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Vulture au Vin by Lisa King

July 6, 2014 3 comments

Vulture au vin by Lisa King

Vulture au Vin by Lisa King (Permanent Press, 2014) presents a pleasingly different structure for the narrative. In the conventional linear mystery or detective novel, we have the setup which usually focuses on a homicide or some moderately serious crime. In turn, this operates as the catalyst for the second phase which is interaction between our series character(s) and the immediate suspects for the current investigation. In the final part of the novel, there’s a resolution where our series character(s) say(s) whodunnit and, under normal circumstances, we all walk away contented. Handled well, this type of novel delivers a considerable punch because, as in all the best feel-good systems, we move from a bad situation to a relatively happy ending where our desire to see justice done is satisfied.

This novel, however, rather cleverly exploits the notion of a frame story wrapped around a Golden Age style murder mystery. In the conventional use of the frame story, the author embeds a portmanteau of shorter narratives inside the frame, or uses the frame as an introduction to the main part of the novel, i.e. the frame is simply an excuse for launching into the central narrative. Here we have the frame show us life before and after a trip to the house owned by Theodore Lyon. As is required in Golden Age style mysteries, this is stuck out in the wilds of San Diego County in a fairly remote canyon called Valle de los Osos where the vultures ride the thermals in search for anything recently deceased to snack on. Some novelists would write this section of narrative as a free-standing novel. There’s the usual introduction of the old vs the new residents. A 92-year-old cares for and defends the vultures. They reward her by finding the dead body of a local girl, murdered by persons unknown. This victim was an occasional worker at the new house perched uncomfortably on the land—and so the trail of breadcrumbs begins. It all ends with more death, and a raging inferno as bush fires race across the water-starved landscape. It’s all beautifully realised.

Except, of course, some readers want to know what happens after the flames died down and people could return to the burnt out homes to find what had survived. And that’s just what this book delivers. Our wine expert, her lover, and the man who protected her all have lives to go back to. This means there’s fallout to deal with as they try to get life back into a familiar pattern. Sadly, that’s not going to work. First there’s the relationship between our heroine and her lover. As we see from her behaviour at the Lyon house, she’s not exactly living a monastic life while away from him. Perhaps surprisingly, the lover accepts the woman’s failure to make a formal commitment. He just gets depressed when the lack of exclusivity is admitted. Then there’s her protector who’s gay and a martial arts expert. For all he runs a self-defence organisation teaching gay people how to protect themselves if they are attacked in a public place, he’s tended to live a relatively quiet life. That begins to change as a new man comes into his life. Such changes to the emotional landscape can be positive forces for good. In this case, of course, question marks remain.

On balance, I like this approach which gives us a real sense of continuity. Too often detective novels in the Golden Age were presented as puzzles at a more technical level for their series detective to solve. For the usual mixture of motives, this heroine finds herself placed in a situation because of her reputation (and that’s not just because she’s a good journalist). Her curiosity and refusal to be distracted means she identifies one of the crimes in motion in this new household. In other words, the several deaths in and around Valle de los Osos are placed in a proper context. We’re not just interested in deciding who the killer(s) is/are, there are a raft of other issues to investigate and resolve. The result makes Vulture au Vin a highly engaging and rather more interesting a book than the usual mystery fare. Add in the bonus of descriptions of wine and good food. . . The complete package sumptuously satisfies all taste buds for whodunnits and feasting at more elite levels of society.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Worldsoul by Liz Williams

I have spent all my life involved with words. Inevitably, as children, we learn by drawing on the wisdom stored in words. Later, I made my living writing and speaking. It completes the circle that I should give back and help renew the store of knowledge for future generations. Although I’m now long retired, there’s been a retreat away from speaking. Perhaps this reflects the fact I’ve always been more comfortable with written language. You always get a second chance with what you write. You can’t easily take back words once spoken. So it’s interesting to pick up a book which concerns itself with the defence of a library. If the collection was so vast, the range of knowledge it contained so comprehensive, it would become a target. The questions, of course, would be who might want the contents of such a library, for what purpose(s), and who would defend against the attack?

Worldsoul by Liz Williams (Prime Books, 2012) is a little place balanced nicely between Earth and the Liminality where magic from all the dimensions comes together. The library that stands in the Citadel is a version of the missing Library of Alexandria, continuously updated over the centuries. It’s supposed to be neutral ground, the collection lacking only the few grimoires possessed by the Court to be truly comprehensive. Before the Skein disappeared into the past of the Liminality with the “original” Library of Alexandria, the Court and the Library would co-operate. Now they barely speak to each other.

