Blood & Periwinkles
Posted June 17, 2008on:
I completed nine books in May but posted few reviews so I thought I’d get you up to speed on my literary exploits. You know how I felt about the Rothfuss book. I thought I knew my position on John Wyndham until I read Chocky (any connection to the horror film franchise?) which underscored all of my reservations on how Wyndham wrote female characters. (Niall was wise in his reservations.) Lots of bullshit about women depending on instinct while the good ol’ boys relied on reason. And Wyndham didn’t do much with the story — just used it as a playground for daft gender theories and cool speculations about what gadgets an alien race might have. He tucked in a creepy scene near the end — he does creepy very well — but it couldn’t save the book. I abandoned my first draft on his work in order to start another to factor in my reassessment. The Chrysalids, The Trouble with Lichen and The Day of the Triffids still rock. (Lizzy has been reading some Wyndham as well.)
Earlier this year Anne of Table Talk transformed my idea of what could be considered Young Adult literature with Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Desperate for a good fantasy I recalled one of the books she had suggested about which I’d been curious: †Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess. Well, she did it again. Periodically throughout the book I’d put it down, lips agape, and mouth to the air around me, Come on, now, this is YA? The prose and plot development are simple enough and the focus on young twins, a boy and girl, who are 14 at the beginning, and how Burgess depicts them are recognizably YA. During the first few chapters the only thing that raised my eyebrow was that the father of the twins had married his daughter off to a man described as being “not yet thirty”. Trifle young, isn’t she? I thought, shifting uncomfortably.
Burgess, in his wisdom, revealed an Icelandic saga story was his inspiration at the back of the book. Think violence, ambition, betrayal, incest, meddling gods, all ruled by fate upgraded with unholy 20th century modifications. Think human and animal hybrids, called “halfmen”, genetically engineered on demand, solely built for warfare, which means that in addition to having claws or hands eminently suitable to certain weaponry, for example, the creature may also be geared to understand negative emotions and ideas like hate, made to be aggressive and loyal to his creator but lack pity or love. The process wasn’t perfect so quite a few of the creations went crazy and “pure” humans scorned them so they lived on the edge of human communities, munching on any bodies (of any kind, human or not) that were flung out to the outlying boundaries.
All that madness aside, and there’s a lot of it, the most compelling and heartbreaking element was Signy Volson’s fate. Readers follow her journey from her start as a violent, independent, bold and loyal but in many ways still very much an inexperienced 14 year old girl. She is the only daughter of Val Volson, an ambitious, brutal gang lord who owns half of London. It’s a dystopian future in which the “Old London” is a prison in the wilderness, miles away from the smoothly run, advanced, civilised England (which I assume is more like our present-day) by a stretch of halfmen-inhabited land and a high wall enclosure. To further his ambitions of uniting London, defeating halfmen and taking on the rest of country, he marries his daughter to his rival Conor, who owns the other half of London, as part of a treaty.
Signy follows orders under protest but, to her surprise and her twin brother Siggy’s disgust, she falls in love. What follows is betrayal on the most awesome scale, mass murders, incest, pogroms, fratricide, gods who appear as one-eyed bulls or sly red foxes and gift magical weapons or facilitate the establishment of dynasties with a tell-tale mischievous style. Signy’s initial passive role as virgin sacrifice belies how subsequent events both horrible and poignant force her to take on a more decisive role, one fuelled by a disturbing, heart-breaking mix of love, hate and complete self-absorption. The woman we see at the end seems almost nothing like the idealistic young girl who dreamt of her and her husband building a new Jerusalem. And though she is a mover and shaker on the other hand Burgess strongly implies that all characters are working towards a destiny they had no real control over which just raises the volume of the booming doom drums as you read along.
He manages all the story’s elements with ease and a certain flair. He changes narrative perspective periodically among an omniscient 3rd person in an observational role (also used to do a little foreshadowing) and first person with major and minor characters. For the halfmen he adopts a slang that forms onomatopoeias that fit what whatever animal the human is mixed with (whether pig or dog) which, combined with clear grasp of personalities, makes for some memorable, signature passages. (This is begging for a quote but the book was recalled. Silly library readers.)
Burgess gave me hope so I cautiously moved further into fantastical territory with Patricia A. McKillip’s with The Changeling Sea. A short novel published in the late 80s it explores the usual McKillip themes of self-discovery and -realisation and love’s painful consequences. (Romantic, and to a lesser extent familial, love is always torturous in McKillip’s books, sometimes a destructive force.) More fairy tale than faux D&D princess + GRRRRL power fantasy, at its centre is a young woman called Periwinkle who loses her father at sea and then her mother to it as she, deep in depression, gives her attention to little else but any window from which she can look out to the water. Angry at both the sea and her mother’s surrender to it she moves to a friend’s abandoned home. It once belong to an elderly woman who, among other things, taught her some useless spells. Unaware that she is mired in a funk herself she trudges from her floor scrubbing job at the local inn to her isolated new abode, taking detours to curse at the sea and check on her mother. It takes a (solid gold) chained giant sea-dragon, a charming, mysterious young magician and a tortured, dark-haired prince (is there any other kind?) of mixed heritage to disturb the girl and the entire sea-side town.
McKillip works better with redone or fairy tale inspired stories that focus on a few characters rather than conventional mage + long lost king/queen + quest with an ensemble cast. They suit her metaphorical prose and minimalist plots. In The Changeling Sea she doesn’t waste time on explicating the setting so that we can identify which bastardized medieval Europe we’re getting this time. She doesn’t hurt our ears with awful attempts at archaic English phrasing. It’s only some brief descriptions of the royals’ transportation and clothing that hint at a pre-modern time, but it’s pleasurable to imagine the book with a more indiosyncratic mix.
The relationship between the prince and the scrubbing girl is similar to the one in Winter Rose — their doomed love for each other causes as much pain as pleasure. Again, it is the girl who has to help save the prince unearth who he really is. Lighter touches come with a prince less emotionally blocked and a young wizard more ironic than old and grave. There’s the usual cast of humorous villages, a trope McKillip manages well by not trying too hard. It all comes to a mostly bittersweet ending with a couple of bright spots.
For McKillip magic is never simply thunderbolts and levitation, another reason why she works best with fairy tales. Characters express their anger and hurt through spells, enchantments represent identity issues and familiar secrets. These are the domestic conflicts of broken couples, depressed widows, broken homes, survivor’s grief. The dark magic cannot be broken until parted couples forgive and compromise, feelings resolve and closure is found. This is not the thwarted ambitions of would-be tyrants and long-lost princelings. Others do that well but not McKillip, or so I thought until I read The Riddle-Master trilogy.
†I wonder what age group it would be recommended for if it got age-banded.