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On Books

by Paul Di Filippo

 

Moscow Worms

As I compose this review, Jane Yolen, the Fates forefend, enjoys fine health at eighty years old, has produced some 380 books (by her own public count), and is still actively getting ink down on paper every day, across numerous genres—poetry, YA novels, picture books, adult novels. She has already passed her fiftieth anniversary as a professional writer, and shows no sign of slowing down. I find this immensely inspirational, as well might you.

Of course, if all her books were mere “scribble, scribble, scribble” gushings, there’d be no reason for rejoicing. However, Yolen is a fine writer, whether alone or, as of late, in tandem with either her son Adam or daughter Heidi (both of whom have solo writing careers as well).

The Last Tsar’s Dragons (Tachyon Publications, trade paperback, $14.95, 192 pages, ISBN 978-1-61696-287-6) is co-authored with Adam, and it offers a subtle blend of historical veracity and counterfactual dreaming.

The story takes place in a very compressed interval, basically just a few months circa 1916 or so. We open with the first-person voice of a fellow (the only “imaginary” participant in the story) who will remain unnamed and who will assume the role of “faceless functionary” in czarist Russia. But as in all bureaucracies, the little vicious man with a rubber stamp will prove to be deadly beyond expectations.

In any case, our narrator proposes to reveal what really happened in the waning months of the reign of Czar Nicholas II, and it all has to do with dragons. You see, the emperor’s power relies in large part on a dragon corps used to intimidate the hoi polloi—especially uppity Jews—and suppress any rebellion. As the major extranatural novum in the tale, the dragons receive plenty of tangibility and plausibility, akin to that bestowed by Naomi Novik in her Temeraire series.

Although pivotal to the plot, the dragons are, surprisingly, but ultimately effectively, kept mainly offstage, allowing the Yolens to focus on the human characters,  alternating the narrative’s telling among Rasputin, the royals, and a fellow named Bronstein, who proves to be more familiar under his revolutionary name, Leon Trotsky. They convey a sordid tale of privilege and dissent, jealousy and lust, murder and spies. If you thought Game of Thrones was brutal, the reality of the Tsar’s court will still impress with its lurid violence.

Eventually, Trotsky and Lenin come up with their own version of a dragon squad, and thus the line of Nicholas is cast out and truncated.

The Yolens manage to evoke a mix of sympathy and disgust for every character. In other words, each person illustrates the full spectrum of human behavior. The emperor is a tyrant, but loves his family and his dragons. The empress is a doting mother, but has fallen for Rasputin. Rasputin is a megalomaniac, but also something of a Nietzschean superman. And Trotsky and Lenin wish to liberate Russia, but are ruthless and shortsighted.

If any single one of these folks steals the show, it would have to be Rasputin. The Yolens obviously revel in all his appearances, and his murder and subsequent slow dying are the standout chapters.

By integrating the anomalous dragons into the canonical events, the Yolens achieve what fantastika does best: inverting the familiar and allowing us to see reality more clearly. They state their aims in their “Afterword,” and say it better than I.

This is a work of fantasy fiction surrounded with—and drowned in—history.

Much of it is true. Not the dragons, of course, but then you already knew that. Or else you took it for a metaphor for the Red Russians, as opposed to the White Russians, many of whom were prescient enough to have already headed for America and elsewhere. If that all sounds kind of Wonderlandish—well, so does the whole Russian Revolution.