Liz Williams hypnotised by the microphone snake

Librarian Mercy Fane is one of those responsible for guarding the shelves. Unless properly warded, who knows what might escape from the pages. Fortunately, she’s an expert with her Irish sword. However, nothing can prepare her for the female disir that bursts in from the frozen north. The figure is through her and gone before she can act to stop it. Perhaps that’s because Loki was responsible for the sending. The old Norse God is readying a plan with Jonathan Deed, the Abbot General of the Court. They’re going to forcibly recover the original Library of Alexandria from the Skein, displacing the library in the Citadel, and use all the magical resources for their own evil purposes. Opposing the Abbott General is the Shah who, incidentally, has an ifrit problem. Conveniently, the alchemist Shadow can be prevailed upon to offer her expertise. When the disir attacks Shadow, this brings her to the attention of Mercy Fane. There’s also Gremory, a demon Duke from Hell whose task is to recover the ifrit from the Shah. Her opposite number is Elemiel who has an unfortunate habit of breaking things although, as an angel, there can sometimes be closure.

Now we have the set-up, we come to the central conceit of the novel — as usual, it’s intended as the first of a series with an initial three books sold. The ways to and from Earth and the other dimensions are called storyways. As straightline routes, you move by following the texts of the well-known tales. But there are some stories that only a few remember, and other more secret and less-travelled routes are between the lines and through the subtexts. Depending on the level of magical ability passed down through the genes, the different types of being can pass from one place to another by following the descriptive words in the texts like spells. There are, of course, maps of the storyways. Think of them as being like indexes to books or to sections in a library. At the top of each classification will be the modern urban myths and stories. In turn, these will throw off threads of narrative which lead down to the different levels of legends for each section. The most common themes are quests involving heroes but, sooner or later, you encounter magical beings and Gods. Beyond them? The archetypes and inchoate myths where the stories overlap but never come together. The oldest maps are from China and the Middle East where cultural records go back the longest. This excludes aboriginal cultures because they tend to be oral not written traditions.

As a plot device, Liz Williams is therefore giving her characters a kind of go-anywhere-that-can-be-described ability since, by definition, once the words open a passage between the destination and the place occupied by the readers, there can be motion in either direction. Indeed, as Shadow discovers to her cost, there can be motion in unexpected directions. Now think of the world as being like an onion, all its mysteries being held in a library of books. That would mean the worst kind of enemy would eat the stories in the books and spit out their own. Lurking in the background is the Barquess. This is a ship sailing the stars in search of the Skein and the original library they “misplaced” in time. Perhaps significantly, it’s Captained by Greya Fane, one of Mercy’s mothers. There’s also Mareritt who travels around on a sleigh and sees the secrets in the minds of those who ride with her.

When you put all this together, it takes a while to understand who everyone is and how they relate to each other. Such is always the way when you embark on a major series and introduce your cast of long-running characters. As fantasy goes, this may start quite small but it has a genuinely epic quality about it as forces assemble to confront each other in bloody battle. When talons meet jaws and barbed tails, not everyone can emerge unscathed, for even in the best regulated stories, there must always be some who fall by the wayside. Indeed, having access to what should be the definitive book taken from the shelves of the library itself, is not always going to tell you in advance what the ending will be. Sometimes, you just have to wait to read the next in the series to find out what happens next.

Worldsoul is a completely entrancing fantasy, exploiting the essential nature of narrative as its own reality. If that sounds like a paradox that cannot be resolved, read the book to see how Liz Williams squares the circle and leaves the magic intact.

The other reviews of books by Liz Williams are: The Iron Khan, Precious Dragon, Shadow Pavilion, A Glass of Shadow, and Winterstrike.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Revolution Business by Charles Stross

In theory, writing should be the easiest activity in the world. It is, after all, nothing more than speech captured on paper. Since everyone seems able to speak at nineteen to the dozen, dashing off the odd short story before lunch and a novel or so on your summer hols should be no problem. Except that, if you ask the few who can string more than two sentences together to make a coherent paragraph, there’s a lot of craft to learn before the paper version is worth reading. One of the key problems to resolve is the issue of narrative structure. Starting on page one, the author has to offer a coherent exposition of events, sufficiently interesting and credible to lead the readers through to a satisfactory ending.

