MAPS, JINN AND THE INQUISITION: A THRILLING RIDE THROUGH MEDIEVAL SPAIN

There are some authors whose books I’ll buy for the library almost sight unseen. They’re usually the authors who are so popular that I know library patrons are going to want to read their books, but sometimes they’re authors I personally love, whose books I’ve recommended over and over to prospective readers.  There are authors (we probably all have them) for whom the very announcement that they have a new book coming out is enough to set my heart racing and make me decide we have to have that book.

One of those authors, for me, is G. Willow Wilson, and my eagerness to read her new book, The Bird King, was largely based on how much I loved her last book, Alif the Unseen, which I read for a category in one of the Read Harder challenges.  Sadly, Alif the Unseen is not available here at the Field Library, which is why I haven’t written it up for the blog, but it’s a wonderful book that combines adventure and fantasy and romance in a Middle Eastern culture I haven’t seen often depicted in fantasy novels, with a supporting heroine worthy of her own book, or her own series.

The Bird King is set in the last days of the Reconquista in Spain, as Ferdinand and Isabella were consolidating their control over the country and pushing out the last of the Moorish kingdoms. The story begins in a palace in Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, already under siege and reaching the end of its existence.  Fatima, our protagonist, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the sultan, a servant to his mother, the Lady Aisha. Her closest friend in the palace is Hassan, the palace mapmaker, who has the amazing ability to make the world correspond to what he draws in his maps: he can make doors appear where there were none in reality, and tunnels from one place to another that never existed before his maps.  Naturally Hassan has used this gift for the sultan and his people earlier in the war, and he’s more than willing to continue to use this talent to help those he cares about. There is no possibility of a marriage or even a sexual relationship between Fatima and Hassan, because he is attracted only to men. This is something the sultan and most of the other people in the palace are aware of, and they tolerate this behavior of his because of his outstanding gifts, but even from the outset we know this is going to be a problem sooner or later.  

It becomes a problem when the emissaries of Ferdinand and Isabella, a general and a religious woman, come to the palace to offer terms for the sultan’s surrender.  The general seems like the more powerful character, but it’s the woman, Luz, who makes things happen, and when Fatima discovers that Luz is associated with the Inquisition, she realizes that Luz, and the people she represents, are the biggest danger to Hassan.  Indeed, when Luz finds out what Hassan can do, she naturally takes the position that he is in league with the devil, and insists that he be surrendered to the Inquisition. While the sultan and even Lady Aisha are willing to pay for peace with Hassan’s life, Fatima is not, and so she and Hassan escape the palace and make a break for freedom, with the help of a dog who is really a jinn named Vikram (a character we met already in Alif the Unseen, though he’s pretty much the only character in common between those two books; he was a delight in Alif and he’s a wonderful character here, too, much more than a supernatural helper when the couple need him and never someone who can be entirely relied upon for that kind of help), and with all the forces of the Inquisition after them.

Wilson is excellent at creating characters. None of the people or beings we meet in this book are predictable or simple, from Hassan to Fatima, from Aisha to the sultan, from Gwennec, the novice monk they encounter along the way, even to Stupid, the horse they end up taking on board a boat with them.  Where she really excels is in her villains, and Luz is amazing. Anyone can write a totally evil person who acts cruelly and viciously just for the sake of evil, and such all powerful, all evil characters aren’t terribly interesting or believable. Luz does horrible things and plans even more terrible ones, but she is always plausible, she’s charming and sweet even to the people she’s setting out to destroy, and she has reasons for her actions. They may not be reasons you’d agree with (they certainly aren’t reasons I’d agree with), but she’s got realistic motivations (even without the supernatural help she gets), and she is disturbingly powerful, a worthy opponent for our characters.

The world of The Bird King is vivid and realistic, despite the many paranormal things that occur in it.  Distances are vast, people don’t develop the ability to walk for days and days without pain, you can’t immediately set foot in a small sailboat and immediately know how to sail it unless someone shows you how (and even then you can make stupid mistakes).  All the details of hunger and thirst, physical and emotional pain, the smells of waterfronts and cities, the dry air of late summer in Spain combine to bring this world to life without the book’s ever stopping its forward momentum or slowing you down to force you to look at any of it.

