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Worldsoul by Liz Williams

Prime, 2012, 310 p.

 Worldsoul cover

This starts promisingly enough in the prologue when the ancient library of Alexandria lifts off into the sky like a rocket with parts of it still burning. What follows after though is a bit of a disappointment by comparison as its settles down into a tale of fantasy and magic which arguably does not need that preamble at all. When we start chapter one the library has for a long while been in Worldsoul, a place in connection with Earth but also on the border of the Liminality – woven by the Skein out of the legends of the ancestors of man – and a kind of limbo known as the nevergone.

A power vacuum has been created by the sudden unexplained disappearance of the Skein, who used to run Worldsoul, and now various entities are trying to muscle in. It falls to librarian Mercy Fane and an alchemist called Shadow to resist.

Since the origins of the Liminality are not revealed till near the end the mythologies the book draws on appear a bit of a mish-mash with djinns and ifrits, not to mention a Shah, mixed in with demons and Norse gods, Loki in particular. Another off note is the short chapters, which do become more appropriate towards the end when the action hots up but at the start prevent the reader getting to know the characters well enough before being flung off into another viewpoint. Then, too, the action sequences are curiously perfunctory and there is too much info dumping, with a lot of telling rather than showing. The ending screams “sequel coming.” I might give that a long time before ever reading it.

Still, fantasies like this are not really my thing and I have found Williams’s work more palatable in the past.

Pedant’s corner:- Plus points for Abbots General as the plural of Abbot General. Otherwise; the Has’ (the Has’s,) descendent (descendant, which was used later but then reverted to descendent,) Sulis’ (Sulis’s,) “is in the cards” (I’ve always known this as on the cards,) “she would say only that it had been a ploy” (she would say that it had only been a ploy,) dreadnaught (dreadnought, which appeared later,) “the bisecting road ran in either direction” (yes, roads do that; but shouldn’t it be each direction?) stood (standing,) “the no-colour of clear glass” (‘clear glass’ does not mean what this implies; clear itself means transparent. It does not mean colourless.) “But she could not more have resisted it than it any more than she could have flown” (has one ‘more’ too many.) That mean a deeper investigation” (meant,) fit (fitted,) “had made a homunculus of her” (a humuncula, then? Maybe not,) humunculus’ (humunculus’s.) “When it was sure it had got its full attention” (her full attention makes more sense,) “‘I wanted to see what you’d so’” (what you’d do,) “‘Something’s happening?’” (It wasn’t a question,) auroch’s (as far as I’m aware the singular of aurochs is aurochs, so aurochs’s) “all was not as predicted” (that not all was as predicted.)

Gráinne by Keith Roberts

Kerosina, 1985, 175 p.

Gráinne cover

A man lies in a hospital bed being asked questions. In answer he begins to tell his life story. It is a curiously detached process: he thinks of himself in the third person, referring to himself as Bevan. (In this Roberts may be utilising aspects of his own young life to flesh out his story – or carrying out a double bluff to make us think so. He used the name Alastair Bevan as an early pseudonym.) The man doesn’t name some of the characters from his early life, merely gives them titles; The Mother, The Headmaster. His early discomfort on dealing with women is well conveyed. Things change when he meets the enigmatic Gráinne, however, though to begin with he only worships her from afar. She is named for the mythical Irish princess.

Roberts’s prose is oblique, meaning is not immediately transparent, it has to be teased out by the reader. By the end, though, the process does become less opaque. The intercutting between “Bevan”’s reminiscences and his interlocutors is an important part of this. It highlights and comments on his tale, allows Roberts to ask the questions the reader might – and answer them. He tells his story in five “sessions” named Anuloma, Abhassara, Brahmacariya, Aranyaka and Upanishad respectively. These titles are not from Irish mythology but relate to Hindu customs and tales.

The Gráinne ‘Bevan’ remembers has aspects of a goddess, or an everywoman, and she has the gift of prophecy. “Right down through history religion had backed the state. She said the end result of money sticks” – some man had invented these centuries ago and things had gone downhill from then on – “was three World Wars. Two down and one to go. She said she wanted something to survive, But not a God. Or it would all start again.”

