Breath and Bone by Carol Berg
It is actually quite difficult to write a review of this second part of the Lighthouse Duet without it being a nonstop spoiler, but I will rise to the occasion. Having now completed both Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone back-to-back, I see this more clearly as a single novel that, rather arbitrarily, stops in the middle. This is done for the convenience of publishing and commercial exploitation. With this overview, I now understand why the duology, rather than one book from it, should win the Mythopoeic Award for 2009. In some ways, I think Carol Berg deserves this recognition for her work. With a smile, I can also report that Breath and Bone won the Colorado Book Award on its own.
As a more general opening point, I need to talk a little about first-person narratives. A part of its fascination is that it gives the reader a box-seat from which to view all the action. We are inside the mind of the main character. As a device for solving puzzles, it is unmatched. We see the same evidence as our “detective” and watch as he interprets this evidence, admiring how the different facts are woven together on our way to the ending.
So, first, the good news. I actually like the basic idea as a puzzle to be solved. The structuring of this world’s history and current reality elegantly unravels to reveal who is doing what, and gives a credible explanation of everyone’s motivation. I am also pleased by the dark nature of some of the events and of the magic employed. The morality of the ending partly depends on the redemption of at least one key player, all of which is quite well handled.
But there are two major problems with the way in which this pair of books is written. In this, I’m going to ignore the difficulty of a woman writing as a man. There are rather curious lapses in Valen’s attitudes and behaviour. For these purposes, we can explain them away as the aspects of “local” culture rather than a failure of the author to become a convincing man. After all, who is to say what a man is for the purposes of this world and its magic systems? The problems arise from the reliance on Valen as the one who must experience the transformation and come to understand the social as well as the physical landscape. It requires altogether too much introspection and interior monologuing. No matter what its faults, third party narrative shows and explains events with less risk of didacticism. Frankly, I grew rather tired of reading all that Valen could see and feel.
The author’s problem is always to walk the thin line between omniscience and resulting exposition on the one side, and the immediacy of insights into our hero’s character as his understanding improves on the other. Here, I think Carol Berg has bitten off more than we can comfortably chew. It is a highly complex social and political situation for Valen to analyse almost entirely on his own. In the end, I think it too much. I stopped being able to suspend my disbelief. So, just as at one point he physically becomes superman in the mundane world and jumps off a tall building with a single bound, so he intellectually leaps from one revelation to another by equally impressive feats of deduction and logic. Although I do concede that some solutions, e.g. for beating the addiction, are given to him by others.
The second problem is the lack of balance in the dynamics of the story. Flesh and Spirit has rather distant threats but, as we follow Valen’s slow development, we can accept the lack of a real villain. But we have to wait until more than halfway through Breath and Bone to identify the real source of the threat to both human and fey sides of the world. By then, it was all merely interesting. I think books are better structured when our hero must prepare to meet a more clearly identified threat. The standard device is that he looks outmatched, but surprises everyone by prevailing against the odds. Here, Valen is growing into his powers without a specific target. It is all rather abstract. I suppose with it being a first-person narrative, he cannot know who the real enemy is until he happens to meet him/her. Such is the problem in writing in the first-person.
Frankly, I think the duology would have been significantly improved with a multiple point-of-view structure. That way, we could have watched events unfolding in different parts of the world and seen how all the major threat elements were coming together. Forcing us all to work through the four remastis was three remastis too many. The author’s intent is to show us a late coming-of-age journey for Valen, but the price we must pay is delay and obfuscation over the central battle for the soul of the world. I prefer to see more economy in my world saving.
Nevertheless, the central mystery of the world, how it is being threatened and why, is elegant and well-developed. It is therefore sad to confess accelerating my reading at certain points through this second volume. I was strongly motivated to see how it was all resolved which meant skipping through the boring bits. That said, how everyone is left when the dust settles has a good feeling about it. This is not a simple happy ending. Deserts are justly apportioned.
As I ended the first review of Flesh and Spirit with a reference to “high-concept fantasy”, so I offer up this concluding Breath and Bone as a highly engaging and interesting work. It is not perfect by any means. Few works are. But it is certainly on the right side of “good” and well worth exploring if you like fantasy.