*   *   *

Hanging with Grandpa Theobald

The back-cover copy for Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Houses Under the Sea (Subterranean, hardcover, $45.00, 488 pages, ISBN 978-1596069206) makes a bold claim: “No one, absolutely no one, has contributed such a body of brilliant and profoundly original work to the [Lovecraftian] Mythos as Caitlín R. Kiernan.” Of course, the critical reader will immediately feel compelled to start adducing names of other comparable authors (the publisher already mentions Ramsey Campbell, Gaiman, and King), from Clark Ashton Smith to Lumley to Bloch to Howard to Pugmire to T.E.D. Klein (notable in his case for quality rather than sheer quantity). But after such a spontaneous spurt of rivals, one must pause and consider Subterranean’s claim more closely, reaching perhaps something close to agreement. Surely Kiernan’s Mythos stories, like all her fiction, exhibit surpassing style, flair, inventiveness, impact, and solidity of construction, fully reconciling Lovecraft’s weltanschauung to modern times. Maybe she does lead the pack. Surely the nearly three dozen tales herein make a good case. Let’s sample from amongst them.

It’s nice that the first item, “Lovecraft and I,” is a speech given by Kiernan at the HPL Film Fest in which she recounts her initial immersion in Lovecraft’s work and her lifelong fascination with the Mythos. This gears us up to receive her transmogrifications and extensions of the classic canonical works.

The first five stories—“Valentia (1994),” “So Runs the World Away,” “From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6,” “The Drowned Geologist (1898),” and “The Dead and the Moonstruck” are all striking and accomplished without really breaking much new ground. The introduction of Hollywood motifs, Holmesian motifs, and some French-style Huysmans decadence are nice upgrades to HPL’s originals. But it’s with the next two stories—“Houses Under the Sea” and “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)”—that Kiernan really takes off. The first tale summons up an excellent enigmatic anti-heroine in Jacova Angevine, and then has the inspiration to transplant Innsmouthian doings to the West Coast. The second story exfoliates the movie tropes seen earlier, but more intensively and dynamically, making them central to the enigmas.

So far, the reader might have noted that Kiernan alternates from story to story between two tactics: hewing more-or-less faithfully to the times, places, and ambiance of the original Mythos tales, and dragging them kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century and populating them with postmodern players. This oscillation of strategies makes for a richer experience than a one-note collection.

“The Bone’s Prayer” focuses on a blocked writer named Edith, heralding Kiernan’s fruitful use here and there of author-type protagonists. Its authentic Rhode Island setting reflects Kiernan’s long residence in that state. Like some lost piece of Victorian erotica, “The Peril of Liberated Objects, or the Voyeur’s Seduction” shows us a virgin despoiled by a sinister object. The fact that this item has fallen into our world from HPL’s Dreamlands opens up a whole different, Dunsanyian aspect of the Mythos, one that Kiernan will continue to explore, most effectively in “The Alchemist’s Daughter (A Fragment),” which takes place in the fabled city of Ulthar itself.

The subsequent stories cover a lot of shuddery ground, from the biohorror of “The Transition of Elizabeth Haskings” to the timelost dusty paleontology of “A Mountain Walked.” With “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven,” Kiernan comes out of left field with pure science fiction, as she recounts the postapocalyptic scenario after Earth’s fall to alien invaders. This preps us for “M is for Mars,” a story original with this volume. A phildickian Martian colony, host to females only, gets an unwelcome and unexpected visitor.

I’ve scanted all too many great tales herein, for lack of column inches, but I will say that the cumulative effect of this volume does come very close to justifying the publisher’s praise. And it’s all down to Kiernan’s Mythos-simpatico sensibilities, her inventiveness, and her keenly honed prose. Let’s end with a sample of her language from “On the Reef,” a cosmic pronouncement fit to issue from the pen of Howard Phillips himself.

There are rites that do not die. There are ceremonies and sacraments that thrive even after the most vicious oppressions. Indeed, some may grow stronger under such duress, stronger and more determined, so that even though devotees are scattered and holy ground defiled, the rituals will find a way. The people will find a way back, down long decades and even centuries, to stand where strange beings were summoned—call them gods or demons or numina; call them what you will, as all words only signify and may not ever define or constrain the nature of these entities. Temples are burned and rebuilt. Sacred groves are felled, but new trees take root and flourish.