Some time after their relationship ends she lands a job as a TV presenter on Channel Five (a fifth UK TV channel was fictitious in 1985) and becomes famous. As part of a project she is working on she asks the advertising firm Bevan works for to devise a campaign for her, knowing he will have the idea she wants. The ramifications of her programme cause the authorities some problems and this is the ultimate reason for Bevan’s questioning. It is only at this point that aspects of SF creep in to the novel. In common with most of Roberts’s œuvre the whole, however, has an unsettling effect, always teetering on the borderline of the fantastic, as if Gráinne might have been a figment of ‘Bevan’’s imagination.

For Roberts completists this is a must though those unfamiliar with his work might be best to start with earlier novels.

Pedant’s corner:- I note “mike” as the abbreviation for microphone. Hurrah!
Otherwise; woffle (waffle,) Guy Fawkes’ night (I believe it’s just Guy Fawkes night; if it had an apostrophe it would have to be Guy Fawkes’s night,) staunched (stanched,) “an old tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) “his Dad had given for his twenty-first” (had given him?) Fitzsimmons’ (Fitzsimmons’s,) Éirann (more usually Éireann,) verandah (I prefer veranda.) “He left the door stood open” (standing open,) “a line of men in saffron robes plod east” (a line plods.)

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Windsor/Paragon, 2013, 423 p. First published 1984.

 Nights at the Circus cover

In fin-de-siècle London, Fevvers – so-called because of the downy nubs on her back when she was born – has fledged into a stage act, the leading aerialiste of her time. Among others she fascinates the Prince of Wales. It is through American journalist Jack Walser, also besotted with her, that we make her introduction. The book begins as he interviews her backstage after a performance. To Walser the evening is made more peculiar as midnight seems to strike several times while Fevvers and her companion Lizzie (who may be her mother) relate her life story up to that point – a fabular tale of a foundling and brothels of varying degrees of harshness. The mixture here of mundane detail of discarded, more or less grubby stage clothing and the removal of tawdry theatrical make-up with the fantastical unfolding of the story of Fevvers’s wings and hesitant attempts at flight – her life as a whole – adds verisimilitude to the narrative while not undermining its fantastical elements. It may even emphasise them.

Fevvers is engaged by US circus owner Colonel Kearney – guided in his actions by his pet pig, Sybil, who picks out lettered cards to spell the relevant decision – as one of the acts he will take on his tour to St Petersburg then across Russia to Siberia, with Yokohama the eventual destination. Walser persuades his editor to give him time off to follow his fascination with Fevvers. He joins the project as a member of the Clown circle. Wandering the circus Walser finds apes with their own school (complete with blackboard) which they break up as soon as they realise it is being observed, tigers enchanted by music and a Strongman with a cowardly streak – an interesting echo of The Wizard of Oz.

In the text it isn’t really seriously questioned if Fevvers’s wings are real or a stage fabrication. Only at the end, in an unrelated matter, is her reliability as a witness undermined, by which time there have been enough fantastical happenings to make this seem a misstep. Carter’s intention seems to be to interrogate the boundary between the real and the imagined. Magic realist touches flavour the narrative but the everyday degradations inflicted on some of her female characters (highlighting sexism, a feminism slipped in to the tale but unremarked on save in the case of the unlikeliness of a prostitute to undertake her work for pleasure, or to find any in it) are all too believable. Her prose flows and bounces, occasionally soars. Her characters are well-drawn. In the end, though, I found the flights of fancy a bit overblown. Are the South Americans just better at this sort of thing or is my cultural bias blinding me to its merits in this case?

Those thirty or so years ago when this was first published the descriptions of Carter’s work which I read failed to enthuse me sufficiently. For anyone so minded now I would say she is definitely worth reading and I’ll look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- Fevvers’ (Fevvers’s,) Prince of Wales’ (Prince of Wales’s,) ripost (usually riposte; ripostes was used as a verb later,) ballock/s (Carter consistently uses this as a demotic word for testicle and reserves bollocks for the expletive = balls,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) exort (exhort,) cartilege (cartilage,) orizens (orisons?) tealeaves (tea leaves as a single word?) he lirruped and chirruped (lirruped?) “to whit” (to wit,) Lyons (in English now more often spelled Lyon,) pects (more often pecs,) liquifying (liquefying,) wrapt (the sense is rapt but it was describing two lovers so most likely a pun,) “identified the figure of that of Father Time” (it makes sense but “as that of Father Time” is more natural,) lassoo (lasso,) “when the sun temporarily laid low” (lay low,) oblivious of (oblivious to.)

