I stumbled upon the name of this novelette while reading Warriors 2, which features another short story written by Howard Waldrop. There, The Ugly Chi...moreI stumbled upon the name of this novelette while reading Warriors 2, which features another short story written by Howard Waldrop. There, The Ugly Chickens was mentioned in glowing terms, so of course, I had to temporarily set aside that book in order to find out why.
Through a lucky coincidence, a buss passenger recognizes in the depiction of the long-extinct dodo, the ugly chicken she grew up with. The main character, a Master's student in ornithology, embarks on a quest to unravel the mystery of the dodos and to unearth the history of the family linked to them.
The richness of this story, a Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner, comes from the attention to detail for (re)building the family's history. As I read it, I was under the impression that I watched a show on the History Channel. The fact that the ornithologist has always been obsessed with dodos—he used to have dreams involving royal families and dancing dodos—only adds to the illusion of reality. Here we have the (overly) passionate scientists, in search of academic glory, who forgoes sleep and food, in order to pursue the mystery of a (literally) stupid bird.
The best part—the ending, which had me laughing out loud. Brilliant!
The very short summary is this: cowardly, lying, and womaniser Prince Jal is forced to undertake a journey to the far North in order to break the spell that links him to a brave, honest, faithful, and, most important, desperate savage, named Snorri. Both of them are nothing but pawns in a war that they don't understand. As with any book of this kind, the journey is one of self-discovery, yet, this novel doesn't resemble any high-fantasy I have ever read. For one, the main character is exactly the opposite of what we would expect from a hero.
Strangely, I learned about this novel from ACE Books' campaign on Twitter. Everyone was tweeting how funny it was and, because at the time I was in a burned-out state, I considered it a suitable relief for stress and overwork. During the first day, I went to bed past 2 a.m. because I couldn't put it down. Yes, Prince of Fools is funny, no one argues against this statement, but what won me over was how judiciously Mark Lawrence employs the humor in order to build his character and to highlight the tension. Prince of Fools is not a comedy. The humor doesn't represent a purpose in itself, but a tool to consolidate an intrinsic feature of the main character, namely cowardice. Because of this, the flippancy is not consistently spread throughout the novel. The more Jal grows into a more valiant less cowardly individual, the less witty his outlook of life. The thinning of the humor not only marks Jal's progress towards (real) adulthood, but also augments the tension. Because, when your prospects of survival taper off, the penchant for joking tapers off as well.
What's more important than the humor is how Mark Lawrence contrives the inner tension that drives the characters. The spell that affects Snorri and Jal has a dual nature—good and bad, day and night, light ans shadow—and each of them is the recipient of only one aspect. Naturally, we would expect that the negative side of the magic is drawn to the depraved individual and the positive one, to the upright man. That would have been the easy way! But that is not Mark Lawrence's way. Instead, he devises a situation in which the darkness lodges into the righteous man and the light into the wicked one. Now, both of them are throw out of balance, because the spell conflicts with each of their natures. Would the shadows conquer the goodness and the light win against vice. While Prince of Fools is an action and adventure story, IMO, what makes it shine is this inner struggle of the two characters.
The second aspect that charmed me was the actual world. In the beginning, while Jal is interested only in getting into women's beds and paying his gambling debts, the scenery is only sketched. However, the more his journey transforms him, the more colorful and detailed the world becomes. Jal and Snorri live in a post-apocalyptic environment, in which the trains are only a legend, but the tracks still exist. For a night, they nest in what appears to be a skyscraper, while another they rest in a dried-up reservoir, which still shows the signs of a hydroelectric power plant. The quirkiest detail of all is the army of plasteek mannequins, which he misconstrues as warriors. Did I mention that they sail on a Viking ship called Ikea? The idea that a high-fantasy world could exist after the destruction of our present civilizations fascinated me!
At last, I'm only going to mentioned that Mark Lawrence's writing is well above the average. His choice of words is creative and the turn of phrase, sure-handed and elegant.
To wrap up, this is a very fresh take on high-fantasy, benefiting from unorthodox characters, good mastery of the tension, a strange world, and strong writing. If you want, you could call this a beach read for fantasy readers. * * * Also posted at Medley | Andreea Daia(less)
The second installment of the Lady Trent's Memoirs follows Isabella through her adventure on the continent of Eriga (a pseudo African continent), in p...moreThe second installment of the Lady Trent's Memoirs follows Isabella through her adventure on the continent of Eriga (a pseudo African continent), in pursuit of dragons and academic glory. As expected, after a short detour through the quagmire of the civilized society, the reader is dropped in the middle of local squeamishes, lavish forests that "eat" the intruders, and undignifying diseases.
What started as a young heroine, unsure about her place in the world and conflicted about her unbecoming desire for knowledge continues at full throttle. Isabella represents the epitome of a researcher, a woman who even today some would consider an unfit mother. She clearly favors dragons over her son and, by the end of the book, develops so much into a scientist that she ceases to feel guilty because of it. Moreover, her defying party of wannabe academicians is augmented by Natalie, the asexual friend who "elopes" with Isabella's scientific expedition. While Natalie's voice isn't as strong as the main character's, I found her sometimes even more enticing for her balance between levelheadedness and desire for experimentation.
In my opinion, it is this panoply of misfits that allures the reader. Between Tom, Natalie, and Isabella, the misfit in each of us is bound to identify with one of the characters (or perhaps with a combination of several characters).
I read this novel immediately after finishing A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent. Given this situation, the very similar structure of the two books was obvious. Both of them start very slow, by presenting interactions inside the Scriland good society. Both of them veer into Isabella's fight with her family (and other families) for her right to personal expression through study, research, and travel. The next third of the book(s) is dedicated to a sedate depiction of the "worlds" she visits, from the environmental conditions, to the social stratification, to random motley aspects. The tone in this section is always composed and the narrator's eye canvases its surrounding with a scientific aloofness. Even if drama and adventure make an appearance during this section (in both cases, we encounter friction due to lack of communication and cultural differences) the tone of the narration tempers the tension. It is in the last third of each book when the real "adventuring" occurs and when the reader scoots towards the edge of the chair. While I didn't mind a similar structure for the first two books, I hope that the third one in the series will introduce some variation and surprises.
As I mentioned in my review of "A Natural History of Dragons," what stands out in these books is the attention taken for building an alternate reality. Language, politics, society, zoology, ecosystems—no aspect is left unattended or undeveloped and the minute details pile up in conglomerates with perfect believability. And although, under regular conditions, some of these aspect would seem dry, the premise of the narrator being a scientist confers them authenticity, readability, and quirkiness. I maintain my opinion that a more detailed map is absolutely necessary for such a book. I have to admit that, without one, I was completely lost during the long stretch of politics presented during the agban episode. That the episode proved essential to understanding the later military machinations made the lack of a detailed map worse.
To wrap up, the engaging characters and the original setting render this reading a fascinating incursion into a world of (both human and draconic) discovery and adventure. * * * Also posted at Medley | Andreea Daia(less)