I read the book in two days, and would have devoured it in one if I hadn’t had to waste time on silly things like eating and sleeping and going to work.  If you want a rich, immersive book with characters you care about, plenty of action, set in a world you’re probably not very familiar with, you could hardly do better than to pick up The Bird King.  But make sure you set aside time, because you’re not going to want to put it down once you start it.

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AROUND THE WORLD BY TRAIN: OFF THE RAILS

Let’s start with my personal bias here: I love train travel, even on Amtrak with all its delays and difficulties, and I practically swooned when taking the high speed train from Brussels to Paris a few years ago (what train travel could be!  Who knew?). So I am probably the ideal audience for Beppe Severgnini’s new nonfiction book, Off the Rails: A Train Trip Through Life, but I think even people who don’t come to the book with my predilections will find it an entertaining read, the kind of travel book that makes you want to get up and go, or possibly that gives you such a sense of what the trip is like that you feel you’ve already gone.

The book is a series of essays about particular train trips Severgnini has taken over the years, and it’s an impressive collection of routes and trains any way you look at it.  He crosses the United States twice, mostly by train (the first trip he describes, when he’s traveling with his college-age son, involves some driving and some bus travel as well), he takes a train across the width of Australia, crosses Europe in a couple of different directions, travels across Asia through Siberia to China.  A native of Italy, he brings a unique perspective to whatever he experiences.

Frankly, Beppe is the kind of traveling companion anyone would want.  He’s incredibly patient with delays and screwups on the part of bureaucracies, he’s endlessly interested in the world around him, and he seems to be the kind of person who can get anyone, anywhere, to talk to him. His sense of humor never deserts him, and he looks at all the people around him, from train employees to fellow passengers, as fascinating people with their own stories to share.  If you were going to be traveling through Eastern Europe, as he does, and facing the oddities of scheduling and different standards of train travel, or traveling across the (then) Soviet Union and dealing with the limited food available on the train, you couldn’t ask for a less stressed person to accompany you.

Some of the delight of the book is his description of the travel itself, the experience of taking a train, of figuring out how the sleeping arrangements work (his descriptions of an Amtrak sleeper compartment are amusing and accurate), of eating meals with a random assortment of strangers on the dining car, and what he observes out the windows or in the train stations.  But a lot of the pleasure he takes in the travel, which he conveys vividly, is his encounters with other people, with people from different countries, with different languages, cultures and ideas. He’s a brave man, talking politics with strangers, even bringing a bobblehead Trump with him on a trip from Naples to London and watching people’s reactions, but there’s something about him that brings out the kindness and the talkativeness of other people.  Perhaps it’s his lack of judgmentalism. He has opinions of his own, and he shares them with us, but my impression is that he doesn’t reveal those opinions to the people he meets, and that encourages them to be open with him.

There is only one thing this book lacks, and it’s a surprising thing. Why aren’t there any maps in the book?  I’d settle for maps on the insides of the covers, though I’d prefer a map at the beginning of each chapter. How can you have a travel book without any maps at all?  Especially when in the last chapter Beppe talks with some sadness about how modern people have no idea of distances or locations, where things are with relation to each other.  I agree with his concern there, but it would be a lot less ironic if he or his publisher had taken the elementary step of providing maps of where these various places are that he’s seeing and experiencing. Even if you’re reasonably geographically knowledgeable, there are still parts of the world you don’t know as well, and a map would help immensely to give you an idea of locations and distances.

Other than that, this is a fun book, a quick read, and an inspiration to do some train traveling of your own, and I heartily recommend it.

 

THE RIVER THAT RUNS THROUGH US: EVERYTHING UNDER

If you’re going to write a modern version of an ancient myth or story, one way you can do it is to be straightforward and take the elements of the original story and put them in a modern setting. This requires more imagination than you might think; look at The Mere Wife (one of my favorite reads for 2018 and a stunning re-imagining of Beowulf) for an example of how to do it right. Another way is to take the elements of the original and turn them into something completely different, while still retaining the heart of the myth, and that’s what Daisy Johnson does in Everything Under, a strange and beautiful book.

