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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

The Bone Palace - Amanda Downum

It took me a while, but I finally figured out what dissatisfied me about this book. In the first third, while we were getting to know our our characters and getting used to the firelight and the puzzling tendency of the writer to describe the scent of everything – bitter orange and copper make notable appearances – I was leaned in, breathing. The writing is stylized, and consistent, though it hit some of my writing grudges. I think there is a tendency for writers to fall into the vocabulary of what I think as “poetic” language, and I intend those quotation marks for full bitchy effect. The lexicon gets limited to a subset of the available words that have been vetted for being “evocative”. Again, with the bitchy quotes marks. The word evocative cannot be used alone, or it is meaningless. Evocative...of what? What does it evoke? What you mean is sensual, laying out a costume of silk and tattered lace and copper blood, not so much squeaky clean – and in fact, the sense of grime, humus and the fecund is a talisman of “poetic” language – as frustratingly rote and environmental.

It starts with a stock murder investigation & some court intrigue and love triangles. But there was some interesting fantasy furniture - a lover of the crown prince who is described as intersex, and is an assassin, climbing up trellises with her mannish hands and carefully coiffed hair. Oh, geez, I dig that! What will out about this third sex? Oh, vampires! And ones that aren't sexy sexy sex beasts, but gross ghouls who live underground! What will out with them? But then, well, the plot chugs forward with court intrigues and a burgeoning mythology that felt remarkably little. Sure, there's all this history and time, and great howling ruins beset by demon ravens and climbing ivy, and fights with jewel-encrusted daggers and the less theatrical kind, and cups of tea, and stolen kisses – see how this “poetic” language thing works? - but the motivations and explanations were remarkably pedestrian. Pretty much everyone's motivation for everything, all the flash magic and armaggedon, was a failed love affair. While I agree that love and its ruin motivates lots of goings on, I believe that in a court drama, position, power, court status, sex, money, and politics are rather more important, or should be, than love in making the world work. That a warlord king of no particular kindness or empathy can be overcome with remorse for doing away with a lover wronged in his youth, when she has become a ravening monster, - hell, even if she hadn't - that lacks psychological realism

Anyway, so I closed up the book a few days ago and thought, why am I so dissatisfied? My complaints so far have been pretty stock fantasy criticisms, ones that I think are pretty uninteresting. While I have never been a fan of trolls who come in and yell at reviewers for not liking the things inherent to whatever genre – why did you reeeead this then? You should award stars for adhering to genre even if you do not like it! Et&c. Fuck you, I can like or dislike what I like, for any reason. But, in all fairness, these are criticisms of the genre generally, and not specific to the book. When I hear the phrase world-building, I reach for my pistol. I weary of descriptions in “poetic” language. These are components of many fantasies, and to more immersed fantasy readers than I, they would be points in this books favor, and I, without snark, recommend this book to people who like this sort of thing. The plot moves, there is some interesting magic, and so on. This book succeeds by those genre metrics.

But, and I feel a little bad saying this, I think there is a deeper failure to this book, on a level more central to the heart of the fantasy genre. I'm now going to quote heavily from Ursula K. Le Guin's essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” which can be found in The Language of the Night.

What is fantasy? On one level, of course, it is a game: a pure pretense with no ulterior motive whatever. It is one child saying to another, “Let's be dragons,” and then they're dragons for an hour or two. It is escapism of the most admirable kind – the game played for the games sake.

On another level, it is still a game, but a game played for very high stakes. Seen thus, as art, not spontaneous play, its affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic, but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Dragons are more dangerous, and a good deal commoner, than bears. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously.

After all these metaphors and generalities, let us get down to some examples; let us read a little fantasy.

Lin Carter.]

Whether or not they succeed in the end will depend largely on Kelson's personal ability to manipulate the voting.”

“Can he?” Morgan asked, as the two clattered down a half flight of stairs and into the garden.

“I don't know, Alaric,” Nigel replied. “He's good – damned good – but I just don't know. Besides you saw the key council lords. With Ralson dead and Bran Coris practically making open accusations – well, it doesn't look good.”

“I could have told you that at Cardosa.”


At this point I was interrupted (perhaps by a person from Porlock, I don't remember), and the next time I sat down I happened to pick up a different kind of novel, a real Now kind of novel, naturalistic, politically conscious, relevant, set in Washington, D.C. Here is a sample of a conversation from it, between a senator and a lobbyist for pollution control.

Whether or not they succeed in the end will depend largely on Kelson's personal ability to manipulate the voting.”

“Can he?” Morgan asked, as the two clattered down a half flight of stairs and into the White House garden.

“I don't know, Alaric,” Nigel replied. “He's good – damned good – but I just don't know. Besides you saw the key council lords. With Ralson dead and Brian Corliss practically making open accusations – well, it doesn't look good.”

“I could have told you that at Poughkeepsie.”


Now I submit that something has gone wrong. The book from which I first quoted is not fantasy, for all it's equipment of heroes and wizards. If it were fantasy, I couldn't have pulled that dirty trick on it by changing four words. You can't clip Pegasus' wings that easily – not if he has wings.



I could pull Le Guin's dirty trick on most of this book. Isyllt, one of our main characters, is a necromage detective who is getting too old for this shit. She has a friend who is a coroner, though I cannot remember the name in the book that this occupation is given. The coroner friend worries about Isyllt's increasing self-destructiveness, they banter over meals, they gossip. Isyllt feels like the job is wearing her down, the endless death cutting her apart from those whose lives aren't steepled with death. These are the complaints and psychologies of people on the Job. She makes camera-pleasing promises to the dead. That whole plot line is pretty much Crossing Jordan.

”Do you want company? Or back-up?”

“No, I'd rather tread lightly. More Vigils will only attract attention.”

Kelsêa snorted and tugged her orange coat straight. At least her dark skin let her wear the Vigils' distinctive shade well. “What's one more death in Oldtown, after all.”

“Eight for an obol.” Their boots echoed in unison as they started for the stairs, leaving the dead woman on the slab.



Observe:

”Do you want company? Or back-up?”

“No, I'd rather tread lightly. More cops will only attract attention.”

Kelsey snorted and tugged her blue coat straight. At least her dark skin let her wear the police force's distinctive shade well. “What's one more death in Oldtown, after all.”

“Six for a dollar.” Their boots echoed in unison as they started for the stairs, leaving the dead woman on the slab.



The plotline with the transgendered assassin is a prêt-à-porter love triangle with some Sins of the Father thrown in for good measure, and the intersex identity is treated weirdly. Despite the fact that homosexuality is completely normalized here in this world -- the coroner above has a wife -- trans* people are completely ghettoized. I thought for a long time that the intersex had some kind of magical mark or powers, the way they were identified so young and then shunted into a semi-religious order of ritual prostitutes. They are described as trans* people are here, as “a woman trapped in a man's body”. Like here and now, there would be a massive trans* closet, where people misgendered themselves in order to become literally anything other than a ritual prostitute. Something can be said for fictions in which non-heteronormative relationships are played out - and pretty much everyone here has slept with or will sleep with everyone else, regardless of gender - but I find it frustrating when the world is incoherent.

Like Le Guin, I feel a little bad about pointing this out. I'll just quote her, in lieu of reformulating her apology and pretending it's mine: “Before I go further I want to apologize to the author of the passage for making a horrible example of her. There are infinitely worse examples I could have used; I chose this one because in this book something good has gone wrong – something real has been falsified.” The ornament and texture of fantasy is real in this novel, but its heart is in Poughkeepsie.