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On Books

by Paul Di Filippo


Youth Writes Unknowingly to Posterity

Two of our most revered and talented writers have both recently proclaimed in more or less public forums that they may very well have delivered their final novels. Pleading advancing years and diminished capacity for—and interest in—the marathon exertions of novel writing, both Samuel Delany and John Crowley are trying to warn their legions of readers that good things do not last forever. And so Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and Crowley’s Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr might eventually come to occupy a special place in the canon of each author: a capstone and criterion by which to judge the full arc of each career.

But I maintain hope that each admired writer might yet produce more work—“Never say never” is a good life motto—and in one sense Delany has just done so. Letters from Amherst: Five Narrative Letters (Wesleyan University Press, paperback, $17.95, 160 pages, ISBN 978-0819578518) consists of writing Delany did from 1989 to 1991 (when he would have been forty-seven to forty-nine years old, as opposed to his current age of seventy-seven or thereabouts), and so it’s obviously not fresh output. But it’s new to nearly everyone who is not Chip or his correspondents, and so we cherish its arrival. These articulate, revelatory missives will appeal to lovers of Delany’s fiction, memoirs, and criticism alike.

The three people on the receiving end of these letters (four if you count Delany’s daughter, Iva, who shows up in an epistolary appendix) are not famous and are not fellow SF writers. They are Robert Brayard, a library sciences professional; Kathleen Spencer, an English professor; and Erin McGraw, a fiction writer. But the key qualification they possess is that they are intimate enough with Delany’s life that he can discuss anything with them. And so we as eavesdroppers get news of quotidian events in Delany’s day-to-day rounds; his observations on political and cultural matters of the moment; doings in his literary career; musings on his personal past and the past of our genre; the tale of how he met his new and still-current partner, Dennis Rickett; and so much more.

The main organizing feature of these letters, reflected in the book’s title, is that they issue from the era when Delany was teaching college in Amherst, Massachusetts, commuting back and forth from Manhattan. Consequently he has a fair amount to say about academia as he observed it, and he says it candidly and boldly. There’s plenty of wry material about stultifying bureaucracies, the parochialism of a small university town, and some less-than-stellar students. But the reportage is not all negative, for there was much to engage and reward Delany’s attention and skills in such a setting, and many of his students were exemplary.

Of keen interest to the readers of this column, of course, will be Delany’s anecdotes about the SF field. As he recounts Judy Merril telling him about the day Fred Pohl and Walter Miller wrestled on the floor for control of a pistol, the long lineage of our gonzo genre is vividly summoned into being. We also get meals with David Hartwell and Gordon van Gelder, as well as publishing minutiae of the day.

Delany’s family, of course, has come to be well known, through his own writings and those of his aunts, the Delany Sisters. As we visit with his cousins for a funeral and reunion, a touching and fascinating portrait of that Harlem dynasty emerges.

Delany’s aperçus on art carry the full weight of his intellect on display in his more formal writings: “One of the things that an art work of that [very long] length does . . . is start the audience off in a state of non-expectation. One knows that it is going to go on all-but-forever, so one relaxes oneself and does not even look for moments suggesting closure for the first day or two or three of the experience.” And the fairytale of his slowly blossoming romantic involvement with Dennis Rickett—also chronicled in the graphic novel Bread & Wine—is a whole saga.

I need hardly mention that the level of prose in these letters is often fully equivalent to the polished language of the novels. Nobody captures the heft of reality like Delany. “In the last hour, the light through the bus windows had more and more yellow and red in it, bronzing both the green wall of trees outside the city and the brick and dirt urban confusion within.”

This volume carries a bracing melancholy about it, both personal and cultural. It’s a record of vanished days and vanished people from Delany’s own life, but moreover it implicitly demonstrates what has been lost with the death of correspondence on paper in the internet age. You can honor the memory of this tradition and learn more of Delany’s biography by savoring his fine prose.

*   *   *

When a Man is Tired of London, He’s Tired of Strife

I first reviewed Simon Ings in these very pages some twenty-three years ago. Back then, I regarded him as a brilliant newcomer, part of the second generation of cyberpunk. Today he’s more of an accomplished master of all modes, along the lines of Christopher Priest. Funny, the changes a couple of decades of hard work and accomplishment will bring!

