and desire (which is a kind of fantasy, a kind of imagining) must be dealt with if we are to liberate ourselves, however incompletely or inconclusively, from the nightmare of history and slavery. It's true, while Clodon does achieve his libidinal dream, he's still trapped in a nightmarish life of impulsive misbehavior that will not end well for him. Yet his moment of satori is an ideal we can all aspire to, even as it is quickly lost again in time and pain. In an interview I found somewhere online, Delany talks about how this fourth volume was initially published under the title The Bridge of Lost Desire (which is the version I read) because at that time the series had been blacklisted by the chain bookstore B. Dalton's due to the gay material that had supposedly made the word Nevèrÿon poisonous. The Bridge of Lost Desire is a bridge in Kolhari where male and female prostitutes ply their trade. (Was Delany mocking B. Dalton's by including heterosexual desire and straight sex in "The Tale of Rumor and Desire"?) We cross the bridge again and again in these tales. It isn't named in the first book, but by the last it becomes, if only temporarily, the name of the book itself. The desire (the power, the discourse) lost in the process is -- stop me if I've told you this one before -- hauntingly similar to our lost memories of something that never really happened. Speak yet again!

Addendum in excess of a review: Well, I finally picked up a copy of Return from the uniform edition of the series put out by Wesleyan University Press. This edition adds composition (or completion) dates for the three tales. "The Game of Time and Pain" is given the date October 1985, which was the same year that Flight (the previous volume) was first published. "The Tale of Rumor and Desire" is given the date February 1987, which is the same year Bridge/Return was first published. This makes it seem as though Delany wrote the "closure" story either while or right after the third volume (allegedly the last) was published, but it sat there unpublished until he wrote the bridging story for the unpublished compendium of Nevèrÿon tales. Also interesting is that "The Tale of Gorgik" is given the date October 1976, which is probably its original composition date, despite the fact that it had material added to it after he wrote "The Tale of Rumor and Desire". Thus even this date is at least somewhat fictional. (I'm curious whether the uniform edition of Tales has the original version of "Gorgik" or the revised one, but I haven't had a chance to check that yet.)

Finally, I should note that in this edition the appendix is a somewhat modified version of Appendix B from the original edition of Flight. The modifications that I noticed were to change references to Flight as the final volume in the series, and to substitute references to Return instead. This reminded me that I had previously ascertained that the appendix/preface by K. Leslie Steiner from The Bridge of Lost Desire was moved to the beginning of the first volume in the uniform edition, where it serves as a preface to the entire series.

I imagine that this kind of convoluted textual history makes Delany cackle with glee. I find it pretty entertaining myself! However, I still noticed a couple of typos/misspellings in the appendix to the Wesleyan Return -- e.g., a reference to C.L. Moore's Jirel [of Joiry] is spelled Jeryl.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Early on, it occurred to me that the relationship of the Nevèrÿon series to semiotics/semiology might be, for better or worse, much like that of Van Vogt's Null-A series to General Semantics. (Delany, "Appendix B: Closures and Openings")

In Appendix B of Flight from Nevèrÿon, Delany calls the Nevèrÿon tales "a Child's Garden of Semiotics." This is the aspect of these stories that I probably appreciate the least now, although when I first read the books in my twenties I was still intrigued enough by semiotics and New Theory that I tried harder to understand what Delany was saying on that front. These days I feel I can leave that stuff to brighter minds, while I still relish other of Delany's obsessions.