One approach is like building a tower or digging a tunnel. Once the author sets off up the tower or down the tunnel, we are all obliged to follow, limited in what we can see because of the structure through which we pass. If you’re like Ted Chiang, you write something like the Tower of Babylon which, incidentally, won the Nebula in 1990. This should be the ultimate linear story of a man who climbs up the titular Tower, except the only discovery is that, like Ouroboros, what goes up, must come down. In non-linear stories, the events as described are not necessarily chronological or immediately related to each other. They exist like pieces in an unmade jigsaw until the author assembles them in some hopefully pleasing manner. The most common example is a multiple point-of-view structure that introduces a cast of characters that may not meet until the end or may not meet at all but influence each other indirectly. In the vast majority of all plots, we get to see an increasing convergence between all the narrative strands as the plot develops and more characters do meet.

Under normal circumstances, the author is modest and limits the cast of characters. This keeps the storytelling manageable. All of which brings me to The Revolution Business by Charles Stross. This is the fifth volume in what has been projected as a cycle of six although, unless everyone with nukes uses them in a MAD way, there could be a new series involving expansion into, or interaction with, different worlds as they are discovered. Stross has been attempting something only rarely seen. He has been building an upside-down pyramid, i.e. he placed the apex stone on the ground and then began to fan upwards and outwards without the structure falling over. It has four faces, one for each world and, as new characters are introduced and situations develop, the volume above the apex stone has been expanding. Frankly, I thought the whole thing too ambitious. It would have been an easy ride to take if the lead character, Miriam, had been the sole point-of-view. But Stross has been running multiple characters in each of the worlds (albeit the fourth world has merely been visited so far and appears enigmatically empty).

I thought the monumental effort was threatening to fall over in the fourth book, The Merchants’ War, but Stross seems to have more discipline in this latest episode and I feel more confident that the sum of the parts will prove an interesting whole when we can all look back and see how we ended up. The plotting here is more taut and, it must be said, all the better for being less ambitious. Much of the activity surrounding a subset of the lead characters is kept in outline. We see only as much as we need to see to get us where we need to go. It’s all building up towards an interesting high-stakes game in the final episode.

As one final thought, I was amused to see Paul Krugman’s endorsement on the front of the jacket. I find Krugman’s twice weekly columns in the NYT a fascinating read. My estimation of the man has been enhanced by his willingness to publicly endorse science fiction. Too few big-name intellectuals are prepared to admit opening the boards of an explictly SF book. As a world-renowned economist, I wonder what he makes of Mack Reynolds and Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo. Reynolds was a one-man army when it came to speculation about economics and, although it’s all a little wooden by modern-day standards, the ideas remain interesting. Spondulix is just good fun and should be read by all — it’s probably slightly better in the short version rather than the full novel. Di Filippo is one of the very best short story writers around.

For a review of a collection by Charles Stross, see Wireless. The concluding volume of this series is The Trade of Queens. Also see The Apocalypse Codex, Neptune Brood, Rule 34 and The Fuller Memorandum.

Emissaries From the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro

Ignoring the old chestnut of the nature/nurture debate, we contrive to become people as we age. How successful we are depends on a variety of factors varying from blind luck to judicious planning. As we look back on the roads we have travelled, some moments stand out as signposts, vaguely pointing us in potentially desirable directions. In a retrospective mood, I am arbitrarily reminded of two quite different moments. The first comes from an early foray into Sherlock Holmes where, during an investigation into the disappearance of Silver Blaze, Holmes enigmatically opined that the failure of the dog to bark was a “curious incident”. The beauty of this is that it leaves something completely obvious lying out in the open for all to see, waiting only for the author to explain just why silence is so revealing. The second was a cartoon introducing an article in a serious periodical about how one assesses credibility in a narrative. It showed a crocodile on trial for murder and, under cross-examination, it was retorting, “Of course, I’m cold-blooded. I’m a reptile, you idiot!”

Humour done well is always satisfying because it punctures the self-importance of an individual or group. In Biter, Bit moments, those who make a living out of criminal trials always look to twist words to show people in the best or worst possible light. Trying to convince a jury that an accused is a cold-blooded killer seems a sound strategy yet such statements of the obvious are often double-edged. When it comes to judging the credibility of witnesses, we use our own experience of life. If we were in a similar situation, what would we do? What have we seen others say and do in such situations? If there is a general trend and the accused matches this model, the characterisation of the accused is more credible. But if the accused claims feelings and emotions out of step with our experience, this accused lacks credibility. Once we enter the world of fiction, the same rules apply to naturalistic storytelling. We empathise and identify with the characters who tend to act as we would act. So, even though Sherlock Holmes is clearly in a league of his own, Watson, Lestrade and others represent the humans of ordinary ability as foils to the great detective. All great problem solvers require a sidekick to ask the everyman questions. If the author trespasses into “unnatural” surroundings, he or she needs to define the rules. If there is new science or magic, how is it supposed to work? Now, when we see people reacting to these new environments, we have expectations on how they will react. When done well, they will act credibly.