Interzone 273

Interzone 273 cover

Interzone 273 has arrived.

Included along with the usual columns, fiction and reviews this one contains my review of Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows.

I note the Book Zone now occupies the last part of the magazine, its order having been swapped with Nick Lowe’s film reviews.

Lilith by George MacDonald

In Phantastes and Lilith, Gollancz, 1962, 237 p. First published 1895. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Phantastes and Lilith cover

A Mr Vane (no first name is ever provided) inherits a country pile and very soon finds it is visited by a strange apparition. This is the house’s long ago librarian, a coated gentleman who from the front appears to be a raven and has the ability to move through mirrors – taking Mr Vane with him.

This mirror world at first appears strange merely in an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland kind of way. The librarian/raven is prone to whimsical verbal contortions as in, “‘No one can say he is himself, until first he knows that he is and then what himself is. In fact nobody is himself and himself is nobody,’” but the milieu soon develops a darker aspect in the creatures Mr Vane encounters. Seemingly dead bodies, animated skeletons (one of whom expresses a deeply misanthropic view of wedlock in a conversation, where its expostulation, “‘This can’t be hell!’ is rejoined by another’s, ‘It must: there’s marriage in it!’”) Then there are Little Ones, who if they are not careful how they eat turn into giants. These giants capture Vane and might persecute the Little Ones but somehow manage to forget their origins and remain blind to them. Visiting a city called Bulika, whose princess wishes to kill all babies to forestall a prophecy of her demise, becomes a goal of Vane’s sojourn. Her existence is bound up with two leopardesses, one spotted, one white, which feature prominently from then on.

After Vane meets the librarian/raven’s wife the couple’s identities are revealed to be Adam and Eve. Adam bestows on Vane some cryptic warnings. Vane’s rescue and revival of a comatose – to all intents dead – woman leads to complications as this turns out to be Lilith, Adam’s former wife and the same princess who blights the existence of all who live under her sway. I say live, but there is some doubt as to whether these creatures are in fact alive or dead or indeed in some other state. After that it all got a bit mired in philosophical ramblings. Not my cup of tea at all.

The book’s 19th century origins are indicated by archaisms like wafture (of wings,) dropt (dropped,) wrapt (wrapped,) glode (glided,) clave (cleaved,) and staid (stayed.)

I would say this is firmly of its time. As an insight into the religious preoccupations of a late Victorian it is no doubt illustrative. It doesn’t much illuminate the human condition, though, and would not reach my 100 Best Scottish Books.

Pedant’s corner:- Shakspere (the 1895 spelling of Shakespeare I assume,) narow (narrow,) “against walls of its cage” (against the walls,) ne’re (1895 spelling of ne’er?) “fast as could” (as fast as I could?)

Interzone 270, May-Jun 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 270 cover