The Nevèrÿon tales are also metafiction -- stories about stories -- and all three of the tales in this volume explore the nature of fiction in multiple ways and from multiple viewpoints. In "The Tale of Fog and Granite," we follow a young smuggler who is, in a very fannish way, fascinated by tales of Gorgik the Liberator and thereby gets embroiled in a series of fictions and frauds regarding the Liberator that leave him, in the end, unable to know who he has just met when he finally encounters the real Gorgik himself. In "The Mummer's Tale," an actor tells a biographical story about the smuggler as a young male prostitute that seems completely naturalistic and lacking in fantastic elements until the end, when the mummer confesses that he has embroidered the story with his own observations of other people and elements of his own experiences, and thus, "The result is very like a memory of something that never really happened -- at least not to me." Here Delany seems to indicate that all fiction is fantasy of a sort. Finally, in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," he weaves a complex anti-narrative that includes things happening in Nevèrÿon, journal entries about the AIDS crisis in New York City in the early days before the cause was understood, and philosophical essays about language and power, in what evolves into a sprawling critique of the inherent conservatism of Story and a playful suggestion that the indeterminacy of perception and memory and knowledge are the ur-source of all fiction.

Did I get that right? It seems likely I've misunderstood, perhaps even completely. All three of these stories explore the ubiquity of myth, falsehood, story, illusion, fraud, and rumor. Writing exists as a form of memory, but all memory is faulty, flawed, and limited, if not lost in erasure. If genre fantasy is the genre of the imagination and the imaginary, Delany is using it to explore the ways in which knowledge and meaning are imaginary -- always-imperfect images of the natural or real. There's nothing supernatural in these stories -- there is none of the magic so common in genre fantasy -- but then again the natural is always the subject of misinformation, new information, and conflicting stories. Delany implies that there is a kind of freedom in this slippage between fact and fiction, but the idea is buried in some fairly abstruse Theory that I couldn't parse.

One thing I remembered as I was reading this book was that when it came out, Delany talked at conventions about how the book wholesalers considered it a gay book and thus halved their orders, even though the previous two books in the series had sold very well.* As he probably observed at the time, there's at least implied gay sex in the previous books, so it's a bit weird that they singled out this one. It's probably true that the sex is more overt or even graphic in this one, particularly in "The Tale of Fog and Granite," but even so it's probably also true that the distributors were costing themselves money by their actions. Delany's fans, even the straight ones like me, weren't going to be put off by gay sex at this late date, and after all Dhalgren had been a bestseller. But on a somewhat related, if also tangential, front it must also be said that the account of the AIDS epidemic in America in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" is utterly devastating, and it brings memories of that era flooding back. Delany claims this is the first novel-length treatment of AIDS to appear from a major US publisher. On that level alone it is an important work, and very moving as an act of witness and reportage, analysis and personal reflection.

Indeed this book is also much more explicit than the others in the series about the ways in which the Nevèrÿon stories are about the modern, urban world. "The Mummer's Tale" reads like one of Delany's stories about street hustlers in New York, and then in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" he tells stories about street hustlers in New York. Nevèrÿon becomes a kind of palimpsest through which we see the details of our own world. One of the other metafictional things Delany does is explore the border of Nevèrÿon as the border between the fictional and the real. In "The Tale of Fog and Granite" and "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" characters discuss leaving Nevèrÿon, and finally in the latter tale one of the characters from Nevèrÿon actually appears in New York City and talks to the author in a surprisingly poignant scene. Thus the book's title, which can also be read in other metaphorical ways, including the sense in which Delany says he intends this to be the final volume in the series. (That didn't last.)

One of the great pleasures of the series is the ways in which the stories interlock and comment on each other. The smuggler protagonist of "The Tale of Fog and Granite" was a minor character in Neveryóna who in that novel became Pryn's lover and by whom she thinks for a while that she's gotten pregnant. (One of the little jokes in these playful tales is that he's never given a name and comes across as, well, pretty anonymous.) In "The Mummer's Tale", the smuggler is now the subject of the mummer's story and point of view, and suddenly his character is fleshed out with a great wealth of naturalistic detail. In "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals", the schoolmaster to whom the mummer delivers the former tale in the second person becomes one of the central point of view characters with adventures of his own, and the mummer returns in one section to deliver a scathing critique of some Socratic dialogues written by the schoolmaster that feature the mummer as an interlocutor. Throughout these stories we are given new angles on the previous tales, and in at least one case in "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" we see the schoolmaster wrestling with the question of whether the female inventor, Venn, whose tale we read in the first book, was a real person. It's one of the clues we get that the Master's understanding of history is limited and often wrong -- at least if what we were told in the previous tale was true. Thus, in this case, an earlier tale critiques a later one.