Ings’s newest is The Smoke (Titan Books, trade paper, $14.95, 320 pages, ISBN 978-1785659225), and it’s a winningly weird hybrid of alternate history and posthumanism. And it’s a love story combined with armageddon as well. All conveyed with subtlety, irony, empathy, and rueful satire.

Maybe we should look at the uchronian aspects first.

It’s roughly the 1960s on this timeline. Two major things have detoured history. First, the great Yellowstone Eruption—a famous hypothetical disaster that still has not happened today—did happen, wiping out North America and leaving the world empty of the USA and all its impacts.  Second, a genius scientist created something that sent technology down strange paths.

The “BP” in BP therapy stands for biophotonics. The bio-photonic ray is a cytological phenomenon discovered by the embryologist Alexander Gurwitsch. For that reason. it’s often called the “Gurwitsch ray” or G-ray.

Gurwitsch, a Munich graduate and a Russian Jew, was born towards the end of 1874, the year of the Yellowstone Eruption. So far as biographers can ascertain, young Gurwitsch was the only member of his family to survive the global ten-year winter which followed North America’s fiery end. And thanks to the quick and generous actions of the family’s lawyer, he thrived.

Although this ray has several properties, the most consequential effects are upon the human genome. One mass application of the ray during WWI produced the “chickies,” a kind of trickster goblin/brownie species of humanity with strange seductive powers. Ostracized and hunted down, they now live in the obscure corners of the world, and stay hidden due to various telepathic powers.

The second use of the ray created an ubermensch species of mankind, the Bundists. These glamorous and ultraintelligent types have established colonies in major cities—including London, famously dubbed “the Smoke”—and transformed their neighborhoods into alien enclaves. They have also lofted machines to the surface of the Moon, to begin a colony.

Our hero is Stu Lanyon, a young architect. His parents are Bob—a simple factory worker—and Betty, estranged from the family and living in London with her sister, Stella. His older brother, Jim, is an astronaut who will soon ride the nuclear-powered spaceship HMS Victory into orbit, mainly to prove that baseline humans can do big things too.

Stu is just getting his career going in London when fate brings him together with Fel Chernoy, a Bundist. The fey and alluring woman is the daughter of Georgy Chernoy, one of the most important of the supermen. And Georgy has started his own love affair with Aunt Stella, a famous actress.

And there you have the basic ingredients of the plot. The various romances among humans and posthumans intermix with the rivalries between species. When you add in the machinations of a certain chickie that Stu encountered as a child, you get something like Peyton Place as written by, oh, J.G. Ballard.

I heard her footsteps on the gravel path before I saw her, approaching from out of the darkness. Her shoes were dangling from one hand and she was walking slowly, barefoot, over the stones. The weakness of the light, and the slowness of her walk, suggested some marine space, and it startled me when she looked up, right at me, and stopped: a first contact between separate worlds. I raised my hand in uncertain greeting. She turned to the left, along a narrow path between low bushes of lavender. As she brushed by them, their scent rose into the air. Just at the edge of vision, where the darkness prepared to swallow her again, she glanced back at me.

Ings builds his world with a delicate yet strong touch, alternating lyricism and brutalism. A beguiling blend of estrangement and familiarity, his continuum is unforgettable, and the sadness of poor star-crossed Stu is tender and palpable. Neither is the book without its dark humor—you will certainly smile at the campy nature of Stella’s sci-fi TV show, DARE.

Like Matthew De Abaitua and Dave Hutchinson, Ings has brought us a Eurocentric vision of a world rendered exotic by both oddball science and the darker impulses of the human heart.

*   *   *

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Baomind

Elizabeth Bear always delivers the goods, no matter what type of fiction she chooses to write. Since her short-story debut in 2000, she’s turned out expert fantasies, some of which even sidle up to horror, and thrilling SF in many subgenres. With her latest, Ancestral Night (Saga Press, hardcover, $25.99, 512 pages, ISBN 978-1534402980), she’s working in the postmodern space opera territory fruitfully plowed by a score or more talented writers nowadays—Yoon Ha Lee, Michael Cobley, Peter Hamilton—but she still manages to stake out new ground and make it her own.