*   *   *

Robinsonade Among the Big Trees

It’s amazing how many SF templates were first codified by H.G. Wells. Alien invasion, time travel, bioengineering, future warfare, postapocalyptic ruination. . . . . He really pioneered much of the territory that the rest of us would dwell in.

And it sometimes seems that whatever land Wells left untouched, Heinlein mapped. His Future History stories elucidated so many scenarios that others have continued to explore. And then there were his YA novels, spawning hundreds of descendants.

One of my favorites among the latter category has always been Tunnel in the Sky. The saga of castaway teens on a primitive and hostile world, it updated all the virtues of Verne’s The Mysterious Island and Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson with technological ingenuity and estrangement. The fact that Lord of the Flies came out the prior year might or might not bear on Heinlein’s influences, but does nothing to detract from his accomplishments.

Based on his new novel, Half Way Home (John Joseph Adams Books, hardcover, $28.00, 240 pages, ISBN 978-0358213246), I’m sure Hugh Howey imprinted on Tunnel as much as I did. His book has some of the same vibe, if not the identical parameters. And, to support the natural kinship between Heinlein’s book and Flies, Howey delves into some of Golding’s savagery as well. Additional resonances occur with Tom Godwin’s underrated novel The Survivors (aka Space Prison)—stranded humans on a harsh world—and the recent Children of Time series by Adrian Tchaikovsky (embryonic colonists seeded by a mad AI).

The book opens with “Chapter 0,” a kind of meditative, autumnal, speculative musing on the nature of fate and character. “I was a blastocyst once,” the narrator asserts. It’s an alluring enough hook, and fairly short. But in some sense it could have been cut, since the striking first chapter—“I was fifteen years old before I opened my eyes for the first time.”—provides a rousing, pyrotechnic opener, as our narrator is literally dumped from the womb into a sea of flames and explosions.

To summarize and extend this slambang introduction: humanity has long maintained an interstellar outreach program. Sublight colony ships are launched full of human gametes, robotic equipment, and a governing AI. When they reach a planet, the AI decides if the environment is “viable.” If yes, the robots get to work and the humans are gestated. They live in artificial wombs/life-support capsules until physical adulthood, becoming educated via virtual reality—a Matrix-style setup. Then they are decanted and the colony truly begins.

But if the AI decides the planet is a cul-de-sac, it self-destructs, taking all the unborn humans with it.

Neither of these options quite pertains here. Our focus is on a unique glitchy situation on a nameless world. The humans in their tubes are fifteen years old when the AI decides retroactively and inexplicably to trash everything already built and nurtured. But at the last minute the indecisive cybermind rescues some sixty souls, teenagers ill-prepared to deal with the world, given their very partial resources, physical and mental. Most strangely, they are mandated by the Colony mind not to create stability for themselves, but rather to build a rocket that will be dispatched with some secret message back to Earth.

Our viewpoint character for all of this is Porter, incompletely trained to be the lone psychologist and counselor. He must untangle the harsh authoritarian dynamics that manifest under the dictatorial figure of Hickson, all while trying to ensure the exiled future of his shipmates (two of whom, Tarsi and Kelvin, become dear to him).

Eventually Porter and crew can’t take the brutality of the Colony and run away. Now begins a hegira among the enormous trees of their world, an arboreal ecosystem full of odd aliens. Finally, toughened by the rigors of their existence, Porter and family realize they must confront the slave state left behind in a climactic battle, or never know security and peace and a future.

Howey does an excellent job building up and conveying Porter’s sensibilities, through which all the action and philosophical implications of their existence is conveyed. Porter is not your average teen, given his forcefed education, but neither is he fully mature. His goodhearted and noble nature is tempered by some selfishness and error-prone moves. We fully believe and empathize with him.

Of course, the alien environment is rendered in beautiful, convincing, and exciting fashion. The reader might feel they are reading an up-to-date version of Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey.” And while the planet is not Harrison’s Deathworld, it harbors dangers aplenty, and deaths among the cast come in a frequent, poignant, and convincing manner. The plot offers surprise after surprise, and a satisfying resolution.