Flight_From_Neveryon by Rowena Morrill
Rowena's original painting for the wrap-around cover on the first edition paperback

There's so much going on in these stories. There are complex treatments of just about anything you can think of -- class, sex, sexuality, gender, economics, history, philosophy, archaeology, labor, aesthetics, art, revolution, politics, race. The treatment of race is very subtle and, I think, intentionally elusive. In my copy of the mass market paperback I found a note in which I wondered whether the smuggler in the stories is dark-skinned while on the cover (see above) he is white. I still couldn't tell you. I'm not sure whether his skin color is ever described. He's from the rural hinterlands of Kolhari, where the majority of the people are dark-skinned, but there are plenty of people in the city from the light-skinned barbarian south. In some of these stories Delany seems to be letting the reader assume a character is white and then casually reveals in a tossed-off description that it isn't so. In one of the earlier tales he describes a barbarian's nappy hair, then later reveals that it's blond. Most slaves in Nevèrÿon are barbarians from the south, and thus white, but Gorgik, who was a slave for a number of years, is a dark-skinned man from Kolhari. There doesn't seem to be any overt racism in the book, but the urbane Kolharians look down on the barbarians, because they are foreigners with strange ways perhaps more than because of the difference in skin color. All of this seems to be inviting the reader to reassess their own culture's racism by its apparent absence or difference in the stories.

The third story in the book, "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," is a novel-length work that is also called Appendix A. Why is it an appendix to the two other stories? Is it because it contains non-fiction and authorial autobiography? Is it because it inhabits a borderland between fiction and commentary? This is in the first edition mass market paperback, and I see in the current edition of the book from Wesleyan it is no longer called an appendix, so apparently Delany eventually thought better of it. It does seem a bit too clever. But you know what? When I called the chapters of my TAFF report Appendix Zed, this is undoubtedly where I got the idea.

This book is intensely intellectual and bristling with ideas and exposition and philosophical analysis. But as fascinating as much of that intellectual investigation is, what I enjoyed most about these tales is how moving, humane, and closely observed they are. Whether it is the smuggler trying to shake off the shock of fear and adrenaline when he is physically attacked by a thug, or the mummer recounting his own awkwardness in his first attempts to buy sex from the inexperienced young prostitute who later became the smuggler, or the unnamed I -- implied to be Delany himself, the author -- who agonizes over the question of whether the straight couple in his story would actually be so giving to a gay friend dying of the plague, these tales are full of dramatic moments that illuminate what is to be human, to be alive, to feel pain and wonder, confusion and desire. Delany mocks the concept of the Master (which term is used in ways that evoke both Christ as quoted in the bible, or perhaps a sage like Confucius, and of course slave-masters), but his mastery of tale-telling is at its peak here. His intellectual apparatus is forbidding, but the fierce playfulness with which he wrestles with and deconstructs his own ideas let's all the world in on the fun.

Footnote )
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
Delanys-NeveryonaI read this novel when it first came out in 1983, but this is the first time I've reread it. I can't remember what I thought of it at the time, but my vague general impression of the Nevèrÿon series is that I really liked the first book and liked each proceeding book less than the one before. Now having read Neveryóna a second time, I have mixed feelings. It's a complex novel, and I'm not sure I understand what it's up to. Perhaps as a consequence of that lack of understanding, I often felt unengaged with it even as I remained intrigued by many of the ideas and scenes and scenarios. Maybe the novel, like Neveryóna itself, "becomes a shining symbol just out of reach."

