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Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein

Tachyon, 2019, 278 p.

Ivy and her increasingly more exotically named sisters, Beatriz, Amaranth and Semiramis, motherless for a few years when the book begins, have been brought up to keep the secret of their great-aunt Maeve’s identity. Over fifty years ago, under her real name of Adela Madden, Maeve had written a book called Ivory Apples, describing a fantasy town. The book was a slow-burning success but Maeve soon withdrew from social communication. In the interim her work and fantasy world has gained an enthusiastic following, with websites devoted to the book’s meaning – trawled for clues to Maeve’s real identity and the messages her replies to letters (in fact supplied first by Ivy’s mother but now by her father Philip who also deals with Maeve’s finances,) may contain – annual conventions and the like. The family visits Maeve every month or so in order for Philip to do this work.

On one visit Ivy takes a walk through the nearby woods and finds a lake hitherto unknown to her. Maeve is swimming there naked and the trees which surround it are festooned with sprites. As she is leaving, one of these jumps at Ivy and penetrates into her body, squeezing into her every extremity, filling her with a kind of exhilaration and heightened awareness. The sprite thereafter is a more or less constant presence in her awareness (unless he withdraws into himself) and she names him Piper. She is warned by Maeve not to tell her sisters and to be careful, to choose wisely, that sprites have the attributes of tricksters.

One day in the park the children are befriended by a Ms Burden, who soon inveigles herself into the family’s lives then prevails upon Philip to investigate a noise in her basement but he dies there. His will comes as a shock to the girls as it entrusts them to Ms Burden’s care. Thereafter her previous solicitude becomes callousness, neglect and gaslighting (the embodiment of a wicked stepmother even though Philip hadn’t ever considered marrying her.) It is her persistent questioning of them about Aunt Maeve that reveals her real interest, though. She is on a quest to find the present day whereabouts of two original Greek muses, Talia and Claudio, and believes Maeve knows where they might be found or is in contact with them.

Ivy undergoes various adventures, running away from home followed by a life on the streets in which the presence of Piper is a great asset to her, the discovery of the depths of Ms Burden’s perfidy, her meeting with a female private investigator to whom she is attracted, becoming Maeve’s carer then journeying into the fantasy town, before the denouement. In the meantime she becomes a published poet with the raised awareness which Piper has brought her (sprites can act as muses and so apparently heighten your artistry. Ivy speculates that Shakespeare, Bach, Dante etc had been so inspired – a thought which to my mind does a disservice to their artistic endeavour) and meditates on the leach-like qualities of a writer, “I learned later that every writer did this with people they knew, that we were all vampires, feeding on other people’s experiences,” which is true to an extent but again devalues the importance of imagination.

Goldstein certainly writes well and it is gratifying to read a fantasy which doesn’t have a cod-mediæval setting (with its potentially iffy political stance) and to have the villain of the piece resolutely human.

Pedant’s corner:- “as studied my hands” (as I studied my hands,) “an apparition would appear” (yes, that’s what apparitions do.) “Like my sprite, he played music, and like my sprite, he played music” (was this repetition intentional or was the second half of the sentence supposed to be different?) “‘I don’t think you’re supposed to put warmed up peas and carrots on pizzas’” is said to be about culinary habits in England but I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, imposter (impostor,) a lot (a lot.) “‘Do you know who’s president?’” (President,) a missing full stop, Claudia (elsewhere always Claudio,) “to come back with me” (to come back to me makes more sense,) “in places ad smeeled strongly of smoke” (and smelled strongly.)

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Vintage, 2019, 574 p.

The Clarke Award (whose 2020 version this novel won) has a history of recognising, and sometimes rewarding, novels which are only marginally SF. At first sight this novel seems to be of that ilk – resolutely realist in tone, albeit with the occasional magic realist flourish, almost family saga in form (there is even a family tree facing the contents page,) while incorporating the history of Zambia and white colonialism in Southern Africa in its purview. Only in its later sections does it stray into SF territory and that in a way which non-SF readers may find jarring. To British eyes the text is a curious mixture of British – bum (as in backside,) maths – and US – fit as a past tense, swim lessons (swimming lessons,) mowed down (mown down) – usages, but there is also a generous sprinkling of Zambian words.