I could tell you that it’s based on the story of Oedipus, and it is, sort of, but you’d get two thirds of the way through the winding, elliptical narrative before you’d even begin to see the elements of the original myth, and in so doing, you’d miss out on half of what makes this book so compelling.

Gretel is our narrator, and one of the point of view characters. She’s in her thirties, living a quiet life as a lexicographer in England, having been abandoned by her mother when she was a teenager. As we begin to see, even when Gretel was living with her mother, Sarah, it was hardly a normal childhood: isolated on a boat moored in a river, having little contact with the outside world, even creating a language of their own that nobody else could understand, Gretel’s lucky she turned out as normal as she did. She hardly ever thinks about her missing mother until she receives an email supposedly from Sarah, telling Gretel she’s lost.

Gretel then begins a search for her mother, and the novel begins winding through past and present, through what Gretel discovers in the present and what she remembers, and what she’s able to recreate of the past, especially of one particular winter when she and her mother were joined on their boat by a young man named Marcus.

Sarah in the present is a force of nature, but one beginning to fall apart. Whether she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, she both recognizes Gretel and has no idea who this young woman is, and Gretel tries to take care of her mother and figure out what Sarah needs so desperately to tell her.

Gretel, interesting narrator as she is, isn’t the only point of view character in the book. Giving their own unique perspectives on the story are Fiona, a gender queer person who never met Gretel or Sarah but knows an awful lot about Marcus before he was Marcus, and Marcus himself, formerly Margot.

This is one of those books where the setting is almost a character in itself. The river on which they live is wild and scary, inhabited by people who don’t seem to belong anywhere else, and, possibly, by a monster Sarah and Gretel refer to as the Bonak, and the Canal Thief of the past, rumored and possibly seen by Marcus and some of the others. The river feels like a mythical place, where there could be monsters, where the past and present are as fluid and sometimes cryptic as the language Sarah and Gretel spoke to each other, as the relationships among the main characters.

Everything Under is an immersive book, literary and allusive, and finally, when all the secrets have been unearthed and justice done or not done, deeply emotional and haunting. Check it out.

HOW TO KEEP CHILL ABOUT YOUR SYMPTOMS: AM I DYING?

Modern medicine is really amazing.  There are any number of diseases and conditions that can be diagnosed early and treated or even cured, which wouldn’t have been possible a decade or more ago, and this is terrific.  However, with this great technology and all these improvements in diagnosis and other medical procedures, we now have more anxiety about various physical symptoms, wondering what our response should be to, say, abdominal pain, or a racing heart, or a rash.  Here to help is a wonderful new book, Am I Dying?! by Christopher Kelly and Marc Eisenberg, two doctors who want people to know when to worry, when to chill out, and when to get to the emergency room as soon as possible.

It’s the kind of book you don’t have to read through (though if you’re a hypochondriac you might want to read from cover to cover), but can peruse for particular problems, particular issues and get the answers you’re looking for. It’s well organized: each section pertains to a different part of the body (head and neck, chest and back, belly, “lady parts”, “gentleman parts”, bathroom trouble, arms and legs, skin and hair), and each chapter describes a different set of symptoms (headaches, dizziness, chest pain, sore throat, etc.).  When you find the symptom you’re concerned about, there’s a description of the symptom and then tells you when you should “take a chill pill” (i.e., there’s nothing to worry about, it’s normal or it will take care of itself without medical intervention), when you should make an appointment (the symptom might be a sign of something more serious that needs medication or other medical care), and when you should go to the emergency room (self explanatory). The descriptions and explanations are written in clear, layperson language, and even the sections that tell you to go to the emergency room are presented in a non-scary way.  Imagine having a doctor on call (who doesn’t charge you for the calls!) who will listen to you explain what you’re feeling and then explain what’s likely to be happening and what you should do next, and that’s this book.