Blending Heinlein’s emphasis on personal competency and resourcefulness with a more current view of interdependence and emotional labor, Howey’s new novel illustrates that you can’t keep a good blastocyst down.

*   *   *

I’ve Got You Under My Skin

Kali Wallace’s debut (adult, after some YA) SF novel, Salvation Day (Berkley, hardcover, $26.00, 320 pages, ISBN 978-1984803696) is a thrill-a-minute hardcore actioner, immaculately constructed. As with the skyscraper-constrained film Die Hard, the book’s restricted setting—a kilometer-long abandoned spaceship—provides a tight, claustrophobic venue whose physical parameters determine much of the suspenseful action. Yet the book is not just all flash and tachycardia, but also a forecast for our post-collapse future and an examination of societal power structures and the kind of outsider rebellions that arise even in quasi-utopias, as well as a perusal of familial duties and legacies.

The time is some four hundred years after the civilization we enjoy has gone kerflooey, at some point far enough down the line from us to allow for a program of interstellar probes to have gone on for some time before the crash. Those intervening centuries have seen a slow crawl back from ruination to stability and technological prowess, thanks to a wise and peaceful global polity, the United Councils. Now the Solar System is being fully exploited and remediation of many ruined parts of Earth is underway.

We open on a shuttlecraft leaving Earth, full of students and scholars. But also onboard are several terrorists/saboteurs/cultists, who intend to take over the little craft and ride it out to an abandoned spaceship, the House of Wisdom. There, they will use the unique genetic signature of one of the passengers to gain access to the big craft and take it over for their own purposes.

The mission leader of the cultists is a woman named Zahra, whose father was implicated in the chaotic and deadly abandonment of the House of Wisdom ten years earlier. The key hostage is a man named Jaswinder, whose parents were crew on the ship. Jaswinder is in fact the only survivor, at age fourteen, of what appeared to be an engineered plague that killed all the others and forced the sealing-up of the craft. And in a beautiful dialectic, these two will be our vantage characters on the action, alternating chapters between innocence and complicity, zealotry and humanism.

The first seventy pages establish vividly all the personalities and motivations, and carry the cast onto the House of Wisdom. But things go badly wrong for the cultists, and a handful of them, plus their several hostages, are marooned on the House of Wisdom. Now it will be a vicious contest over who can control things first, before either the mad guru of the wastelands, Adam Light, arrives with his reinforcements, or the patrol ships of SPEC arrive with theirs.

But complicating the human contest is an alien presence. Supposedly, the virus that killed all the initial crew had itself died out after ten years. But why then are the visitors still becoming infected, not with a simple germ, but by some kind of parasite that literally burrows beneath the skin and takes over its victims mentally? Finding the answer will require that the two factions unite, or perish—a symbolic lesson for the world at large.

Wallace’s prose is muscular and taut, and propels the reader rapidly through the always surprising twists and turns. But she also takes time to stop and chart the emotional and ethical fallout of her plot. This segment below, where Zhara (the “I”) and Jaswinder finally communicate honestly, is illustrative:

“I don’t hate Earth,” I said, and that time it sounded less like a question. “What you said earlier. You’re wrong about that. That’s not why I came here.”

“Then why did you?” Jas said.

“For my father. I told you. To prove he wasn’t a killer. And for the twins. I thought they could have a better life here. Life in the deserts isn’t easy, and it’s even harder to find a way out. Coming here, following Adam, that was our way.”

Finally he turned from the screen to meet my eyes. “But you weren’t born there. Your parents were Councils citizens.”

 *   *   *

And so all the protagonists stumble in a truly human way to a tragic, but redemptive conclusion.

We seem to be enjoying a mini-boomlet of spaceship-hijack books, given such other entries as R.E. Stearns’s Shieldrunner Pirates series and Suzanne Palmer’s Finder. Considering that Jefferson Starship had fun with this concept in 1970, with their album Blows Against the Empire, it’s more proof that our current era is somehow replicating the nineteen-sixties in a funhouse mirror.