Several centuries in the future, the galaxy is mainly regulated and controlled by a polity dubbed the Synarche, a coalition of “syster” species, one of which is us, humans. (Of course, the human population itself is endlessly splintered into different cultures.) Their only rival is the outlaw-pirate confederation known as Freeporters. While the Synarche believes in grooming and tailoring sapient mentalities into smoothly functioning rationality, so as to avoid wars and other conflicts and inequalities, the Freeporters go in for a primitive anarchical individualism.

Our protagonist, who narrates her adventures in a charming idiom full of snark, sass, self-doubt and openness to change and betterment, is one Haimey Dz. Along with her human partner, Connla Kuruscz, and the AI that runs their ship, Singer, they form a salvage operation, trawling the spaceways for derelicts and other goodies. They don’t get rich, but they have their freedom.

It should be mentioned at the outset that Haimey is an oddball, and something of a fragile construct. Raised in a cultish setup, she had the misfortune to get involved as a young adult with a famous terrorist. Arrested for her unwitting complicity, she had her mind reconstructed, and then was set free. Consequently, even years later, she is always second-guessing herself and reliant on artificial implants for emotional regulation. This tale will be in large part an account of her maturation, liberation, and access to greater wisdom about herself and the world.

On their latest mission the crew discover a Koregoi wreck, a rarity and a big haul. The Koregoi were the enigmatic forerunner species to the present galactic setup, now extinct. But in investigating the wreck—which has the hitherto-undiscovered valuable tech of gravity control—Haimey is: 1) infected by a Koregoi “parasite;” 2) alerted to the fact that human pirates are allied with the Jothari race to illegally harvest the giant space-going seahorses called the Ativihika; and 3) discovers that one badass pirate, Zanya Farweather, is out for the skins of Haimey & Co. for a secret they now possess.

From this propulsive start, Haimey and her pals go on to unearth another enormous and fully functional Koregoi ship, on which Haimey and Farweather will be stranded in a kind of The Most Dangerous Game scenario—engineer against mercenary—that eventually introduces them to yet another Koregoi artifact, the Baomind. Will our misfit heroine survive all this with skin and mind intact?

Bear’s future resonates with the work of many predecessors, from Iain Banks to C.J. Cherryh (both of whom get a shoutout in her afterword). But her deft blending of story components—a freshly conceived FTL drive; engaging posthuman philosophies and prosthetics; and challenging new modes of civic and social interaction, not to mention zero-gee cats—render her future unique. She is, of course, expert at presenting action sequences—consider the section where Haimey has to chase after Farweather on the outer hull of the Koregoi ship, for one—and can craft scintillating dialogue as well. The novel breaks apart into several discrete sections that segue nicely into each other. I’m not sure if I myself would have devoted one hundred and fifty pages, almost a third of the book, to the scenario where it’s just Farweather and Haimey alone in the runaway Koregoi ship, but Bear manages to justify that indulgence in the end. (One little oddball tidbit: this is the second book in a short span to feature, synchronistically, a female space-salvage worker who gets an infection that delivers glowing skin. The other is Alastair Reynolds’s Revenger series.)

With this volume being only the kickoff to a series, it will be intriguing to learn into what strange venues of spacetime and dreamtime our cast will descend.


The Full Morrell

David Morrell will always be identified among the shallowly non-hip solely as “the guy who created Rambo.” But his large and distinguished CV proves that he has many more arrows in his quiver than that single distinction. And the new story collection from his pen, only his third—Before I Wake (Subterranean, hardcover, $40.00, 376 pages, ISBN 978-1596069121)—illustrates his tremendous range, with fourteen gems, reflective and exciting, scary and contemplative.

“Time Was” gives us the tale of a hapless fellow who falls through a crack in the universe and becomes stripped of all he loves. Besides limning that surreal condition with piercing power, Morrell also delivers some commentary on the unwillingness of society to think outside the box.

Any fan of J. D. Salinger will appreciate “The Architecture of Snow.” Here Morrell develops a fictional analogue of Salinger and then sends a desperate book editor into the writer’s domain, there to learn about what really counts in life. It’s hard to convey zen wisdom via a character without making them sound impossibly holy, but Morrell succeeds.

As I’ve said before, this is the new Golden Age for ghost stories, and “The Companions” ranks up there with some other contemporary classics, as it shows us a pair of ghosts whose duties, surprisingly, are not those of haunts but caretakers.