You don’t have to be a hypochondriac to think Am I Dying?! is a fascinating and worthwhile book.  All you have to be is someone who’s concerned about his or her health and who wants to know what to do next.  

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE IN PAKISTAN? WHY NOT?

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is such a classic that it has been revisted and rewritten through all sorts of different lenses, some successful and some less so (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is one I’d put in the latter category; it’s neither a good version of P&P nor a good zombie novel), so the idea of setting it in modern day Pakistan, as Soniah Kamal does in the new Unmarriageable, seems reasonable on its face, and turns out to be a brilliant way of seeing the book anew.

Anyone who’s writing a new version of an old classic is walking a tightrope between being slavishly close to the original and taking so many liberties with the original story that its devotees will scream in horror, but Soniah Kamal manages to dance lightly on that line.  The plot is recognizably that of Pride and Prejudice (and if you’re a fan, as I am, you’ll probably find yourself ticking off the well-known plot points — ah, yes, that’s the equivalent of Bingley’s party where everyone manages to disgrace themselves, oh, of course, that’s what Mr. Collins would be like if he were in this culture, what a clever way to bring a version of Lady Catherine de Burgh into the book — as they occur), and the names are recognizable, if appropriately changed, so Lizzy becomes Alys, Bingley becomes “Bungles” Bingla, Darcy becomes Darsee, Jane is Jena, Lydia is Lady, and so on.  Some of the original personalities carry over to this book, but none of them is exactly like his or her source, and that’s an excellent thing.

Alys is an unmarried woman of 30, pretty much considered to be on the shelf for the rest of her life, doomed to be a burden on her family, though she herself has no such concerns. She and her older sister, Jena, are teaching at a local private school for girls (founded and run by Begum Beenah dey Bagh — and if you’re thinking of Lady Catherine de Burgh, you’re thinking along the right lines).  Alys is teaching English literature to high school girls who know perfectly well that their value is tied directly to their ability to attract rich husbands, no matter what scandalous things Alys says, and indeed, once a girl in Alys’ class gets engaged, she’s on the road to dropping out of school entirely, with her parents’ and her intended’s blessings. Alys teaches the girls Pride and Prejudice (this book brilliantly starts with Alys’ getting the girls to write their own versions of the famous opening line from Pride and Prejudice), and, while Alys doesn’t directly compare the events of this book to those in the book she’s teaching, she’s certainly aware of Jane Austen’s take on the world, and admires it.

The backstory for the BInat family is different from that of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, in that the family was cheated out of its former status due to the machinations of the brother of Mr. Binat, a much gentler and less acerbic version of Mr. Bennet in the original. His wife, who is much smarter and less of a ditz than Austen’s version, is well aware of the girls’ new status and determined that they will still marry well, and when the family is invited to the social event of the year, part of the wedding festivities of a couple of the area’s richest and most socially “in” young people, Mrs. Binat fully intends to set her daughters to work to attract someone who will propose to them immediately and make their dreams (or her version of their dreams) come true. That nobody else in the environment thinks this is a bizarre idea tells you a lot about the milieu in which the book is set.  So Jena meets Bungles and his two nasty sisters, and their handsome but snobbish friend, Darsee, and Darsee snubs Alys for her looks and what he considers her lack of breeding, and we’re off.

Considering that the events of Unmarriageable take place over a fairly short time period, it’s impressive how Kamal manages to hit all the high and low points of Pride and Prejudice, including Alys’ rejection of Darsee’s unexpected marriage proposal, Lady’s unfortunate elopement with Wickaam and the ways Alys changes her opinion of Darsee to lead to their happy ending. Nothing feels rushed, nothing feels as if it’s been forced into the book to match the original’s plot, but everything moves quickly and lightly toward our inevitable conclusion. It’s as satisfying as Pride and Prejudice, and that’s saying something.