The Editorial apologises for housekeeping issues not entirely within the magazine’s control, Jonathan McCalmont’s column argues for a recognition that the SF and Fantasy community still has a lot to do to welcome and encourage, writers and readers of black or other “minority” (my quotation marks) background, instead of discouraging them as at present, Nina Allan1 reflects on her experience as a shadow Clarke Award judge and concludes that it is difficult to argue for SF as any longer being distinct from wider literature; a novel is good or it isn’t regardless of its origin or intent. Book Zone contains Paul Kincaid’s* review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140, reviews of the latest novels from Clare North2 and Cory Doctorow plus the collaboration between Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster as well as collections by Ellen Klages and regular Interzone contributor Malcolm Devlin (who is also interviewed) along with my review of Karen Hurley’s The Stars are Legion.
(*Kincaid mentions austerity as being needed to pay for the bank bailout after the 2008 financial crisis. It wasn’t. The economy was beginning to recover by the time of the 2010 election. Austerity was a choice made by the incoming government for ideological, political, reasons. The bailout merely provided the excuse for its imposition. And the measures killed the recovery stone dead.)
As to the fiction:-
In Rushford Recapitulation by Christopher Mark Rose3 women in Rushford, New York, start giving birth to technological artefacts, bringing a rush of visitors, protesters, pregnant mothers. The technology becomes less advanced as time goes by.
Like You, I am a System4 by Nathan Hillstrom features an intelligence of silicon and electric current coming to consciousness and taking over its environment. Then it interferes in the wider world.
Dirty Code5 by Wayne Simmons is set in what appears to be a simulation. The protagonist keeps waking up with a new face and is in the employ of someone who wants him to get rid of those passing on the titular dirty code by infecting others via activities in strip clubs and the like.
Encyphered by Jonathan L Howard is the life story of a man obsessed with cyphers, determined to keep his secrets (after all, we all have them) to himself till the day after his death. It is also a potted history of cryptography and cryptanalysis and contains the wonderful observation, “In those halcyon days before successive austerities and unimaginative governments, the library was a mighty thing indeed.” I’m struggling to see it as either SF or fantasy though.
In The New Man6 by Malcolm Devlin a man killed in an accident in the warehouse of the cloning company where he works is, to make them look good, revived in one of their bodies. His new body is the basic model though. The warehouse seems absurdly low-tech for a company making such a modern product.
Evangeline and the Forbidden Lighthouse7 by Emily B Cattaneo is a tale of childhood friendship, messages in bottles, roads not taken, the regrets of adulthood and that tantalising, inaccessible, forbidden lighthouse. All this in only eight pages.
In Memories of Fish8 by Shauna O’Meara virtual tourism enabled by drone footage is the big online attraction. A young woman at the viewed end takes a drone on a journey through areas the local authorities don’t want seen. While the story’s target is compassion fatigue it strays close to perpetuating the idea that dreadful living conditions in traditionally poor countries cannot be ameliorated. Since the viewer’s country had suffered extreme drought the story might have had more punch if the situations of viewer and viewed had been reversed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1focussed (focused.) 2involunatary (involuntary,) and a sentence with four verbs whose subject is team, the first verb is singular (tick) but the remainder plural. 3written in USian; “far ahead or behind schedule” (far ahead of or behind schedule,) “Rushford’s human inhabitants where healthy and normal” (were healthy,) blunderbuss (blunderbusses,) “Inca kuipu” (quipu.) 4written in USian; ”none of you pick your own nodes” (picks.) 5written in USian despite the author being Northern Irish. 6over emphatic (over-emphatic makes more sense,) fit (fitted,) “the both of us” (no “the”; just “both of us”.) 7Written in USian. 8”that this where she lives” (that this is,) “the olfactory interpreter’s best attempt at recreating a stench that is probably far worse in person” (in person is for, well, a person; not a smell; “in reality” fits better here.)

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

the greatest empire that never was.

Small Beer, 2003, 255 p. Translated from the Spanish Kalpa Imperial by Ursula K Le Guin. First published in two volumes La casa del poder (The House of Power) and El Imperio mas vasto (The Greatest Empire) by Ediciones Minotauro, Buenos Aires, 1983.

 Kalpa Imperial cover

This is not really like anything I’ve ever read before, a sweeping, dazzling, accomplishment of a book, soaring yet at the same time utterly grounded, told in two parts, The House of Power and The Greatest Empire, of five and six sections respectively, a history of an empire “so long that a whole life dedicated to study and research isn’t enough to know it wholly,” a history “strewn with surprise, contradictions, abysses, deaths, resurrections,” of an empire “so vast that a man can’t cross it in his lifetime.” A chronicling of human life, then.

I doubt it has any equivalent but the nearest comparison in SF is probably Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna, mainly due to its episodic narrative, but despite its fabular nature (no empire could ever last as long, with so many ruling dynasties, as the one in this book) this is somehow less fanciful and more convincing (and I liked Roma Eterna a lot even though it was late Silverberg where he wasn’t quite as incisive as in his pomp.) Kalpa Imperial nevertheless did somehow at times remind me of translations of Chinese literature but probably only because it deals with emperors and empires and the consequent power struggles.