I confess to being a sucker for books that unashamedly wear their intelligence on their sleeves. Perhaps I have a general control freaky that prefers ‘i’ to be dotted and ‘t’s crossed. Whatever the reason, I find myself immediately seduced when an author thinks so clearly on paper that every answer to every question just feels right. There is, of course, a trap because some authors are just too clever for their own good. Their imagination produces situations so baroque and unreal that there is little interest in disentangling their Gordian Knots. They become self-indulgent. But, as in Castro’s case, the best authors are minimalist, doing only as much as they need to get the situation defined and the characters off and running. Then, if dogs happen not to bark, this adds to the pleasure of the experience when the silence is later explained.

No-one can ever say with certainty why it happens. It may be an entirely objective assessment of a book — that there is something so powerful about it that it demands to be heard. Or it may be that there is a coincidence of mood — that the reader is predisposed, for some unquantifiable reason, to be entranced by a book. There is never certainty in life. All I can say is that, in this instance, I am in awe of Emissaries From the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro. How or why this has happened is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that this was a book I read from cover to cover in a single sitting, determined to see how it all played out in the end. This is a cross-genre book blending science fiction and a mystery element. It begins with Counsellor Andrea Cort arriving on an artificial environment created by alien intelligences. She has been sent (or summoned) to investigate the murder of two members of a human team invited by the aliens to observe the habitat and its “animals”. The task looks simple. There are a limited number of people in a closed environment. Picking out which one is the “villain” should not be too taxing. Except little is what it appears to be and, thanks to the initially unobtrusive way in which the narrative develops, we are suddenly pitched into successively different explorations of the environment in which the “cast” find themselves. Everything is exactly what it appears to be except that it takes a magician to keep showing us why the dogs are not barking. There is a reason for everything and I found myself tipping my hat to the author on a regular basis as what was standing in plain sight was so elegantly reinterpreted. Is Andrea Cort a new Sherlock Holmes? Well, I doubt Castro had him in mind when creating this character and the thinking processes are rather different. But both have their own demons and see the world through eyes that are somehow better able to see beyond the surface reality and to ask the questions we would all like to think we could ask given the time to think and analyse. I suspect Doyle would have enjoyed this novel. It has a strong story and a continuously inventive way of entertaining us with understated intelligence.

For once, I will not engage in any spoilers or discussions of the way in which the narrative is developed. I suspect everyone will find their own delights and I will not risk spoiling the moments by my own heavy-handedness. Let me simply recommend it as a must read. Hopefully, the sequel will be just as good.

For my review of the sequel, see The Third Claw of God and an outstanding collection Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories.

Template by Matthew Hughes

Never one to be shy, my Grandmother’s lexicon of bon mots occasionally brought shades of dark violence into the home. As indicated in an earlier post, one of my favourites was, “The things you see when you haven’t got your gun.” She had been brought up in the houses of the well-to-do in Victorian Yorkshire. The Dales were dotted with old colonels who retreated into their smoking rooms or studies to bask under the baleful eyes of all the animals they had shot while serving abroad. No self-respecting officer could ever come home from an overseas posting without a wall full of heads. Yet, in the tradition of fishermen who always tell stories of the one that got away, so officers would tell of the fierce creatures they would have shot had they had the chance. All this came to mind the other day as my wife and I were sitting in the shade outside a local coffeeshop. A young lady walked by. She attracted attention because, in the mid-afternoon sun, her dress was almost completely transparent. She seemed not to care that every eye, male and female alike, followed her confident stride. This was a woman at peace with who she was. With no British colonels around, she was safe.

In fictional worlds, it is a somewhat tired trope that heroes, uncertain of their ancestry, should set out on a quest to determine their identity. A recent example of this is Template by Matthew Hughes who is ploughing the same furrow as Jack Vance with some success. I confess to being a major Vance fan, and a mild fan of the Hughes/Vancean style. The problem with overtly maintaining a style is that, over time, it pales by comparison with the original. Jack is always Jack even when he is past his best, which he was in the last published effort. You forgive an old man these parting gestures because of the oeuvre he leaves behind. He is original to the end. Hughes, however, grows somewhat repetitive. The early works, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, are the best because he was so obviously having fun. Now that he is stuck in the groove, I have the sense that he is going through the motions.