I can’t end the review without raising my hat, figuratively, to Soniah Kamal for the way she gave even the most caricature-ish characters from Jane Austen their own lives, their own backstories, and their own dignity. I already mentioned how Mrs. Binat outshines Mrs. Bennet (though Mrs. Bennet, I have to say, is quite a great comic character), but Qitty, this book’s equivalent of Kitty, gets to be more than just an adjunct to Lady/Lydia.  She’s overweight and sensitive about it, but she’s also artistic and able to stand up for herself by the end of the book, which is more than Kitty ever does. Even Mari comes off as a better, more rounded person, than Mary Bennet: she’s deeply religious and what was priggish and obnoxious in Mary is sincere and even warmhearted in Mari.

Both the similarities and the differences between modern day Pakistan and 19th century rural England come alive in this book, and I ended up feeling as if I’d been given a glimpse into a world I hadn’t seen before very often, but that felt as real and alive as my own suburban New York.  

I can’t wait to see what Soniah Kamal will do when she’s not even slightly constricted by  the bones of a famous classic. Judging by Unmarriageable, it will be great fun.

THE PAST TRIPS YOU UP: GOOD RIDDANCE

Ready for a light, amusing read about families and coming to terms as an adult with the parents you thought you knew?  Check out Good Riddance, by Elinor Lipman, a humorous story of all the trouble you can get into with an old yearbook.

Daphne is an adult, technically, living in a tiny apartment in New York City, quickly married and even more quickly divorced, and at loose ends after her mother’s death. Her mother, who had been a teacher at the local high school in New Hampshire and the yearbook advisor for the class of 1968.  The class dedicated the yearbook to her, and she kept it for the rest of her life, attending all the class’ reunions and making little annotations by the sides of people’s pictures about how people turned out. The notes are pointed and in some cases a little cruel, as Daphne discovers when she receives the yearbook herself.  Her mother specifically wanted her to have it, though Daphne has no idea why.

Falling under the spell of one of the decluttering people (the author is too clever to name the particular book/television show, but you’ll recognize it from the description), Daphne holds the book to her chest to see if it sparks joy.  When it doesn’t, she tosses it into her building’s recycle bin, and that’s when her problems begin.

She has a somewhat eccentric neighbor, Geneva, who, it turns out, is something of a pack rat, rummaging through the recycling bin to see what treasures might be there. Naturally Geneva sees the yearbook and pounces on it, deciding that it’s a piece of Americana which she absolutely needs. Geneva, it turns out, is a documentary maker (at least in her own eyes), and she intends to use the yearbook as the basis for a documentary about an American high school, possibly focusing on Daphne’s mother’s experiences.  As soon as she contacts Daphne, Daphne has second thoughts about throwing the yearbook away, but Geneva invokes the timeless legal principle, Finders, Keepers.

As Daphne wrestles with her mother’s past and Geneva’s schemes, with her father moving to New York City to fulfill a childhood dream and her hunky next door neighbor helping her deal with the situation, things get more complicated, of course.  Daphne is a bit of a twit, but she gets her deserved happy ending, as do most of the other characters in the book, and she’s funny even when you want to shake her and tell her to use her brain for a change.

It’s a quick, lighthearted read, and even though you don’t learn everything about Daphne’s mother and her interesting past, you get to spend time with some charming characters and get some chuckles at Daphne’s absurd predicaments.  Not a bad way to spend a long winter evening!

TIME TRAVEL MURDER MYSTERY

We all know I love time travel novels. Probably The Field Library has acquired more time travel books since I’ve been buying new fiction than at any comparable period in its history, and I’m not the least bit sorry.  There’s just something about the whole concept of time travel that allows an author to talk about all kinds of different things, and in the most intriguing way, and no two that I’ve read tackle the questions from the same angle.  There’s a reason I put “read a book about time travel” first in the reading challenge for last year.

Our newest addition to the time travel collection is The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas, and it’s a wild read, great fun and enthralling enough that I read it in one day because I couldn’t put it down.

The premise is straightforward. In 1967, four women — Margaret, Grace, Lucille and Barbara (Bee) designed and built a working time machine.  But just as they unveiled their successful prototype in a press conference that was broadcast worldwide, Bee suffered a nervous breakdown on the air, throwing the whole enterprise into doubt.  As Bee went to a mental hospital to recover, the other women, led by the indomitable Margaret, pushed forward with the time machine, creating a company called the Conclave that would turn time travel into a viable business, open to military applications, scientific research, and people who could afford to go forward or backward in time.  The only one who was not allowed to have anything to do with the company was Bee, who was virtually ostracized by the other three and the rest of the world, ostensibly for her own good.