The novel is bookended by two short sections, The Falls – “The Smoke That Thunders” which David Livingstone of course immediately named after Queen Victoria – and The Dam (the Kariba Dam,) but the main body of the book is taken up by incidents in the lives of “The Grandmothers,” “The Mothers” and “The Children,” to each of whom a section, though not always exclusively, is devoted. (In The Falls we are told that Livingstone’s attendants transported his body to the coast – and thence to England – not out of devotion or duty to him, but rather from fear that otherwise his death would have been blamed on them. The explicit racism of European colonisers in Africa is expressed in some of the words used.) Intermissions between the sections, rendered in italics and occasionally commenting on the text, are written as if by anopheles mosquitoes. In one of these interludes we are told that “evolution forged the entirety of life using only one tool: the mistake…”

The Grandmothers are Sibilla, whose hair grows uncontrollably – all over her body, Agnes, a promising English tennis player who had to give up the game when she became blind and who falls in love with Ronald, a black student come to England from Rhodesia (as was,) and therefore has to run away from her racist parents in order to marry him, and Matha, one of the participants in Zambia’s unofficial space programme (an aspirational effort the concept of one individual, Ba Nkoloso, without any of the resources nor capability necessary to succeed.) Pregnant, and told Godfrey has left her, Matha begins to weep unceasingly, her eyelids crusting over with salt, an affliction which lasts the major part of her life thereafter.

Of the Mothers, Sylvia is Matha’s daughter by Godfrey, one of her fellow Afronauts, Isabella the result of Sibilla’s union with Federico, forced to flee Italy after killing his brother but usurping his identity, and Thandiwe marries Agnes’s son Lionel (who also impregnates Sylvia.) The Children are Joseph and Jacob (the ensuing sons of Lionel’s two unions) while Naila is the child of Isabella’s marriage to Balaji, a shopkeeper of Indian sub-continental origin. Sibilla’s children inherit her hair-growing condition – but only at twice the usual rate and only on their heads. This is transformed into a family wig-making enterprise known as Lovely Luxe Locks Ltd.

There is a nice exchange between Agnes and Ronald when he asks, “‘But I thought the English hated the French,’” and she replies, ‘Oh we do, but we steal from them mercilessly. It’s our sort of thing,’” a comment on the perennial position of women when we are told Matha thinks, “She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch,” and a rumination on the myths countries tell themselves, “This sort of thing happens with nations, and tales, and humans, and signs. You go hunting for a source, some ur-word or symbol and suddenly the path splits…. Where you sought an origin, you find a vast babble which is also a silence.” We also have Serpell’s variation on Tolstoy, “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.”

The main Science-Fictional ingredient in the tale is the Digit-All Bead, a kind of iPhone embedded in a finger which utilises the skin’s conductivity as a power source and shines its information onto the palm – or elsewhere if needed. This invention, since it appears in the book’s 2000s, makes The Old Drift an Altered History. Digit-All had been savvy in calling their product a bead rather than a chip as it sounds less threatening. They then partnered with local governments to distribute their beads free. Its connection to the internet makes it the ultimate surveillance tool. Another SF-ish element is Jacob’s development of lightweight microdrones – to all intents and purposes technological mosquitoes.

Hanging over the characters in the later sections is a pathogen only ever named as The Virus (which the reader will naturally take to be HIV but may not be. It does have HIV-like characteristics, though.) Lionel is researching a way to immunise against it and is particularly inteeested in people who seem to have natural immunity. Two human mutations are likely candidates. The person he calls the Lusaka patient has both. Serpell compares the Virus’s modus operandi – infiltrating the immune system’s white blood cells (usually the body’s defenders) to reproduce itself – to its main means of transmission, sex, “it takes advantage of the two engines of life – the desire to reproduce and the will to persevere.”

Serpell undoubtedly can write and has an eye for the variety of human relationships. I am not entirely convinced, though, that the later sections and the novel’s conversion into a subdued kind of technological thriller really belong together with the earlier character-based narratives but as an attempt to render the (relatively) recent history of Zambia in fictional form by focusing on the lives of individuals The Old Drift is still a formidable achievement. I have no doubt that it will linger in my mind.

Pedant’s corner:- “The hair on her crown and face were the same” (was the same,) sprung (sprang,) “irked Agnes to no end” (irked Agnes no end; ‘to no end’ means without purpose, ‘no end’ means without limit,) Cadbury Whole Nut (in Britain it always used to be “Cadbury’s” but I note that they have recently dropped the apostrophe and its ‘s’,) Walkers shortbread (Walker’s,) “to secret her to Kasama” (that’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘secret’ as a verb, it appeared as such once more,) wracked (racked,) stunk (stank,) “because was it was” (one ‘was’ too many,) grills (grilles,) “turning those minuses into plusses” (‘pluses’; and in any case why put a double ‘s’ in plusses but not in minusses?)

Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Titan Books, 2019, p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

Skein Island cover

As readers of Interzone already know, Whitley writes impressively. Here she takes a modern domestic setting and gradually blends it with strange happenings and figures from Ancient Greek myth to make a tale that is always readable and looks at sexual politics from an oblique angle.

On the day she receives an invitation from a dead woman, Marianne Spence has an encounter with a pervert at closing time at the library where she works in Wootton Bassett. The incident prompts Marianne to accept that invitation to the Skein Island of this novel’s title; a retreat for women only, set up after the Second World War by the adventurer Lady Amelia Worthington. The only requirement for beneficiaries is to make a written Declaration of their reasons for visiting, to be kept in the island’s library. Marianne’s mother Vanessa had herself gone to the island seventeen years before – and never returned; prompting Marianne’s father, Arnie, himself to retreat, into moroseness, spending his evenings at The Cornerhouse, a pub with a dubious reputation – and odd goings on in its back room. The ramifications of Marianne’s decision rumble through the novel as husband Dave takes to lying in wait for the pervert to prevent him offending again. Here his path crosses that of Police Community Support Officer, Samantha, who also hopes to catch the offender. The narrative is delivered in two strands which for the most part alternate; a present tense first person chronicle from Marianne’s viewpoint and a third person past tense account focusing on Dave.

Threaded through the initial stages of the novel is the appearance in the narrative of either squares or cubes coloured red, blue, yellow and green and an emphasis on a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, “Each man delights in the work that suits him best.”

The dead woman is a bit of a tease on Whiteley’s part as the invitation was not in fact written by her but by Marianne’s mother to whom Lady Amelia bequeathed the operation on Skein Island. Vanessa tells her the cubes represent the four types of men in the world, heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, corresponding to the four colours. In the library Marianne reads Lady Amelia’s Declaration in which she described looking for the Throne of Zeus in a cave on Crete and instead found a monstrosity which caused her male companions to rip each other to pieces. Amelia tamed it by telling it her life story, turning it into a statue which she took back to the island and locked underground to keep it away from men, naming it Moira after the Greek fates. Its appetite for the stories which bind it is fed by reading the Declarations to it. Marianne encounters Moira in the basement and recognises its strangeness. Her roommates remain unconvinced, but the possibility it was all illusion is not supported by the rest of the narrative. Things go awry when in his attempts to find Marianne, Dave finally gets to the island and his presence there leads to a demolition and Moira’s disappearance.

Thereafter, in the wider world, men’s behaviour, already somewhat overbearing, changes; their tendencies towards being heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, to “protect” women, becoming exaggerated. Marianne reasons that Moira’s constraint seems to be necessary for equable relations between the sexes so Marianne’s task becomes to find Moira and restore “her” to captivity on the island.

On the face of it Skein Island has an explicitly feminist perspective but Marianne’s thought that Moira’s existence means men are meant to be more important than women sits oddly with that. However, “When a hero walks into a story, he doesn’t do as he’s told,” is an entirely consistent proposition. In this context the relationship between Dave and policewoman Samantha also struck a discordant note.

As to Moira: it may be a rather well-worn trope but for supernatural beings to exert influence on human behaviour is a problematic feature of a fantasy since that automatically removes agency – and responsibility – from its characters. Characters’ behaviours should not be exculpated in this way. They can also be perceived as dancing too much to the author’s tune rather than behaving as if independently.

I should add that, completely unheralded, either in the blurb or the title page, and taking up 35 pages here, is the inclusion in the book of a novelette, The Cold Smoke Declaration, a ghost story partly set on Skein Island. Value for money then.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:-“the physical cracks that lead to emotional ones” (context suggests ‘led’ rather than ‘lead’,) zipper (zip,) “to not have to field questions,” (not to have to; many instances of ‘to not’ rather than ‘not to’,) “a chemical brand that irritates my nostrils” (this is of a washing powder, what does Whiteley think any other brands of washing powder contain apart from chemicals? The phrase ‘chemical free’ is a nonsense.) “There are a number of caves in Crete” (strictly, there is a number,) Zeus’ (Zeus’s,) sunk (sank,) fit (fitted – used on the next line!) smoothes (smooths,) “the eldest girl had thrown back her shoulders and sang to the vaulted ceiling” (that ‘had’ carries on so the next verb ought to be ‘sung’,) “it would be impossible to spit it into sentences” (split, I think,) “exclamation points” (exclamation marks,) “the lay of the island” (it wasn’t a tune; lie of the island.) In the novelette, “a strong draft” (draught.)