This is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman named Pryn who leaves her mountain village on the back of a dragon to have some adventures in the wider world. But dragons in Nevèrÿon aren't quite the fabulous beasts of legend, and neither are Pryn's adventures. She arrives in the big city of Kolhari and immediately meets the legendary Gorgik, a former slave now leading a revolutionary anti-slavery movement, but the violence surrounding the revolution soon turns Pryn into an unintentional killer. Fleeing the scene, she falls in with Madame Keyne, a conservative businesswoman seeking to foment counter-revolution while stuck in a paranoid relationship with her mistress and her mistress' mad lover. All of this I found quite interesting, especially as Delany refigures and reconfigures episodes and ideas and items from the previous volume in the series, Tales of Nevèrÿon.

At this juncture, however, Delany does something pretty radical and has Pryn leave the city in the company of some smugglers and then, when she becomes convinced that one of them has impregnated her, stumble off to the small town of Enoch, where she falls in with a struggling working class family. This is an entirely more naturalistic section of the novel, and I confess I started to lose interest a bit as the tone and concerns shifted to an apparently much smaller, less mythical scale. On the other hand, I suspect that the deflation is intentional, because Delany signals both at the beginning and at the end of it that this is a different type of story that he might have told.

The final part of the novel moves to the southern part of Nevèrÿon, which is where the barbarians (and thus most of the slaves) are from. Pryn takes a job at a brewery, which gives us yet a different view of the world of business and capital, and she's invited to a party at the estate of a local nobleman, which is our first point of contact with the aristocracy that still rules this civilization. Pryn's notions of power and meaning are reconfigured yet again, and so, perhaps, are the reader's. The lost city of Neveryona and the mythical dragon Gauine have made ambiguous symbolic appearances and disappearances, and in the end Pryn is returning to Kolhari, befitting a book called "A Tale of Signs and Cities". But if my head was spinning a bit at this point, Pryn seems able to go with the flow.

Pryn's adventures encompass the whole range of class in Nevèrÿon, from slave to working class to lumpen proletariat, from merchant to aristocrat, from smuggler to class warrior. In that way her experience mirrors that of Gorgik in "The Tale of Gorgik," as they both become exemplars of civilization through their exposure to the fullness of what civilization has to offer, both low and high. However, the initial account of Gorgik is an explanation for how he became so powerful, where Pryn's tale is more modest. She rides a dragon, kills a man, and frees a slave, but she herself remains a figure outside of legend, if not outside of story. This makes Pryn a bit elusive, which is perhaps another reason I found the novel itself elusive.

Again, the difficulty of the novel seems intentional. Delany is constantly disrupting the pleasures of story with thorny outbursts of Theory. If that makes the novel elusive as a novel, I imagine that's the goal. He wants us to question everything, including the story and our identification with the characters. Everything is problematized, questioned, transformed, re-imagined. It's hard work, and it can be a slog. I often felt that I was in over my head, and I think that was a feeling I had more patience for when I was younger.

But there was much that I really liked as well, including things I wasn't sure I understood. The one thing I did remember from my first reading was a scene where Madame Keyne shows Pryn a kind of fountain in which gouges in a clay bowl at the top of the fountain are apparently copied exactly in sand in a lower bowl, as though the flowing water holds the memory or shape of the bowl it comes from. This is, as far as I can tell, the one piece of "magic" or inexplicable, anti-naturalistic phenomena in the novel, yet it's presented as fact, with an explanatory, learned discourse by Madame Keyne about how it all works. I do believe it's a kind of straight-faced joke, in contrast with the several other points in which this or that perfectly natural phenomenon is described as magic.

The other bit I just loved was the appendix, which is comprised of an exchange of letters between Charles Hoekstra, who is apparently an actual scholar of the ancient world, and S.L. Kermit, who appears to be a character created by Delany to write scholarly essays about the ancient Culhar fragment that's supposed to be the basis of all these tales. Hoekstra takes Kermit's scholarship to task, and Kermit's reply is a masterpiece of intellectual slapstick that even manages to incorporate a reference to mimeographed fanzines. After the difficult challenges of digesting the novel itself, this bit of comedy was a welcome dose of brandy.

