I am not much of a fan of the secondary world epic fantasy genre. It takes a lot for me to actually pick up, let alone finish, a 500+ page book with sI am not much of a fan of the secondary world epic fantasy genre. It takes a lot for me to actually pick up, let alone finish, a 500+ page book with somewhat gaudy cover art featuring people and places whose names contain an excess of vowels and apostrophes. So that I bought this novel on the day it came out and finished it in less than a week says a lot. To me, anyway.
I first heard of this author through her essays, in particular We Have Always Fought, which is a bracing rhetorical bucket of cold water over the head, one of those pieces of writing that articulated something I already kind of knew on some level but did it in such a way as to actually change the way I look at the world. It rearranged my brain. The way Hurley writes about stories as significant, high stakes political endeavors that can change the world in some meaningful way is immensely exciting, and something I believe, too. So of course I was curious about the kinds of stories she tells.
The first thing that struck me, however, is how epic fantasy-ish it is. We get the requisite map, the reminder that this is "Book 1" of what I presume is a trilogy, and the monsters and cosmology and vowelly-named people, places, and cultures that contain just a slight hint of real world ethnic and cultural markers. This has more to do with my ill-suitedness for the genre at large, though, than with anything germane to this novel. But it's worth noting that while MIRROR EMPIRE does a great many subversive, progressive, and downright refreshing things on the story level, its props and window dressing come straight from epic fantasy central casting.
Beneath the nacreous epic fantasy surface polish, however, is an amazingly complex, hyper intelligent, maximalist fugue of a story with a great many interesting things to say about pacifism and warfare, genocide, gender role mutability, self-violence, and even the deadly importance of books and the art of translation. On the thematic level MIRROR EMPIRE is probably one of the most ambitious fantasy novels I've read. Unlike some ambitious works that seem to lack the narrative underpinning to fully realize that ambition (such as Mieville's Bas-Lag novels), the story stays firmly on the rails, its heavy freight confidently in tow. ...more
Last month I needed a jolt of good old, epic senswunda space opera, and man did this book deliver. This 25 year old sci-fi classic might look a bit odLast month I needed a jolt of good old, epic senswunda space opera, and man did this book deliver. This 25 year old sci-fi classic might look a bit odd sandwiched between new fiction by 21st century lit-fic superstars, but Simmons’s obvious love of classical literature, with a plot structure borrowed directly from Chaucer and frequent shout-outs to Keats among others, never lets the reader forget that the author is a classical literature super nerd. The only downside is that the novel ends in a cliff hanger of sorts, but because the slow reveal had already given me a sense of what was going on, and because the the plot threads were starting to fray a bit towards the end I didn’t feel the need to dive into the second book right away. Perhaps I’ll save it for the winter....more
This very short novel contains a charming, if somewhat twee, story of a normal young boy who has a fantastical adventure, book-ended by two deeply-felThis very short novel contains a charming, if somewhat twee, story of a normal young boy who has a fantastical adventure, book-ended by two deeply-felt episodes that glancingly attempt something more.
The book begins with our unnamed first-person narrator returning to the house of his youth on the occasion of (I think) a funeral. These opening pages are freighted with a deeply introspective world-weariness, and it felt like the story was gearing up for a kind of self-realization narrative.
But once home, our narrator encounters a mysterious neighbor, and this encounter summons the memory of an experience the narrator had as a child. That story, as recalled by the narrator, is the meat of this novel, and it's interesting and just as full of monsters and fairies and magic as you'd expect from the byline. There are some dark moments, and a twist of tragedy. But it all comes across as very harmless and safe, even in some of the less comfortable and sad moments.
For me, though, the novel only became interesting in its final pages, after the narrator finishes recounting this experience he had and is talking with the mysterious neighbor. Without getting into specifics, it is only at the end that the story starts trying to broach some of the self-realization hinted at in its opening pages. But before it goes anywhere, the book ends.
I feel like Gaiman has a clearly defined comfort zone, and if he tentatively sticks a foot outside of it, as he does here at the very end, it is only to withdraw it a moment later with the hope that the attempt at something deep will count for the real thing. I look forward to the day he works up the courage to venture outside of his self-circumscribed magic circle and tell us about the monsters he really sees there....more
Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jumpQuickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium (p. 46)
Calvino, in the above quote, is discussing a characteristic element of folk tales. The narrative speed of folk and fairy tales accounts for their immediacy and the ease with the reader accepts certain implausibilities.
Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is one of the best embodiments of Calvino-esque quickness that I’ve come across lately. A story about twelve sisters in 1920’s Manhattan, sequestered by their petulant, reclusive father in their Upper East Side town house, who sneak out every night and dance their feet off at prohibition night clubs, the novel packs a lot of story in its 277 pages.
Jo is our protagonist. The eldest of the twelve sisters and their de facto leader (their “general,” as her sisters call her), she becomes a sort of surrogate mother after their real mother dies. Befitting her nickname, Jo is a master tactician, especially during her and her sisters’ nightly escapes to the nightcblub, cooly and efficiently ushering her siblings to and from taxis, into the clubs, monitoring for trouble and organizing a hasty but organized retreat when trouble arrives.