Some fifty years later, Bee is a grandmother, living in seclusion.  The Conclave is internationally famous. Time travelers have their own vocabularies to discuss their unique experiences. One day an origami rabbit is sent to Bee’s granddaughter, Ruby,  along with a newspaper clipping about a mysterious death of an unknown woman. Ruby wonders whether this is a threat to her grandmother, a prediction, or an effort to protect Bee from someone who wants to kill her. How can she not try to find out who sent the clipping and why?

Another young woman, Odette, finds a dead woman, shot several times, in the locked basement of the toy museum where she’s just started volunteering.  The woman’s face is obliterated and no one can figure out who she was or how she died. Odette is haunted by this experience, determined to find out who the woman was and why she was killed in such a bizarre way.

Naturally the two plotlines interweave, but because it’s a book involving time travel, there are multiple characters interacting in past and present and even future.  You might think this will make the book confusing, and it is, a little, but the author helps orient you by telling you who the point of view character of each chapter is, and when the chapter is taking place, and after a while, you find yourself making connections between the past and the present and the future, watching characters meet themselves at different ages, run into each other knowingly or not, and set events in motion that you’ve already seen occur.

It all ties together, and although I guessed who the murdered woman was and how she was killed before the author revealed it, that didn’t lessen my pleasure in the unwinding of the various plot threads in the least.  The characters are vivid and surprise you with their actions throughout the book, and death itself takes on a different shape and emotion with people who can witness a person’s death and then travel back to talk to the person when the person was still alive. There’s a special justice system that operates within the Conclave because the time travelers are subject to so many different laws in different times and places that they are, in some ways, outside the ordinary laws of this world, a fact which plays a significant part in the plot.

With all the pleasures of the book, I do have to warn potential readers about one flaw.  For some reason, there are a number of places where different people’s lines of dialogue are placed on the same line, so you have trouble following who said what in a conversation.  This is purely an error in editing, but it does get on your nerves after a while. I realize that books aren’t line edited the way they used to be, and typos are a lot more frequent in published books than they were, say, twenty or thirty years ago, but this really is embarrassing and whoever edited this book should be ashamed.

Leaving that aside, dive into The Psychology of Time Travel, and enjoy a mystery, a romance, a reflection on mortality and what matters most, and a purely fun read.

MAKE YOURSELF BETTER BY MAKING SOMETHING

How could I resist a book with the title Craftfulness: Mend Yourself by Making Things?  It’s as if the authors, Rosemary Davidson and Arzu Tahsin, looked into my psyche to find exactly the concept that would push all my buttons. And whether you’re a person who does crafts or whether you just wish you could de-stress and take more control over your life, you may very well find that Craftfulness speaks to you in a powerful way as well.

It’s an odd duck of a book. It’s not really a crafting book per se, though it does have some projects late in the book for you to see if a particular craft resonates with you (making a loom and weaving something with it, knitting, binding a small book, making a clay pot, drawing and keeping a journal). It’s not quite a self-help book either, though it probably fits more into that realm than anything else. It reads as if the two authors were sitting in your living room, showing you the crafts they do and explaining, with great enthusiasm, why they believe working with their hands is a lifesaving thing, or at least a sanity saving thing.

There’s definitely something intuitively right about their whole premise: they quote from neurological studies as well as from anecdotal evidence about how creative work calms the mind, helps one achieve a sense of “flow” and helps overly intellectual or overly scheduled people to feel better and work better overall.  I suppose it’s a sign of our times that we feel we need some kind of expert permission to make things with our hands, as if someone who’s knitting or making a clay pot or drawing is just fooling around and not being a productive member of society, as if we have to be working all the time at “important” things instead of doing things just because we enjoy them.  We can, the authors assure us (not in so many words), do things we enjoy because they’re also good for us, a form of self-care. If you have trouble getting into actual meditation, the idea that becoming deeply involved with a recreational activity (like knitting or sewing or bookbinding) can give you the same mental and psychological benefits as meditation is very attractive.