*   *   *

The Center Isn’t There

An editor and critic-historian of note, Matt Cardin also writes fiction. He’s given us two previous collections, but has chosen now to reassemble the contents of those earlier books, plus much more, into a summary volume of twenty years’ worth of his tale-telling: To Rouse Leviathan (Hippocampus Press, trade paper, $20.00, 376 pages, ISBN 978-1614982708). Cardin acknowledges his literary models up front: Lovecraft and Ligotti in their guises as dark seers of cosmic horror. Cardin’s style and presentation are decidedly old-school, in an authentic fashion not redolent of pastiche, and I would add other classic influences, such as Poe, Felix Timmermans, E.T.A. Hoffman, and Walter de la Mare. His stories are inward-focused (although plenty of external creepiness does happen), subtle and atmospheric, rather than splatterpunk or transgressive. They express an existential malaise rather than attacks by outside forces. Or rather, man’s inescapable “ontological terrors” open up the individual to the chaos lurking without.

Here’s a quick rundown of what the happily despairing reader will encounter.

“An Abhorrence to All Flesh” finds our wordsmith protagonist witness to the horrific dissolution of his friend’s body in a manner that ultimately infects the witness and the world. In the monastery of Saint-Michel, one monk’s visions begin to contaminate his manuscript work, delivering “Notes of a Mad Copyist.” More surreal than its companions, “The Basement Theater” opens wonderfully: “I looked up and found myself gazing at the faded marquee of a crumbling theater, where no title was displayed.” Our hero dares to enter, and discovers “an unwanted glimpse into the spaces between the lines of my life.” An all-pervasive fog hypnotizes the esthetic perceptions of a painter in “If It Had Eyes.” In “Judas of the Infinite,” a gutter-dwelling bum receives an occult visitation.

“Teeth” opens with an explicit nod to the “horror at the center of existence,” then follows the fate of two students in an academic setting where forbidden knowledge is the topic. Like Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” or Sladek’s “Masterson and the Clerks,” “The Stars Shine Without Me” discovers the nihilism lying just beneath the busywork of corporate life. In “Desert Places,” a loner-type fossil hunter must confront the love triangle that sent him into the wilderness. He learns about “the invisible interconnections between us all . . . a spiritual network.”

A kind of Ballardian derangement figures in “Blackbrain Dwarf,” as a lawyer named Derek succumbs to a particularly malignant Imp of the Perverse. The first of two stories co-authored with Mark McLaughlin, “Nightmares, Imported and Domestic” plays exuberantly with the old conundrum of man-dreaming-butterfly/�butterfly-dreaming man. Satan appears to a writer of “religious horror novels” in “The Devil and One Lump” and attempts to enlist him in the opposing camp.

A Swiftian streak of satire is mixed with body horror in “The God of Foulness.” A cult called the Sick Seekers worships diseases and the deity behind rot. Our journalist hero, at first skeptical, becomes a reluctant convert. Cardin has some metafictional fun with “Chimeras & Grotesqueries: An Unfinished Fragment of Daemonic Derangement.” It’s the supposed introduction to the writings of one Philip Lasine, plus a fragment thereof, a fellow whose work resembles Cardin’s:

. . . his bizarre, horrific, outlandish, and thoroughly transformative stories revolved largely around the fates of his protagonists, who, speaking in the first person, encountered things they could not explain—nightmarish things, awful eruptions of unearthly monstrousness in circumstance, event, person, and entity—and were invariably destroyed in the end. But they were also, somehow, transformed and preserved in a permanently shattered state from which they could meditate eternally on the impenetrable mystery of their own doom.