So it is with this book. It adopts the peregrination or picaresque model as our somewhat roguish hero travels from one world to the next, observing the local cultures and gleaning information that may lead him to his identity. It would have been better at two-thirds the length. The idea underpinning the narrative is reasonable and the execution competent, but he doth protest too much. The message is tired by the time it is delivered and, despite some pallid satire, there is just not quite enough wit and invention to maintain the suspension of disbelief. I wanted it to be good but I was somewhat disappointed.

For reviews of other books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

June 30, 2009 1 comment

I have written book blurbs. It’s a mildly diverting game to capture the essence of a book and sell it to potential customers in the shortest possible number of words. The trick is to reassure potential readers that their money will be well-spent. So every book becomes the latest novel channelling Tolkien, Enid Blyton or some other literary heavyweight. As a recent experiment, I asked a question on LinkedIn, “If The Waste Land is a below-par gardening manual and Portnoy’s Complaint is about a diner who gets a poor meal in a five star restaurant, which works of literature do you find inspiring?” It was intriguing to find that half the answers were serious recommendation of favourite books. Obviously, any descriptive reference to a work of literature is potentially true and people “trust” what they see in print.

Most recently, I observed the adjective “Dickensian” rolled out in support of Thunderer by Felix Gilman. Perhaps it’s a reaction to time spent in school when I was forced to read him as a literary giant of the Victorian Age. Coming to an author out of choice always predisposes you to think better of him or her (until the reality of the reading overcomes initial optimism). As a rebellious teen, the well of resentment rose with buckets of scorn to pour over the teacher’s choice. As a social commentator, I concede that Dickens was reassuringly preoccupied with the problems of his age. But his prose style was often overwrought and the narrative shaped to the dictates of episodic publication. Although stated simply, the plots and their characters achieve some degree of timeless universality, they are mired in the language and sentimentality of his times. I have enjoyed some of the more modern BBC television adaptations. But, as someone to read with modern sensibilities, I do not recommend him.

Coming to the Thunderer, the plot may be stated simply. A man on a quest to find the voice of his god comes to a great city and, after some difficulties, manages to save the city from a great danger and, incidentally, stays hopeful that he will ultimately find what he is looking for. This takes some 527 pages. Let’s clear the decks for action. I am not against long books. All I ask is that the length is used constructively for driving the narrative forward. Thus, if a work is full of incident, I am prepared to accept a reasonable amount of background information to offer colour and context for these excitements. But this book is full of the worst kind of padding. We have a multiple point-of-view narrative structure with sequential chunks of text devoted to each major character. This is standard and the usual convention is that time starts to run at the first page and then continues sequentially or with some overlap until the last page when some or all of the characters have met and served their purpose as fixed by the author. In Aristotelian terms, this gives us unity of time and place as the author moves towards a logical (and, sometimes, moral) conclusion.

In this case, the primary protagonist is called Arjun and the first chapter enjoys unity of time as key players react to the arrival of a magical bird over the city where all the significant action occurs. Except the second chapter is largely Arjun’s backstory, simply dropped into the middle of the narrative as a lump of exposition. All of this content could have been slowly drawn out of Arjun as he meets different people in the city and explains why he has come. But this sets an unfortunate trend. Whenever we meet someone new or visit another part of the city, we get these information dumps. In the “good old days”, we praised most world builders, making exceptions for the obsessives like Tolkien whose interminable ramblings have been immortalised in uncountable numbers of posthumous books capturing his notes. But this modern drive to satisfy the apparent desire of readers to get “value for money” is leading to grossly overwritten texts. It is a reversion, but of the wrong type. The reason why Dickens put in so much background is because he had a word target to meet for each episode. So rather than rushing the plot to its conclusion (killing Little Nell had to be delayed as long as possible), he dallied in the descriptions and so maintained his income stream over the maximum possible number of instalments. The bean counters in charge of modern publishing houses also want the maximum number of words for the buck, regardless of the quality of those words.