Despite its subtitle the book does not restrict itself to the emperors or their courts. Life in the empire is presented in an approximation of its diversity but there is no continuity between the sections, no characters carry on from one to the next or later. Instead the picture is built up from what are in effect short stories/novellas set in the same milieu. A binding link in the book, though, is that, like fairy tales, most of the sections begin with the same phrase, in this case, “The storyteller said:” but varied with one, “Yes, said the storyteller:” a, “Vast is the empire, said the storyteller:” with the last section altering the template to, “‘I’m an orphan,” The Cat had said,’”. All these help to solidify the tales, to root the book in a compelling simulation of an actual history as remembered by oral historians. But it is precisely that lack of continuity, that difference between the sections (except for the narrative tone,) that works to make the book feel like a true history.

Throughout the book there are asides on the art of story. “The reason why there are storytellers in the world is to answer those questions we all ask, and not as the teller, but as the reader,” “a storyteller is no more than a free man, and being a free man is a dangerous business,” and, pertinently to any time but certainly apposite now, “who takes any notice of the wise, these days, except storytellers, or poets?” Particularly redolent was the passage which dwelt on the phrase, “not all is said.”

There is a knowing quality to the section which riffs on The Odyssey. A legend is recited containing people named Kirdaglas, Marlenditrij, Betedeivis, Maripícfor, Briyibardó, Jedilamar, Alendelón, Orsonuéls, Clargueibl, Yeimsdín etc, with houses named saloon, rashomon, elañopasadoenmarienbad and charge of the light brigade and which also features sirens called ringostars.

Gorodischer is well-served by her translator. (Though if you’re going to be translated it must be a boon if it is done by one of the best writers around.) But the whole is a marvel of invention, a rich imagining of a world not our own but as near to it as makes no difference.

Pedant’s corner:- “time’s mirror losses all its reflects” (reflections, surely?) Ja’ladahlva (elsewhere Ja’ladahva,) a missing end quotation mark, busses (buses,) “who lived more than twenty kilos away” (kilo is used as an abbreviation for kilogram, not kilometre,) “the girl was very young girl” (a very young girl,) “in the darkness under of the walls” (either under or of, not both,) two of the women were were crawling (only one were needed.) “Five minutes later” (twice in two lines, both beginning a paragraph.) “He knew it” – death – “was waiting for him in the South too, but maybe there it wouldn’t take so long to come” (context suggests “but maybe there it would take longer to come”,) traveller’s tales (travellers’ tales?) “.. he could stay as long as he like before” (liked,) “a gesture that included that included” (one “that included” only,) a missing quote mark at a section beginning with a piece of dialogue – probably house style but it irritates me, Clargueible (previously Clargueibl,) “of the the dead emperor” (only one “the”,) “it it rose up” (only one “it”.)

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2016, 430 p.

 Radiance cover

Radiance is set in a fantastical universe where the Moon and the planets have all been colonised and are unrecognisably exotic places. At times the appearance of the text mirrors this exuberance. There is a variety of typefaces, some offset on the page to the right, others to the left and some laid out as a film or play script – or even transcript.

We are first invited to “Come inside and meet the prologue.” In a comment on literary affectation she (the prologue) tells us she has been told often that she is wholly unnecessary, a growth upon the story the wise doctor must cut off.

Below each chapter’s title is a representation of a film strip with an astrological symbol in it relating to the planet or moon on which it is set. The meat of the novel deals with the life of Severin Unck, an actress since a very young child, her father a film director, her mother a camera (he was always pointing one at her) but herself in her film-making resolutely wedded to documentary, “Any story is a lie cunningly told to hide the real world from the bastards who can’t live in it.” Severin cannot tell that lie. “We think of ourselves as being in … not just a story, but a good story.” It turns out film in this universe occurred early but when talkies evolved Edison subsequently sat on the patent so that only silent movies acquired the cachet of being art.