I'm barely scratching the surface of this complex book, with its multiple meditations on economics, relationships, slavery, urbanity, invention, language, story, and sign. If it does soar on the wings of a dragon, it is the wings of the strange dragons of this world that can only fly from a high ledge down to the earth below and then have to climb laboriously back up to the higher vantage. It is, in fact, an ugly sort of flight, and yet what you see on its downward course gives you much ugly, elusive truth to think about.

I recommend, once again, Sylvia Kelso's essay about the whole Nevèrÿon series, '"Across Never": Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel R. Delany’s NEVÈRŸON Cycle'.
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
Charmed LifeThis is the first novel in the Chrestomanci series, which is also known as the Worlds of Chrestomanci (a reference to the fact that it's about parallel worlds). During the Harry Potter craze the Chrestomanci books were touted as a predecessor, and it's true that Charmed Life is about a sort of boarding school for magicians. Charmed Life is the story of two orphans, Gwendolyn and Cat Chance, who go to live with a mysterious and powerful figure named Chrestomanci, who lives in a posh country estate with his extended family.

Like a lot of DWJ books it starts off somewhat banal, despite its strange setting full of witches and warlocks and magicians, but by the end it has become something truly weird and wonderful. I believe this novel is aimed at a somewhat younger audience than her young adult books, and by the middle of it I was beginning to feel that I wasn't the right reader for it. In particular it starts piling on crises for young Cat that are largely the result of his being too young to understand what's going on and therefore afraid to ask for help. I was beginning to find this tiresome when the story really kicked into gear and took off. I found the final act very satisfying indeed.

Like a lot of DWJ books, a lot of the power of the final act comes from explaining apparently banal things we encountered earlier in ways that create a shock of reconfiguration. Things that seemed like silly gags (a violin turned into a cat because it was played like a screeching cat) suddenly become potent plot points. I've said any number of times in my other reviews of DWJ's books that her central strength is characterization, but coming in only slightly behind that is her ability to plant seeds throughout the tale that burst into teeming life at the end. It feels nothing short of miraculous every time.

I'm often not sure how in control she is of her stories. They always feel as though they are twisting and turning beneath her hands like live things with minds of their own, and the endings often feel rushed. This one reveals some truths in the last few pages that seemingly cannot be resolved in the short time she gives them, and young Cat is left in a state of emotional whiplash that Jones doesn't even try to resolve. The novel ends on an explicit note of wild, clashing feelings, like a ragged sigh or laughing sob. Truly raw and remarkable.

Despite the fact that it's aimed at a younger audience, it's full of jagged edges too. Cat's sister, Gwendolyn, is an utterly loathsome creature, although Cat (and even Chrestomanci) is sympathetic to her throughout. Even some of the less overtly loathsome characters, such as the servants Mary and Euphemia, are given a nasty edge. Perhaps most remarkable on the jagged (or maybe ragged) front is the death by drowning of Cat and Gwendolyn's parents, which happens in the very first chapter but which isn't remarked upon directly until much later in the book. The lack of sentiment in the children regarding their parents' death leaves a very odd and possibly unpleasant aftertaste, but then again family is often a fraught subject in DWJ's books, as in life.

The Chrestomanci series is apparently not a sequence but rather a series of stand-alones. The Lives of Christopher Chant is the other one I've seen highly touted, and I'm wondering if I should read that next even though it's the fourth Chrestomanci book published. Or should I read The Magicians of Caprona next? Anybody have thoughts on this question? (Ah, Wikipedia reports that DWJ herself recommended reading The Lives of Christopher Chant next.)
randy_byers: (brundage)
The Fantasy of Origins and Identities

Tales of Nevèrÿon was first released in September 1979, which probably makes it the first book of Delany's that I read when it was new. (I became a Delany fan sometime after my first encounter with Seattle science fiction fandom in March 1979. Seattle was rife with Delanyites in those legendary days.) Over the years I've settled on Trouble on Triton, which was Delany's previous novel, as his greatest work of fiction, but having now read this one for at least the third time, I'd say it has a claim to that title as well. I believe [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond would argue for Neveryóna, which is the next work of fiction Delany published, but I've never re-read it -- or any of the other books in the Nevèrÿon series -- a fact that I intend to redress in the coming months.