Phyllis Eisenstein

I see from George R R Martin’s blog that Phyllis Eisenstein died last month – from Covid-19 though she had suffered a cerebral hæmorrhage much earlier in the year. Another sad departure for a year too full of them. Not that this year is looking much better at the moment, vaccine apart.

I first read her work in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction way back in the day but it wasn’t till recently that I read her two novels relating the adventures of Alaric the minstrel, Born To Exile and In the Red Lord’s Reach.

I have another of her books on the tbr pile. It will be read with a sense of sorrow.

Phyllis Eisenstein: 26/2/1946 – 7/12/2020. So it goes.

Clarke Award 2020

I seem to be a few months late in noticing this. I couldn’t have been looking hard enough, though I posted the shortlist here.

The winner was The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell.

It’s on my tbr pile. I’ll probably shift it up the list now.

Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

Tor, 1997, 283 p.

 Black Wine cover

On starting to read this I was quickly reminded of N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (which of course was published 11 years later.) We have three different narrative strands each with a female protagonist, obviously connected (but in what way not immediately apparent,) a recognisable world yet different from our own, possibly far in the future, featuring places with portentous names, Trader Town, the Fjord of Tears, the Remarkable Mountains, the Land of the Dark Isles, an unfamiliar social system – or systems, there are different polities here – to navigate. However, as it unfolded the resemblances diminished somewhat. In particular, the relationship between Jemisin’s strands was a more bravura writing accomplishment. But Black Wine is good all the same.

We start with the story of a woman, amnesiac as a result of falling from the sky, with another, mad, woman living in a cage in the courtyard outside. They live in a society – the Zone of Control – where a favour bestowed consequently imbues obligation. The mad woman had not received any such favour and so managed to live without the burden of repayment. The amnesiac, however, had, and so is a sexual slave to her master and the nurse who looked/looks after her. Here also, minor acts of defiance can lead to tongues being removed. The amnesiac forms a friendship with a male slave who has suffered from this. The tongueless have devised a sign language for themselves of which their owners are unaware.

The resemblance of the amnesiac, whom we later find is named Essa, to the titular ruler – actual rule has been devolved to her son-in-law – of a different polity (as shown on its coins) is marked. When the mad woman finds Essa is going to voyage there she tells her to avoid the regent and certainly not to have sex with him. The female ruler is a cruel type, as is her son-in-law, and the connection between her, the madwoman and Essa is the motor of the plot.

The world Dorsey describes is a little strange. For the most part it appears to be without advanced technology – though it does have airships (from which you can fall from the clouds) – a lot of the travelling involved seems to be on foot, but at one point one of the characters decides she wishes to get somewhere faster and a quicker transit system is utilised.

A touch of fantasy arrives with the Carrier of Spirits, who imbibes the memories of everyone who dies. (She carries Essa’s pre-amnesia existence, but not of course those gained after the fall.) Essa’s relationship with the muted slave allows Dorsey to comment on the nuances of free will and the dependence of the exercise of it on social status.

Observations such as, “‘Look. I am this stone. I have been tumbled and moved, and it has all shaped me,’” are as much an expression of the universal as an outcrop of the story being told. Occasionally the text comments on itself or the writing process, (or perhaps reader expectations,) as in, “‘The mad king is a trope of literature and myth.’”

Black Wine is the first Dorsey novel I have read. It is less opaque than some of her short stories and encouraged me to look for more.

Pedant’s corner:- “the effect was shouting underwater” (was of shouting underwater,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “none of them were done” (none … was done,) “a deep courtesy” (curtsy,) “any of them even know it” (any of them even knows it,) connexion (Ugh! Several times; connection.)

Best Reading of 2020

I don’t usually do this till after Christmas even though others seem to do it well before. However, my reading for the rest of the year is planned out and I don’t think I’ll be adding to this list. 14 this year; 9 written by men, 5 by women, 1 non-fiction, 3 in translation, 7 Scottish, no SF or Fantasy.