No “overworked” subject matter is ever truly barren, if an expert revivifies it, and Morrell extends his rejunvenating touch to the matter of the French Foreign Legion in “My Name Is Legion.” The tale uses a historical incident to examine matters of kill-or-be-killed morality.

The first of several spy/thriller episodes, “The Interrogator” is a scary peek into the world of terrorism and the people who combat it—either with brute force or with subtlety, when their superiors allow.

Perhaps the slightest tale in the volume, but still fun, “The Granite Kitchen” allows the first-person narrator—a seemingly innocent housewife—to betray her sins with a pattern of seemingly innocent anecdotes.

Arthur Conan Doyle stars in “The Spiritualist,” wherein the master author meets his most famous creation, who serves more as psychologist than detective.

Brief but evocative, “Vastation” concerns a biographer of Henry James who manages to become metatextual after imbibing too much of the Master.

The next three stories are a suite about Cavanaugh, a for-hire security expert who styles himself not a “bodyguard” but a “protector.” Along with his wife Jamie, who shares his profession, he deals with a famous writer who has a stalker (“Blue Murder”); an industrialist who happens to be beset by frequent inconvenient explosions in his vicinity (“The Controller”); and a rando psychopath who tries to match up his sadism with a victim’s masochism (“The Attitude Adjuster”). This last one is the most complex, offering multiple viewpoints and a really tricky solution to the crimes.

A global network of secret safehouses for spies of all stripes provides the underpinnings of “The Abelard Sanction.” Can a husband and wife on the side of good take down an evil killer without violating the rules of the game? Certainly, if their deadly ingenuity—in a twist I never saw coming—is given free play.

Having featured Thomas De Quincey in a series of mystery novels, Morrell now delves into the foundations of De Quincey’s psyche in “The Opium-Eater,” and we learn of the trauma that precipitated his addiction.

Finally, with “They,” Morrell pulls off a show-stopper. He winkles out the secret subtext to be found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books and concocts a horror story out of her motifs. It’s naturalistic, not supernatural, and respectful of the original while delivering pure terror.

Morrell adapts his style and prose to each type of fiction he’s writing, with more emotional affect in such tales as “Time Was” and “The Architecture of Snow,” and more stark noirish vibes in the thriller-style pieces. He drops into the flow of each narrative swiftly, yet always manages to bring the reader instantly up to speed on the backstory. And his endings are unanimously satisfying. In short, he is the consummate professional who has not lost sight of the things he loved in fiction as a young reader, and he brings all his adult experience and wisdom to bear when seeking to recapitulate those frissons for us.

*   *   *

Multiple Lives on the Volcano’s Rim

If you can imagine one of Kate Wilhelm’s beautiful, sensitive, eerie novels from her 1970s early peak period combined with the postmodern stylings and affect of Paul Auster’s books, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the achievements of Kate Hope Day’s If, Then (Random House, hardcover, $26.00, 272 pages, ISBN 978-0525511229). A superlative debut, the book paints a small circle of people in deep, brilliant colors, and then whirls the portraits on one of those vintage spin-art toys to create a hallucinatory mélange.

Our venue, furnished in palpable verisimilitude, is Clearing, Oregon. The salient feature of the place is that it sits astride what is presumed to be an extinct volcano. Otherwise, it’s a well-off pleasant bedroom community with a few valuable institutions—hospital, schools—and a nearby university.

Given Day’s smart choice for multiple-viewpoint narration, it’s hard to assign centrality to any protagonist. But there’s a slight weighting of importance to Ginny and Mark and their son Noah. Ginny’s a surgeon, dedicated to her work to an obsessive degree. Consequently, she’s inadvertently slighting her family and drifting away. Mark is an environmental researcher, and his newest project—how the behaviors of wildlife can predict earthquakes and other catastrophes—has led him to fear that the “dormant” volcano under their town is about to blow.

Deftly interconnected with this family by threads of proximity and social inter-dealings are several others. Cass, a grad student in philosophy who is also a new mother to baby Leah. Cass’s mentor at school, Dr. Kells, who is also a patient of Ginny’s. And lastly, Samara Mehta, young realtor, whose mother died in the care of Ginny. Day weaves the emotional and quotidian lives of these people into a commonplace, but beautiful, tapestry of aspirations and misunderstandings. On this level alone, the book sustains our interest.