 “Prometheus Possessed” is pure SF, dealing with the dystopia found in a city of ninety million souls. “The New Pauline Corpus” attempts to answer the twin questions, “What has Christ to do with Cthulhu?” and “What has Jerusalem to do with R’lyeh?” And finally, Mark McLaughlin steps in to help with “A Cherished Place at the Center of His Plans,” the tale of mystical painter Erik Anthony and a patron who brings out the best—and worst—from his brush.

With flavors of both Brian Evenson and Jeffrey Ford, Cardin’s work adumbrates the ineffable unease and deracination that derives from realizing that humanity’s place in the Universe, far from being privileged, is more likely cursed.

Before leaving this landmark collection, I must praise the cover art by Michael Hutter, which brings to mind the wonderful work of Gervasio Gallardo.

*   *   *

Resonations from the Hive

A couple of years ago in these pages, I expressed my enjoyment of Bob Proehl’s debut novel, A Hundred Thousand Worlds. That book was less pure fantastika than an associational work concerned with the peculiarities of fandom. But with his second novel, The Nobody People (Del Rey, hardcover, $27.00, 496 pages, ISBN 978-1524798956), Proehl comes fully over into our unreal territory. His book is the latest in a long and illustrious genre lineage. Call this trope “supermen” or “mutants among us” or, as the Science Fiction Encyclopedia has it, the “pariah elite.” It goes back at least as far as Slan, Children of the Atom, and Kuttner’s Hogben stories, before evolving into Blish’s Jack of Eagles and Robinson’s The Power, then cresting with Marvel’s long and convoluted X-Men franchise and King’s Firestarter, and finally being carried forward from the past century into the twenty-first century with the long-running Wild Cards saga.

Proehl’s take on this theme is closest to the X-Men cycle. In fact, he confesses the inspiration in his end-of-book acknowledgements, with a shoutout especially to Chris Claremont. Proehl’s version of a mutant clan are likewise in hiding from a prejudiced world that has hints of their existence. There’s a secret academy for these powered-up teens, run by a Professor Xavier-figure named Kevin Bishop. The fledglings register on the psychic space known as the Hive when they first begin to burgeon, and are then recruited. And so on, as I’ll detail below.

Given that this novel hews so closely to a well-known and well-established mythos, what can we assert to be its special virtues and appeal?

Well, much as I love comics and graphic novels, a prose novel can do unique things they cannot. Of course, a prose novel can simply elaborate at length and in more detail a fresh plot that might consume many years’ worth of monthly floppies. This Proehl does, with numerous and exciting adventures and twists and turns that echo past mutant adventures, but also extend them. A prose novel privileges pure language over image, and Proehl triumphs here, with sentences both solid and flashy, emotional and propulsive. A novel can offer the closure that comicbook franchises, which must go on endlessly, cannot. And Proehl gives us that, with a story arc that moves from first nascent inklings of strangeness through larger unfolding events and conflict to a rewarding resolution, with characters left forever changed. And despite the ever-growing maturity of comic-book storytelling and its “grim and gritty” ways, the complex naturalism of a novel can provide more “lifelike” experiences, and here too Proehl succeeds, giving us a deeper picture of society and interpersonal relations than obtains in most picto-narratives.

In any case, all of this is hung on the lives of one particular family: Avi and Kay Hirsch, and their daughter Emmeline. Avi is a reporter, rather embittered and desperate, when he gets on the trail of some mysterious deaths apparently caused by a young man named Owen Curry. A vividly nasty figure, Curry is a sociopath gifted with the power of “nulling” things out of existence. As Avi digs into this story, he begins to unbury the fact that the world is riddled with mutants, the Resonants, all of whom have strange powers. Eventually he is contacted by their leader, Bishop, and brought into the center of the secrecy—mainly because daughter Emmeline is also a Resonant of extraordinary powers who must come under Bishop’s tutelage. This is all kept hidden from Kay, a lawyer, who, however, is beginning to suspect. This breach of marital fidelity is the final straw that leads to a sad divorce, a good example of the mimetic power of the book.