Listed in order of reading. The links are to my reviews.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
Lifted Over the Turnstiles by Steve Finan
The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
The Pure Land by Alan Spence
The Apple (Crimson Petal Stories) by Michel Faber
Where the Apple Ripens by Jessie Kesson
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness
The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden

Macmillan, 1981, 59 p. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes.

The Dragon of Og cover

This is a children’s fantasy set in southern Scotland in the time of legends when the castles were made of wood. It is beautifully illustrated with full-page colour plates and integral black and white images.

There has been a dragon living for years in a cave below the pools of the Water of Milk on the estate of Tundergarth, growing from an egg to adulthood over the centuries (as dragons do) and taking the odd bullock for food. The old Lord wasn’t bothered about this loss to his stock but when he dies the new one, Angus Og, comes down from the north as inheritor to the estate and resolves – much to the dismay of his wife Matilda who has formed an attachment to the beast – the dragon must be killed. (This particular Dragon is always capitalised whenever he is mentioned but dragons in general are not. He also has had no interaction with other dragons so does not quite know how a dragon should behave.)

Angus Og is persuaded not to do the deed himself as he does not have the necessary equipment nor protection and under Matilda’s urgings sends to Carlisle to fetch Robert le Douce whom Matilda knows will kill the dragon as kindly as possible. The price though, gold in the weight of a lamb, is something he balks at. The deed having been done, the unworldly dragon not knowing he ought to have fought, Angus Og reneges on the payment and Robert le Douce brings the two parts of the dragon’s body he had separated back together so that it could be restored to life. Means then have to be found to keep the dragon in food, though Og still maintains that no bullocks are to be used. Matilda’s solution is elegant but costly.

A delightful aspect of this was the liberal use of Scots words and phrases, a phenomenon not normally to be found in children’s literature.

Godden feels constrained to point out (in a preface) that the Angus Og portrayed in this book is not the historical Lord of the Isles nor his namesake prize bulls but may be an ancestor of the one in the Daily Record cartoon strip.

Pedant’s corner:- gainsayed (gainsaid,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) “the drizzle that Scots people call a smurr” (it’s usually spelled ‘smirr’,) “‘I’ll have it’s blood for this’” (its.) “‘Am’nt I as good as a Knight?’” (congratulations for the grammatical form; but it’s spelled “Amn’t”,) has’nae (is spelled ‘hasnae’,) av’a (usually spelled ‘ava’.)

Automatic Eve by Rokurō Inui

Haikasoru, 2019, 315 p. Translated from the Japanese Jidō ibu (自動イブ,) by Matt Treyvaud. Published in Interzone 284, Nov-Dec 2019.

 Automatic Eve cover

How necessary is it to suspend disbelief in order to appreciate, or perhaps persevere with, a work of fiction? Conventional wisdom suggests it is at least a necessary condition. Automatic Eve suggests that might not be the case.

The plot of Inui’s novel hinges on the existence of elaborate automata. Not toys, not merely small things like crickets, but better than android–like simulacra of human beings. Things of convincing, warm, outer human appearance but internally consisting of metal, cogs, gears, wires – each with a pendulum for a heart. Yet the automata here are effectively so realistic that they appear to be completely human to everyone involved, even to the extent of being able to have sex convincingly, to inspire love and devotion, and to experience these things for themselves. Even capable of being convinced that they themselves are human – until, perhaps, they find otherwise. And that’s a leap that’s a big requirement to ask of a reader. (This one always had nagging doubts.) Yet, to carry on, to keep faith with the story, said reader has to take this on trust. (And, maybe, later, write a review.)

It is a mark of Inui’s writing, and his translator’s ability to convey it, that the necessary perseverance isn’t a problem. The story here is engaging enough to keep you turning the pages. It helps that the central concept is introduced fairly gradually.

The setting is a little odd though. The characters know of Chemistry, electricity and clockwork, yet the society in which they are embedded has a mediæval feel. It is obviously closely based on Japan, but not a Japan which ever existed. Yes, we have sake, bathhouses, sumo, cricket fights, meticulous gardening (albeit also a cover for spying,) a certain pleasure in fine objects, finely wrought – not to mention the goings-on in the building known as the Thirteen Floors. There is, too, intrigue between an Imperial court and a shogunate, but the divine figure is an Empress, and the succession goes through the female line, to a female. It is a Japan tweaked just so, to enable the story. A fantasy, then.