The story is told through personal reminiscences, transcripts of both Severin’s own – now fragmentary – archive and her father’s. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, her real mother is unknown to her – and to the world except for her mother (who wishes to remain anonymous) and her father who keeps his counsel. Severin was delivered to his doorstep and he took her in and raised her without demur, casting her in his films from an early age. She had a succession of stepmothers all of whom seem to have treated her well enough, the most long-lasting being Mary Pellam. The timeline (helpfully given in a Chronology on pages 7-9) goes from 1858 to 1962.

Creatures known as callowhales feature heavily. They are massive denizens of the deeps of a water-covered Venus. Their nature is unknown except for being able to produce a universal food called callowmilk, which gets turned into ice-cream among other things.

Anchises St John grew up with Severin and has a strange disfigurement, an unhealing “mouth” on his hand procured due to him inadvertently touching a callowhale. At one point the novel threatens to turn into a detective story as Anchises is manœuvred into trying to ascertain what happened to Severin after she dropped out of the public eye. This does give Valente the opportunity to regale us with the aside, “In detective stories, women are usually dead before the curtain goes up. In fairy tales, they’re usually alive. Fairy tales are about survival. That’s all they’re about. The detective solves the woman, the knight saves her.”

There is something very odd about the celestial mechanics of the Solar System described in the text. In ours, Earth is not incommunicado for years when the sun passes between it and Pluto – or Neptune (stated in the text to be out of radio contact with Earth for 72 years.) Our Earth scoots completely round the Sun in only one year after all; so it will be on the same side as those planets again within six months at maximum (and in practice probably only obscured for a few days.) Arguably, though, this discrepancy is in agreement with the fantastical nature of the solar system of the book. When there is a bridge between Pluto and Charon and people can stroll about in the open air under the moons of Uranus what’s a little radio blackout?

In its settings Radiance is a whirling round of invention but these flourishes do make it difficult to read as Science Fiction – though as outright fantasy not a problem – and it is not until the very last pages that the genesis of this strange solar system is addressed in the text. (Even so those orbital mechanics are a bit hard to take.) Severin explains, “‘Because I am a nexus point connecting all possible realities and unrealities…. I exist in innumerable forms throughout the liquid structure of space/time, and neither self nor causality have any meaning for me.'” The significance of the callowhales is that they “exist throughout everything that has ever existed or will exist.” For, “There are a million million frames,” (in a movie) “each one of them only a little different, and callowhales move through those frames like a cigarette burn in the corner of the image. Each frame is a world, a universe.” These glosses were too late for me as by the time they came I had lost patience with the idea of the book as anything but a fantasy.

As an adjunct to the living in a good story theme we also have a character say, “‘I think we’re all Graeae… We all share one eye between us, the big, black camera iris. We wait for our turn to see what someone else saw on a screen. And then we pass it on.'”

In an aside on hiding in plain sight Mary Pellam tells another, “‘If you’ve married men twice, nobody asks what you think about when the night breeze comes sidling in.'”

The penultimate chapter, Goodbye, echoes the prologue – “There is no such thing as an ending. There are no answers.” And of course in another piece of comment on the art of fiction it is not the end of the book.

Despite Valente being from the US we have “arse”, “knitted” and “bum” used in the British sense – and even maths! – but hood for the bonnet of a vehicle. Odd. Her intention for the book may be that “the story of the Grail is one of failure and always has been.”

Radiance is pyrotechnic and contains some fine writing but its fantastical trappings distract more than a little from the human story it portrays.

Pedant’s corner:- parenthetical hyphens are not spaced from their content-as a result this reads oddly-put in the space please. Otherwise; sprung (sprang,) lay down (lie down,) ice flow (floe,) off of (off, just off, no of,) assaying a Charleston (essaying,) outside of (outside, just outside, no of,) “partnered in own his dance” (in his own dance?) Hades’ (Hades’s,) “Nous vous attendons pour vous” (if I remember my schoolboy French aright either the “vous” or the “pour vous” is superfluous – Nous vous attendons = we will await you; nous attendons pour vous = we will wait for you,) “‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan his stately pleasure dome decree.’” (A stately pleasure dome, ) “and, and” (the first “and” is superfluous,) “a throng stampede” (earlier throng had been accorded a verb agreeing with its singular nature – so; a throng stampedes,) Franklyn Edison (elsewhere referred to as Freddy,) octopi (octopuses, at a pinch octopodes.)