With aplomb and plenty of personal examples, they demolish many of the obstacles to starting a new creative practice, including the fear of failure, the overly critical sense we have when we’re trying something we’re not good at yet (there’s one powerful statement that as adults our critical faculties are so much more developed than our creative ones, so we tend to be much more harshly judgmental than we should be), the notion that only some special, gifted people can be artists and the rest of us should just steer clear of anything that might be considered creative. This is a fun book to read even if you already spend time making things for the sheer pleasure of it; sometimes you need to be reminded that what you’re doing is good for you and good in general.

If the world is too stressful, or too grey and cold, Craftfulness encourages you to try something different, to use a different part of your brain and return to the joyful creativity of your earliest childhood.  It’s a delightful book, a quick and inspiring read, and it made me want to go back to the sketchpad for another round of drawing.

 

WHEN THE RULES DON’T WORK: IN AN ABSENT DREAM

As anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time knows, I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which has already won Hugo and Nebula awards and which, to my delight, shows no signs of ending in the near future.  The first book was Every Heart a Doorway, followed by the prequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (review), followed by Beneath the Sugar Sky (review), and now by the newest, In An Absent Dream.

The first two books are more closely related than any of the others, but you can easily read any of them independently, or read them out of order without getting confused.  The basic concept is that there’s a home for children who’ve come back to the mundane world from more fantastic places (think Alice in Wonderland or Narnia), who aren’t able to forget their other worlds and long to find a doorway or other portal back. There’s an inherent poignance, as the characters have all lost something precious and not all of them are going to be able to get it back, but that uncertainty and longing gives the books their tension and suspense.

In An Absent Dream departs a little from the usual structure, in that we don’t see the Home until the very end of the book, but it’s still at heart a story of a girl who gets to escape her normal existence by traveling to and staying in another world, at least for a while.

Katherine Lundy, our protagonist, is a quiet, well-behaved, book-loving girl of six when she finds the door in the tree that leads her to the Goblin Market for the first time. Since her father is the principal of the school she attends, Katherine has no friends and few deep connections to the human world, other than her parents, her older brother who barely interacts with her at all, and her baby sister who’s hardly a person yet. So she has little reason to hesitate when she sees the sign on the door in the tree that says “Be Sure.”

She enters the Goblin Market, a world where various kinds of humans, non-humans and partial humans live and work in reasonable harmony due to the operation of the market, which keeps everything fair by making everyone follow some straightforward rules: ask for nothing; names have power, always give fair value; remember the curfew.  The most important rule, it turns out, is the one about giving fair value. An uneven exchange results in debt, and too much debt can cause a person to be changed into something else (we see a couple of characters changed, partially or completely, into birds as a result of debts).

Katherine, who renames herself Lundy, meets another girl, called Moon, and Moon introduces her to the way the rules work and to the Archivist, an older woman who proves to be very important to Lundy’s future in the Goblin Market.

Lundy passes in and out of the Goblin Market a few times, and we get to know her and to see what the pull of that world is for her. The concept of fair value is fascinating, and the way the world is set up to make the transactions work is absorbing, as are the relationships between Lundy and Moon, Lundy and the Archivist, and Lundy and her family (especially her father and her sister) when she returns to this world.  And all the time, the clock is ticking down to Lundy’s curfew, the time she has to decide where she really belongs and to make a commitment to that world.

Obviously, since it’s part of this series, I had a feeling all along that Lundy wasn’t going to have a happy ending in the Goblin Market, but the suspense arises from not knowing what exactly is going to happen to her and how, and knowing or guessing in advance doesn’t make the ending any less poignant.

Like all the books in the series, In an Absent Dream is short, a novella rather than a novel, and that’s good and bad. It’s good because you can (and I did) read the whole book in a day, and it’s bad because the author has to leave certain things out (what did happen when Lundy and Moon battled the Wasp Queen, and what actually happened to Mockerie?). The lack of some details really doesn’t hurt the book, but you should be prepared for a book in which you sometimes have to read between the lines and guess at things.