It's remarkable to think this book came out over thirty years ago, since my personal history with it makes me think of it as "one of the new ones". I would've been around nineteen when I first read it, and to read the five tales contained within its pages is to delve into the archaeology of my old selves. It's hard to remember what I thought of it back then, although I remember being fascinated from the start. Is this where I first encountered the concept of sadomasochism? It was still a few years before I got to know any practitioners, and by then I was reading other theoreticians of S/M like Pat Califia and trying to imitate Delany's analysis of S/M and slavery in my own paltry fiction. In the archaeology of my old selves I rediscover early ambitions that have now been long abandoned, like the old ruins explored and inhabited by the characters in the book.

Tales of Neveryon

Tales of Nevèrÿon is Delany's deconstruction of the sword-and-sorcery subgenre. It's Robert E. Howard's Conan by way of Joanna Russ' Alyx and Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology. (Delany's critical writing about the Alyx stories, which incorporated his take on Howard, fed directly into these tales.) It takes place in a metafictional neolithic past where we can see the origins of civilization -- of things like writing and money -- and where all binaries -- black and white, barbarian and civilized, slavery and freedom, male and female, straight and gay, truth and fiction -- are reversed, refracted, and exploded. They are stories about the problem of knowledge. You might say they are agnostic stories -- about the absence of final or total knowledge. They are stories haunted and informed by absence. Tales of nowhere and nowhen.

We are first introduced to Gorgik, who is a slave in a mine who is taken up for a sexual dalliance by the noblewoman Myrgot. Gorgik's experience at the royal court, where Myrgot soon loses interest in him, gives him the basis to embark on a varied career that exposes him to every level of society, high and low, making him a unique embodiment of the civilized world. In the next tale we're introduced to Norema, an island girl who is taught by an aged female scientist named Venn. Norema's conventional life is disrupted by catastrophe as she reaches majority, and she leaves the island for the mainland. In the third tale we meet Small Sarg, a barbarian prince who is enslaved and purchased by Gorgik to become his lover, much as Myrgot had done with Gorgik earlier, but to far different effect. In the fourth tale Norema goes on a trade mission representing a businesswoman, and she meets a masked woman warrior named Raven whose mission is to assassinate the nobleman that Norema is supposed to do business with. In the fifth and final tale we discover Gorgik and Small Sarg conducting a war to liberate the slaves, and they encounter Norema and Raven in the forest for an inconclusive conversation.

By this point in his career Delany was a master story-teller. He knew exactly what tropes he was playing with and what readerly satisfactions he was denying or delaying in a tantalizing game of striptease, in which the story is slowly laid bare to reveal a mysterious void full of unending plenty. What is so masterful here, too, is how his philosophical and analytical abstractions are continually grounded in the grittiest, sweatiest, meatiest, most sensual physical details you can imagine. This is a world teaming with the complex variety of human experience and history, production and reproduction. It's a world constantly transforming and evolving and reflecting on itself, in which our understanding of what is happening or who the characters are is challenged again and again.

It's a hall of mirrors, infinitely reversing the image of a curious collection of objects: a rusty astrolabe, a rough rubber ball, a metal slave collar, a two-bladed sword, a three-legged clay pot, a great winged lizard. It's a collection of words that doesn't contain the stories after all, but sets them free. They are living still in our own lost civilization, if you know where to look for them.

[For a truly splendid academic analysis of these stories, see Sylvia Kelso, "Across Never": Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel R. Delany’s NEVÈRŸON Cycle.]


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