The result is a book that could have been interesting if an editor had hacked away the unnecessary text. It is a work of metaphors. The city is mutable, shifting and changing its nature through space and time. At any one location, one might meet people out of time or from the future. It all depends on how you look. In this unmappable city lurk supernatural beings and those who would exploit or benefit from their power. Jack becomes a symbol of anarchic freedom. Arlandes becomes a symbol of raw oppression invested with tragic impotence. Then there is Holbach whose intellectualism marginalises his access to power and Shay whose various machinations destabilise the existing order of things. Among all these cyphers walks Arjun who vaguely follows the dictates of his quest until he is diverted by the appearance of a pestilent threat to the city. Frankly, I didn’t care very much what happened. The threat uncoils slowly and without much sense of menace. It kills people in increasing numbers, but that is it. It is perfunctory, a mere plot device because there must be something for Arjun to confront as a delaying tactic in the pursuit of his grail. The resolution is neither victory nor defeat. It is an ending in the sense that a cul-de-sac is an ending and so brings us to the end of this first instalment of journey in what will turn out to be a trilogy or more. Dickens would have approved of this device as a means of selling more books.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City.

Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

As I sit here, peering uncertainly out of my window at a night sky polluted by light, there is nothing but darkness. Not a single star twinkles back at me. The contrast with my childhood could not be more stark. Long before the development of the high-pressure sodium lamp and its characteristic yellow taint, I grew up in a house overlooking dark tides that sucked unwary swimmers to their doom, the milky way stretching my imagination across storm-tossed seas to other lands of mythic grandeur. I could stand on the headland at night, the looming mass of the gothic keep rearing up behind me and the immensity of outer space spread out in front of me as a smorgasbord of infinite possibility. This, if nothing else, explains my interest in SF and fantasy fiction.

Sometimes an author is overambitious and misjudges what is required to produce good metafiction. It is all very well to want to subvert conventions, but there are times when you can go too far and, rather than produce a literary masterpiece, produce a literary mess. The key problem is always to provide a consistent vehicle for the subversion. In some senses, it works best in the theatre when you watch actors perform a play, e.g. The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard or Sounds Off by Michael Frayn because it breaches the convention that the proscenium arch is a barrier through which no member of the audience may pass. Or on stage, cinema or television when a performer demonstrates awareness of role and steps through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. In literature, we have wonderful examples such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, where the author appears as a character and offers alternative endings to the book.

I muse along these lines because of the entrancing duology by Gregory Frost, Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet. Before coming to the books themselves, a minor gripe. Given the propensity of the publishing industry for profit maximisation, this could have appeared as a brick-sized book. At that length, there is a risk we might have left it on the shelf because of the risk of pulling a muscle lifting it down. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to read the work as a continuous whole rather than wait months for the publication of the second volume. Then we come to cost. A single work costs marginally less to buy and ship. Two volumes, even though in trade paperback size, cost more to ship separately and at a retail price of $28 for both, are at the edge of prices for a single hardback volume. Continuing the gripe, there is a slightly dead patch quite early in the second volume. If an editor had been working to produce a manageable length for a single printed book, that would have been tightened up. As it is, I suspect it was left in to make a better balance between the two volumes as a page count.

That said, this is an author at the top of his game. He has constructed a story about a young girl who makes her living as a puppeteer, moving from span to span on the ever-widening network of bridges that magically encircle this world. In each new place, she captures a local story to make her puppet dramas resonate with local cultures. Thus, the narrative is continually interrupted by the telling of other stories that illuminate the history of the world and the all too human condition of its peoples. This sets up a subtle interplay between the mythic universality of some of these stories and the current dilemmas of the protagonists. In turn, this braiding of narratives threads eases us through the novels. They intertwine and, significantly, assume direct parallels with the myths we know so well on Earth. Indeed, the structure of the narrative comes to have three strands: the narrative arc of the primary characters that ultimately becomes the stuff of myths in its own right, the increasingly complex stories of mythic characters who can affect the primary characters’ actions, and the potential for the first two strands to become a retelling of a familiar Earth myth. Or perhaps that should be the other way round. Perhaps the Earth myth as a character directs the actions of the people in the story so that what happens to them transcends their place and time, achieves universality and matches the original myth.

So at an intellectual level, this pair of novels is magical. It equally involves the reader’s emotions because the main characters remain so true to their own fallible natures. It is all too common in fantasy for there to be hero figures who, when in danger, pull out a sword and hack the opposition to pieces. Frost has created real people who have greatness thrust somewhat arbitrarily upon them. Their lives are made extraordinary by accident or design depending on your point of view. Having been forced into excellence, they must rise to the occasion as danger comes looking for them. They become players on a wider stage, seeking something more than survival as they care for and fight for each other. The outcome, in the literal sense, is the stuff of legend. For me, this was the best pair of fantasy books for 2008 and I cannot recommend them too highly.

For my other reviews of books by Gregory Frost, see: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Fitcher’s Brides.

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