At the Bishop Academy, we encounter a host of nicely drawn “Rezzies,” many of them teens with the typical concerns of teens expressed in bantering dialogue. Chief among them is Fahima Deeb, adult and “resident genius,” who styles herself as James Bond’s Q. She will play a huge part in the events that follow, from public disclosure of the mutants’ existence, to Owen Curry’s rampages, to the ultimate solution to the whole problem of two species living side by side.

Ultimately, Proehl’s tale, however boldly and stylishly told, carries with it just a bit too much baggage from its antecedents to rank as a classic along with the works I cited at the top of this review. I eagerly await his third book, where he pioneers themes and topics disburdened of such large ancestors.

*   *   *

How Do You Like Them Apples?

I wonder if it’s mere coincidence that Jonathan Carroll wrote a magnificently touching and surreal book titled White Apples, and now Lisa Goldstein gifts us with a volume of equal heft and magnitude, comparable ambition and impact, called Ivory Apples (Tachyon Publications, trade paper, $15.95, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1616962982). This book, certainly among her top five, is rather a Carrollian outing for her, but redolent of her distinctive lilting voice and humanistic approach. Deliberate homage or not, Goldstein’s new novel is a work of high accomplishment along the same lines as White Apples, an “urban fantasy” novel in the classic, not commodified sense that might call to mind the work of Crowley and Wolfe, as well as that of Mr. Carroll.

Our tale is narrated by a young girl named Ivy Quinn—she’s eleven years old in 1999 when we begin, nineteen by book’s end—and so one might initially suspect the book of being YA-centric. But it’s not, no more so than Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye really are. Because the tale is being told from a future remove beyond the realtime events (a subtextual status that never hinders the immediacy of the action), the book shows a kind of hindsight maturity while still evoking the naïveté, innocence, and awe of the young Ivy.

Ivy and her three sisters—Semiramis, Beatriz, and Amaranth—live a wild kind of free-range childhood thanks to the benign neglect of their father, Philip, a widower. The big highlight of each year is their visit to their Great-aunt Maeve, a reclusive gal who lives in an attractively spooky house in the woods of Oregon. Maeve happens to be the author of the 1957 fantasy classic, Ivory Apples, her one and only book, which has, in 1999, accumulated a passionate, almost obsessive fandom. But Maeve chooses to remain a hidden hermit, for untold reasons. Early in the book, the first real bit of fantastika occurs, as Ivy, wandering in Maeve’s woods, encounters a grove filled with elfin sprites and is possessed by one, whom she later names Piper, a trickster elemental who literally cohabits inside Ivy’s body.

Such a blessing-curse would be enough for any adolescent. But then into the picture comes one Kate Burden. A sly and grasping woman with many ulterior motives, she inserts herself into the lives of Ivy and family like an evil Mary Poppins. Ivy comes to suspect that Ms. Burden is fixated on Ivory Apples and some secret contained in its pages. Then, through a shocking turn of events, Ms. Burden becomes the legal guardian of the girls, and we are into full nasty stepmother mode, as Kate’s desire to find Maeve at any cost becomes explicit.

What ensues next is an odyssey whose every spiral is unexpected yet perfectly right for the tale. There’s running away from home and time spent on the streets. There’s sorcerous entrapment and a private eye. There’s sisterly love and hate. The tug of duty versus art and freedom. Goldstein packs a host of vital and important themes into this book while never skimping on character development, fantastical oddness and beauty, mimetic clarity, nor gripping events. The book has quiet moments and frantic ones, comic and tearful ones, quotidian and cosmic ones. Goldstein never once sets her foot wrong.

Ivory Apples might be thought of as a hybrid of Gilliam’s The Fisher King, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, or some mashup of George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany, and Tim Powers. It should win all sorts of awards and achieve instant classic status. Unless, of course, the world proves rather too full of Ms. Burdens and woefully short of Ivy Quinns.

 

Copyright © 2020 Paul Di Filippo

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