Would-be Sumo wrestler, Geiemon Tentoku, has fallen in love with the Eve of the title and selflessly seeks to release her from her indenture in the Thirteen Floors to restore her to the man he thinks she loves. Kyuzo Kugimiya learned all he knows about the construction of automata from Keian Higa, who had plotted the overthrow of the system before being executed after his plans were betrayed to the authorities. Under the instructions of the Imperial Gardener (really a spymaster) Kihachi Umekawa, the shogun’s spy, Jinnai, is investigating Kigimiya’s activities. All these are actors in the overall plot, which concerns the contents of the Sacred Vessel, a sealed container within the Imperial Palace.

The existence of convincing automata leads a couple of characters to question the nature of humanity. Kyuzo thinks, “A pregnant woman’s body was home to not one soul but two. Where did the life in her womb come from, and when? If souls came from elsewhere to reside in the human body, was it not possible that one might take up residence in the infant automaton they were building?” Later, Jinnai wonders, “Where did the soul come from? Where, in the body or brain, did it conceal itself while a human still lived? …. Automata like Eve showed human behavior [sic] as a response to the care and love they received from humans.”

Such metaphysical considerations are invited by the subject matter – and are arguably the raison d’être of literary fiction – but Inui doesn’t let them bother the thrust of his story for too long.

There is a slight flaw to the book’s structure, however. Rather than a novel it is a succession of seven shortish novellas, albeit featuring ongoing characters. That the narrative viewpoint changes between these sections is not a problem but certain repetitions of information suggest that they may not have been conceived or written as a whole but subject to a later fix-up. And Automatic Eve herself is more like an absence than a protagonist. Though she does appear in them all she is neither the focus nor viewpoint character in any of the seven segments.

None of that, however, takes away from the overall effect. It may lack innovation in its central idea but Automatic Eve is still a well-written, solid piece of fiction.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner:- “none were too explicit” (none was too explicit.) “The master of accounts were responsible for” (the master … was responsible.) “None of these new revelations were the answers Kakita sought..” (None of these new revelations was the answer ..) “none of them understand the situation” (none of them understands the situation.) “None of the spies were supposed to know” (None … was supposed to know.) “The attendant’s quarters” (attendants’ quarters.) “The group made their way…” (The group made its way,) “‘I gather that neither of those fates await those who are careless?’” (neither of those fates awaits those, plus the sentence isn’t really a question.) “Mounts of leftover soil and worktools ..” (‘Mounds’ makes more sense.) “‘The palace has decided to keep the news to themselves for now’” (to itself is more grammatical,) “for this automata” (for this automaton.) “These question had always bothered Jinnai.” (These questions.)

The Island Under the Earth by Avram Davidson

Mayflower, 1975, 157 p

The Island Under the Earth cover

I’m not sure I can give a full flavour of this novel as the conditions I read it under were not the best; I was away from home when I started it and my reading of it was interrupted by several days.

Davidson’s world here – it is not apparent whether it really is supposed to be under the Earth as the title implies – is technologically lacking and inhabited by humans (Fourlimbs) and Centaurs known as sixies, between whom there is a large degree of hostility. The setting seems to be agrarian or at least mediæval and the text’s attitudes are of its time, especially in regard to the off-hand (blatantly sexist really) treatment of females – of either species. It involves a quest of sorts and augurs called Gortecas and Castegor who are a sort of serious Tweedledum and Tweedledee and later merge into one entity called Troscegac.

Oddities abound. At one point an old sixie, seemingly dying, asks some humans, in garbled speech, for wine. The next day the sixie has gone, apparently revivified by the wine. Later it is seen frisking about and chasing a young golden-haired female centaur.

The text is couched idiosyncratically. Phrases such as “blue-green-white its phosphor light,” “heed the old ones not,” and “raised his both hands,” give some of the flavour. Some spellings are also non-standard. Yet other things bring us to ground once more. Again Davidson uses words that imply a Scottish ancestry. The implement used for sweeping here is named a besom as sometimes it is in Scotland.

I would say that The Island Under the Earth is not as successful a novel as previous ones of Davidson’s I have read. Rork! for instance.

Pedant’s corner:- talley-pebbles (why the deviation from tally?) “a sick fear that that” (only one ‘that’ required,) miniscule (minuscule,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, semanal (the meaning seems to be ‘seminal’, but it may have meant weekly) “is ought pursuing her” (I’ve only ever seen ‘aught’ before but apparently this is an accepted variant spelling.)

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