Reading In an Absent Dream made me both impatient for the next book in the series and wanting to reread the first three books again.  It’s that good, moving, fascinating and thought provoking. If you’ve read any of the other books, I don’t need to tell you to hurry out to pick this one up and read it.  If you haven’t read the series (and why not?), do yourself a favor and check out In an Absent Dream and dive into a strange world of rules and debts and an all-powerful market that makes everything “fair.”

 

THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

Poor Hannah Green, the protagonist of Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, by Michael Marshall Smith.  At the outset of the book, she’s an 11 year old girl living in Santa Cruz, California, going to school, doing all the usual boring things kids have to do.  Her parents are separating, her mother going to London for a “business trip”, her father sinking into depression as he tries to take care of her and himself. Her life seems utterly mundane and she can’t see any possibility that it’s ever going to be different.  Things pick up a little when her father sends her to stay with her Granddad, a somewhat eccentric itinerant free spirit, living to the north. At least she gets out of school for a while, and she gets to spend time with an interesting person whose behavior is never quite predictable.

Then things start getting a little odd. It turns out that her grandfather is somewhat older than she’d thought.  In fact, he’s a couple of hundred years older. And those bizarre little sculptures he gave her and her parents might not just be attempts at art, but protections against dangerous forces.  Her grandfather, Hannah slowly comes to discover, knows quite a lot about those dangerous forces, because two hundred years ago, he built a device for the devil which converts human evil into energy the devil can use.  Her grandfather has been taking care of this device ever since, but now, for reasons unknown, something has gone wrong with it, and the devil himself is coming to ask for her grandfather’s help, and of course her grandfather isn’t going to leave her alone while he gallivants around creation with the devil.  Mundane is now a thing of the past.

This is a great fun book, one you’ll keep reading just because you have no idea what’s going to happen next: at one point the devil, Hannah, her grandfather and an accident imp named Vaneclaw find themselves in a spot in Siberia which is the exact middle of nowhere; at another point, Hannah finds herself in hell, though it’s called the Behind here and isn’t at all the sort of hell you’d picture from Dante and other medieval sources.  They run into all sorts of other characters, both demonic and human (and non human and non demonic, but I’m not going to spoil the fun on that). One of the critical mechanisms in the plot involves an antique roller coaster (and believe me, you will never ride an old roller coaster with quite the same mentality again after reading this). All the while, the author has such a sure sense of character and plot that you’re confident this will all come together somehow, but you have no idea how, and that’s what keeps you reading.

Well, that’s part of what keeps you reading.  The other part is the characters, all of whom are vivid and fully developed, from Hannah (who is not, fortunately, one of those utterly precocious and unbelievable children you see too often in fiction, especially fantasy), to her grandfather (whose hidden depths never quite obliterate our sense of who he has been throughout the book), to Hannah’s parents (both clearly drawn and neither a cliche of midlife crisis and working too hard to be a good spouse or a good parent), to the aforementioned Vaneclaw (whom most of the characters can’t see, but who is described as looking like a large mushroom with arms and legs), to Nash (a particularly nasty gang member who’s traveling across country to fulfill a destiny he can’t quite understand), to the devil himself.

I really want to give a shout out to the author for the character of the devil. It’s not easy to take a figure so infamous, so often portrayed in fiction and movies and the like, and make him fresh and interesting, but Smith manages that trick.  The devil is not a nice guy; he doesn’t even have redeeming social value, and a couple of times in the course of the book I had to stop and wonder why I was rooting for him to succeed when he spends so much of his time and energy causing destruction and misery to others. But I do root for him, and Hannah’s grandfather and the rest of the characters on his side, to succeed, despite his horrible behavior in general.

The book is full of surprises, including the humor that pops up here and there, and the way the plot winds and unwinds itself, and the way the characters keep revealing different abilities and quirks.  The ending is satisfying without being obvious, and from now on I, for one, will be looking around for other books by Michael Marshall Smith, if they’re as much fun as this one.