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Fantasy Discussions > Sonata Form, by Carole Cummings

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Ulysses Dietz | 1732 comments Sonata Form
By Carole Cummings
Published by Forest Path Books, 2020
Five stars

As it happens, this is not my first Carole Cummings book, I read her novel “The Queen’s Librarian” in 2013, but my review was both enthusiastic and really unhelpful. I called that earlier novel an “almost-five-star” book. No idea why it missed that final star, which is why I’m rereading it (unprecedented for me).

“Sonata Form” gets a solid five-star review. Carole Cummings is, simply, a wonderful writer. Her command of the language is superb, and she weaves a complicated narrative that is both all-embracing and emotionally charged. That complex storyline might be the justification for the mildly puzzling title and chapter headings—all of which refer to musical forms. Because of my one prep-school class in music appreciation fifty years ago, I am an expert, of course, and understood all the chapter headings. Other than the parallel notion of a narrative and a sonata both being complex things, these musical titles do refer to the fact that one of the two main characters, Milo Priddy, plays the violin.

To dragons.

Ah, and there it is. The dragons. I’ve read quite a few books with dragons, treated in a surprisingly wide variety of ways. I’ve never seen them treated this way: as if dragons are large, intelligent, unwieldy and often hard-to-manage wild animals. Not monsters. Not cattle. Beautiful and enigmatic. (Apologies for another aside here: a year ago, before the pandemic, I managed to sneak in a ten-day safari in East Africa, and saw, close-up, giraffes and elephant herds. Suddenly, dragons as animals make sense to me.) Dragons are, however, magical creatures as well, and it takes special humans to care for them on their long migrations across the world, both to keep them healthy, and to keep the human population safe. Milo Priddy is one of these special humas. He is dragonkin. Dragons like him, trust him, and come to him when they need his help.

Even in Milo’s own world, the island nation of Kymbrygh in the United Preidynig Isles, in the continent of Mastiran, Milo is a rarity. His best childhood friend, indeed the lifelong chum who loves him, Ellis Morgan, is fascinated and puzzled by Milo’s gift. Because Milo is Dewin, one of three kinds of magical humans in the world, and the only magical humans who can manage dragons.

Milo and Ellis are young, let’s say fresh out of university young. They reconnect when Milo attends his first coven in Wellech, the largest metropolitan center of Kymbrygh. Although childhood friends, whose mothers remain close friends, Milo and Ellis haven’t seen each other for years. Only because Milo is accosted by two of Wellech’s wardens (police), does he encounter Ellis again. The spark is instant.

However, because we are so distracted by this chance meeting of old friends, we might only pay half-attention to the fact that Milo is singled out as a threat because he’s Dewin. For all his family’s high status in the country, it is this detail that makes him an object of fear and suspicion. To use the author’s musical metaphor, this is a motif that will run through the book, getting louder and more insistent, changing Milo and Ellis’s lives in ways they cannot imagine.

J.R.R. Tolkien always denied that his epic trilogy had anything to do with World War II, but he created a genre of fiction that has been revered and imitated ever since. The good-vs-evil paradigm is an ancient one in literature, and it is inevitable that authors will draw on their own world, their own knowledge, to create settings and characters that connect with them and their readers. Such is the case with “Sonata Form.” As the story unfolded, and I began to obsessively study the maps supplied by the author, I realized that Cummings seemed to be intentionally setting up a Lord of the Rings kind of epic tale of war between good and evil. It was easy to see a parallel with the events surrounding both world wars in Europe. On the other hand, the singling out of the Dewin people seems specifically echoing events in Germany in the 1930s. The broader theme (another musical term!) of anti-immigrant bias throughout the story resonates with our here and now in 2021—both in the Brexit mess in the United Kingdom, and in the virulent anti-immigration politics of the USA’s recently former president and his minions.

So, a lot to take in, especially if you’re stuck at home in a pandemic and have lots of time to think about Carole Cummings and the musical structure of her narrative. It gets very dark, this story, although Cummings relieves the darkness with moments of poetic beauty that left me with tears in my eyes and my heart pounding—more than once. Milo and Ellis are transformed by their love at first, then transformed by war and duty. This is not cozy romance. This is violent and difficult and thought-provoking. But it is still, thankfully, romance.

I’ll just leave it there, with a final quotation from near the end of the book, referring to the dragons, who matter a great deal: “All you have to do is love them. […] Love them like Milo does. And then they’ll know.” When you read this passage in context, you’ll know, too.

message 2: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Eisenmeier (carpelibrumbooks) | 27 comments This sounds interesting- I like dragons. Thanks for sharing.

message 3: by Meghan (last edited Jul 06, 2021 01:20AM) (new) - added it

 Meghan Loves M/M (mm_reads) | 32 comments I haven't read much Carole Cummings in a while. Will put this on my list.

You usually have pretty complete reviews, but this is a whole essay. Wow :D
Tolkien seemed to deny a lot of what was later attributed to his main Trilogy: it wasn't about war, it wasn't about the horrors of the machine age, it wasn't about the destruction of the environment, etc. It's hard to believe it now. He may not have meant to be writing about those things, but they obviously were forming and informing his thinking.

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