But Jo’s leadership comes at a cost: her responsibility to her sisters precludes her from the fun: she doesn’t dance, but sits at the night club table and watches her sisters like a hawk. And when a love interest appears in the form of Tom, the owner of their regular night club, she is compelled to rebuff him, and then some.
As difficult as Jo’s life is already, her challenges are compounded when her father announces his intention to marry off each of his daughters, setting off a series of events that, before the novel is over, leaves the sisters scattered across the country, enmeshed in various new friendships and relationships, and even running their own night club.
I kept thinking of the above Calvino quote, and the essay, Quickness, from which it is taken—so much so that it didn’t come as much of a surprise when I later found out that Girls at the Kingfisher Clubias a retelling of sorts of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a German fairy tale fist published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Unfamiliar as I was with the original fairy tale while I was reading this novel, the Calvinoesque quickness with which Valentine’s story unfolds nonetheless left me with that distinctive fairy tale feel.
But this novel’s quickness is both a feature and a bug: the fast pacing (coupled with a large cast of deeply interesting and economically drawn characters) kept me engaged and intensely interested, but it also let the story get off easily with some rapid hand-waving around a few key plot points.
One scene in particular where the narrative quickness comes at the expense of believability occurs at one of the most crucial moments in the story.
[NB: following couple of paragraphs contains spoilers.]
After Jo and Tom spend their first night together, Jo convinces Tom to enter into a sham marriage with Jo’s eldest sister, Lou. Not only does this involve Tom marrying someone he doesn’t love (he loves Jo, and Jo loves him back), but it means Tom will abandon his night club business and moving to Chicago. That’s a lot to ask anyone ever, let alone some guy after only one roll in the hay.
This is an impossible request and the narrative does nothing much to show us what kind of tidal shifts in Tom’s character had to occur for him to agree to it. Basically, when Jo and Tom are laying on the bed enjoying post-coital intimacy and, after Jo tells Tom about the conditions under which her father keeps them, she looks him in the eye and says “I need a favor.” We see Tom’s resistance to the idea, and Jo’s ultimate ability to persuade him, only during snippets of flashback in the scene that immediately follows. Tom is driving Jo back to her house. Before the reader even learns what the favor was, we are told that:
The ride was silent; everything had been silent after she’d asked for the favor and they’d fought.
(“Do you know how dangerous this is?” he’d shouted, after he’d stopped saying no, no, no; after he’d stopped trying to explain as he would to a child that what she was asking had risks.
“No worse than being trapped in that house,” she said, buckling her shoes. “No worse than that.”
If he thought she could be frightened into seeing the comforts of staying quietyly at home, he’d picked the wrong fight.) This is an important moment for the story, where a character has to be persuaded to do something that is so against his will that it seems implausible. To believe this as a reader I need to see that persuasion in action, and Tom’s gradually diminishing resistance and ultimate capitulation if I’m going to go along with it. But all we get is the above four short paragraphs. It certainly moves the story along, but at the loss of dramatic tension and readerly disbelief.
(One other thing, which is more of a stylistic quirk but kind of related, I think: Valentine is very fond of extended, multi-paragraph parentheticals, such as in the above quote. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but more than once I felt like story elements that deserved more real estate were wedged between parenthesis for the sake of narrative momentum.)
But apart from a handful of “pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain” moments in the narrative that veer the story into two-dimensional territory, this novel is full of psychological complexity emotional nuance and just plain human-ness that belies the story’s speed. It even had me close to tears at one moment toward the end, which I think is the first time that’s happened with a book this year. Calvino would be envious of Valentine’s talent....more
An odd but enjoyable love child of The Bell Jar and Pattern Recognition, The Vanishers has a light, fast-paced plot that jogs the reader through someAn odd but enjoyable love child of The Bell Jar and Pattern Recognition, The Vanishers has a light, fast-paced plot that jogs the reader through some dense symbolism (dried meat, wolves, twin mother/daughter suicides) as it jumps from New Hampshire telepath school to Manhattan to Viennese clinic to Parisian spa and back to New Hampshire. In terms of pacing and rapid-fire symbolism, it felt like one of Gene Wolfe's more recent novels, only with more vibrant prose and a real resolution at the end.
I had a few nagging problems of the left brain sort: in a world where telepathy is a real thing, we encounter no one else with this power outside of the protagonist and her telepath workshop coterie. There are maybe a hundred small and not so small ways that the world would change if telepathy were a real thing, even if it were restricted to a select few but Julavits doesn't go there, to the detriment of her fantasical verisimilitude.
The plot is also driven almost entirely by coincidence: the person who the protagist just befriended turns out to be the person she was looking for in the prior chapter, the people at the other table are the parents of narrator's associate, who turn up just in time to give that character's backstory. The narrator explains this at one point by saying that she is extremely prone to coincidences, but that's not much better than having a character who is genetically prone to dramatic conflict, or preternaturally predisposed to meeting interesting, troubled characters: its artifice that shows the puppeteer's hands, and ruins the illusion somewhat.
But, apart from this, it works. All the latent symbolism that is cluttered throughout the novel actually pays off in the end, and the various threads of the narrator's problems see resolution, sometimes against the protagonist's will. And I wasn't expecting a classic "life-affirming" ending out of a book like this, but Julavits delivers one, and it somehow syncs perfectly with all that comes before it. So despite my occasional issues, I was still rather moved by this book, and very much enjoyed reading it....more