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Vintage, 2016, 296 p. Reviewed for Interzone 265, Jul-Aug 2016.

 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

The title is an indicator, clearly alluding to a famous collection of tales of wonder, promising (as it then does) exotic happenings, digressions, meanderings and stories within stories. Yet it is also somehow unmistakably Rushdian. Exotic but recognisable, aslant but accessible. In any case, I doubt any other present day author would invite comparison to such a well-known set of stories as the Arabian Nights. But the conceit doesn’t come from nowhere. If he perhaps hasn’t addressed the supernatural quite as directly in most of his previous novels there has nearly always been more than a hint of the strange, brushes with the uncanny, in Rushdie’s work. So here we have jinn (not genies, no, we don’t use that word any more) the Grand Ifrits, Zumurrud the Great, Zabardast the Sorcerer, Shining Ruby the Possessor of Souls – so slender he disappears when he turns sideways – Ra’im the Blood-Drinker, the source of all the world’s vampire stories, and the jinnia Dunia, otherwise known as Aasmaan Peri, aka the Sky Fairy and the Lightning Princess of Mount Qâf.

The narrative is couched as a looking back at the legendary time when the seals between the worlds eroded, a great storm struck the Earth and the Strangenesses began. Yet the story begins over 800 years earlier, in 1195, with the arrival at the house of the philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) of a young homeless girl. This was Dunia, indulging her fascination with human men and her capacity for love. For two years eight months and twenty-eight nights they lived as man and wife and produced numerous offspring, whose descendants, all characterised by their lobeless ears, became the Duniazát. Not named after him as, “To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.” Ibn Rushd’s dispute with the philosophy of a predecessor, Ghazali, “Only fear will move sinful man towards God,” and who stated that things happen only because God wills them, provides us with disquisitions on God’s nature, “God is a creation of human beings; the clap-hands-if-you-believe-in-fairies principle.” These differences are played out on a grander scale during the war between the worlds that followed the Strangenesses.

During that time rationality crumbled. Some found their feet didn’t touch the ground and might float away so high that they died, others were weighed down so that they became crushed. A baby born during the storm caused outbreaks of sores on anyone corrupt or dishonest into whose vicinity she came. The irrational became commonplace. The Duniazát had inherited some of Dunia’s jinn powers and were invaluable in the final confrontations with the Grand Ifrits. The whole time of Strangeness lasted, of course, two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights.

Lines like, “If I get hurt in this putative affray of yours then I’m not an innocent bystander?” to a policeman from a musician at risk from the incitements of a rabid preacher show that the events of Rushdie’s life so far have contributed mightily to this – as, I assume, theirs must necessarily do for all but hack authors. Yet while the novel contains all Rushdie’s strengths, it also manifests and perhaps magnifies his faults. There is not much restraint here, there is a lot of telling, the treatment is, as ever, consciously literary and full of word play (Lebanonymous; “all the gold, men, in your sacks will not save you.”) Yet the retrospective narrator defuses any tension in the reader as to the eventual outcome. Rushdie also feels it necessary to define FTL despite name-checking eleven masters of the golden age of science fiction.

However, the book is mainly a meditation on the nature of story. “All our stories contain the stories of others and are themselves contained within larger, grander narratives.” “The first thing to know about made-up stories is that they are all untrue in the same way,” (which feels Tolstoyan but is certainly debatable.) “To tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present.” That stories tell us what we are; we tell them in order to understand ourselves. Quite where the incursion of the supernatural leaves us with that one is rather problematic. “To recount a fantasy is to tell a tale about the actual.” Well, maybe. “If good and evil were external to Man, it became impossible to define what an ethical man might be,” is closer to the mark.

In general Rushdie is at his best when his flights of fancy are tethered more firmly to earthly events, more centred on his human characters which here are too thinly delineated. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is pyrotechnic, impressive even, undoubtedly worth reading, but, ultimately, curiously lacking in heart.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- St Sebestian (Sebastian?) Nietzche (later rendered correctly as Nietzsche,) “when the princes’ attention was elsewhere” (yes it was princes, plural, ergo it should be attentions were,) bsattling (battling,) Rossonero, (Rossoneri.) In name (In the name,) one less sad angel face (one fewer – but it was narrated in tight third person,) waitstaff (that’s just a horrible conflation, waiting staff is entirely adequate,) knobkerry (I’ve only ever seen the spelling knobkerrie before,) scent to the lower world (sent.)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Serpent’s Tail, 2016, 430 p.

 The Essex Serpent cover

To all intents and purposes this is a nineteenth century novel but it is one written with a modern sensibility. The text is divided into a prologue set on (an unspecified) New Year’s Eve followed by four parts split into unevenly distributed sections which are titled consecutively January to September and then finally November, all interspersed with letters written between the characters.

In it the recently (happily) widowed Cora Seaborne with her son Frankie – who seems to have OCD or at the least autistic traits – and his childhood nurse Martha travel to Colchester to get away from London. The doctor who attended her husband’s death bed, Luke Garrett, has meanwhile formed an unreciprocated attraction to her. An earthquake eight years before the book starts has, according to rumour, let loose again the Essex Serpent which for a short time in 1669 roamed the waters of the Essex coast. Every local mishap or disappearance is now blamed on it. In the Blackwater estuary village of Aldwinter, there is a representation of the serpent carved onto a pew in All Saints Church. Through a mutual acquaintance an introduction is arranged between its vicar, William Ransome, and Cora, who has an interest in ancient creatures inspired by Mary Anning. Both Cora and Ransome erroneously imagine the other to be a stereotype of their respective statuses. They first meet by accident while rescuing a sheep from the muddy river bank but on further introduction strike up an intellectual, if verbally combative, friendship. Ransome is at odds with his congregation in being unwilling to address or assuage their belief in the creature. Ransome’s wife, Stella, is a consumptive, who is pleased by, even encourages, the friendship between her husband and Cora, and herself befriends Frankie.

The ingredients are here for a tale of forbidden love (or two eternal triangles even) set against a backdrop of supernatural horror but Perry does not play that game. She is more subtle – and too good a writer. Yet something about the enterprise nevertheless misses the mark.

The prologue mentions the banks of the River Blackwater in its first sentence. Having once lived by that river’s banks myself – but way upstream not near the estuary – I was therefore disposed to like the book, but as time went by I grew increasingly frustrated by it. It is not that it is not accomplished in its way or fails to provide memorable characters – even the relatively minor ones are rounded and all too human. There was just something about it that felt askew. About halfway through the thought crystallised.

Perry has yet to learn economy. Accumulation of detail normally lends verisimilitude, but she overdoes it. Descriptions frequently contain at least one observation too many. There is too much telling, too many extended ruminations by the various characters. And is Cora just a little too modern in her attitudes? In this regard the sub-theme of the problem of social housing and high rents also seemed to be straining for contemporary relevance. And – this last was actually a grace note, so not infelicitous as such – I did wonder if Martha had been named solely so as that another character might say to her, “‘Martha, my dear.’”

A pointer to Perry’s intentions for the novel may be found when she puts into the mouth of Will Ransome the thought, “‘far from being one truth alone there may be several truths,’” but we are never in any doubt that there is only one reality here. In that regard the putative fantasy element of the serpent promises more than it delivers.

While Perry has a facility with character and behaviour and The Essex Serpent has much to recommend it, it is more than a touch overwritten.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) fit (fitted, x 2,) “no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge” (than another would emerge,) “‘Still gadding about with hookers, is he?” (hookers was not a British usage in Victorian times I’d have thought. It still isn’t,) “he’d showed her” (shown,) “that of a minor royal greeting dignitaries at the opening of a library” (did minor royals perform such functions in the nineteenth century?) “Fifty miles south as the swallow flies and London’s at her best” (London? South of the Blackwater estuary as the swallow flies?) “Think of the set to when Galileo sent the earth spinning round the sun” (that was Copernicus, not Galileo, but it was in a character’s musings. He may have been intended to be mistaken but he was otherwise presented as scientifically literate,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb – which was used only seven pages later!)
Greetings to the word croat (meaning a cross) which was a new one on me.

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