But here’s the essential and well-exploited stefnal part. All of these people start to experience vivid visions of their alternate lives. Ginny sees herself separated from Mark and married to a beautiful coworker, nurse Edith. Mark sees an avatar of himself as a kind of grungy postapocalyptic survivor. Samara gets episodes involving her dead mother. And Cass experiences herself still pregnant, but giving birth to a boy. Could this all revolve around Dr. Kells and his book, Counterfactuals, with its meta-philosophical Theory of Everything?

Day manages to juggle the different strands of history with total storytelling deftness, using the alternity avatars like a hall of mirrors to refract and reflect the personalities of her cast. She conveys a real sense of the multiverse, where every continuum bears an equal weight of reality. And when the climax comes, it shakes everything down to a surprising yet fated configuration, rather like Heinlein’s tesseract house collapsing from instability to stability.

Deploying Gene Wolfe’s patented subtleties of plotting with Lucius Shepard’s sense of domestic tragedies as symbols of larger forces, Kate Hope Day’s accomplished debut makes the reader hope for many more books from any of her many selves.

*   *   *

My Ghosts in the Bush of Life

Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve been in a rut until you are confronted with something totally new. In the case of encountering Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Riverhead Books, hardcover, $30.00, 640 pages, ISBN 978-0735220171), I think many lovers of epic fantasy will come to an astonished dead halt, say, “Wow!” or “Whoa!” or some combination thereof, and then realize how many of the tropes and narrative strategies of their favorite genre have become a tad stale. With its idiosyncratic and unpredictable Afrocentric approach, James’s novel not only kicks over the creaky superstructure of the genre, but digs new foundations as well. It’s an incantatory, comic-grimdark, lateral-thinking, quest-revenge thriller.

We are in a realm called the North Lands, hosting several different kingdoms or city-states. Our hero is a man named only Tracker. We encounter him first, paradoxically, at the end of his tale, as he is being interrogated by someone he dubs the “inquisitor.” At first the reader is in the dark, as Tracker recounts peoples, places, and things we know not. His voice is plaintive, defiant, melancholy, boastful, hurt, and proud, all at once. The perfect Herculean tone for what amounts to an Argonauts-style adventure with comrades and enemies galore.

We next plunge into what actually constitutes a book-length flashback, ultimately accounting for how Tracker ended up where he is. (The narrative will reemerge into realtime events close to the end of the book.) We learn of Tracker’s boyhood as an orphan, when he must fend for himself in the village of Ku. He comes under the protection of a witch, gaining a certain kind of invulnerability. He hones his power of being able to track down any subject by smell, no matter how distant or old the trail of scent. And he becomes frenemies with the Leopard, a fabled were-beast warrior.

The next jump finds Tracker as an adult, living in the city of Malakal. (This novel is jam-packed with many, many fascinating incidents, and I am abridging drastically.) Somehow he has lost an eye—we discover how and why many pages later—and it’s been replaced with a loaner eye from a witch-supplied wolf (with the codicil that the eye will be reclaimed when Tracker nears the end of his days). Tracker is basically idling along in his existence, with no goals. But then two things happen: Leopard reappears in his life, and Tracker is tasked by a rich slaver with finding a missing boy. The boy’s importance is not immediately made known, and in fact the lad, not seen till near the end, becomes kind of a mere MacGuffin for many fabulous adventures.

Soon Tracker, Leopard, and a few other partners are crisscrossing this magical realm, encountering multifarious human and supernatural opposition, as well as several odd cultures. People come and go in Tracker’s orbit, and James is not shy about introducing new important characters deep into the story, such as a fellow named Mossi. Finally, Tracker reaches his prize—but victory turns to ashes.

In outline, the tale sounds similar to many quest narratives. But it’s the outré furniture of the story, the exceptional cultural attitudes of the characters, and the uncanny telling that makes it so radically different.

The creatures that James conjures up are either unique or eerily different from their traditional counterparts. Here’s his version of a troll.

I pulled the spear out of the last one and rolled him over with my foot. Horns large, curved, and pointed to a sharp tip like a rhinoceros’s sprouted all over his head and neck, with smaller horns on his shoulders. They pointed in all directions, these horns, like a beggar with locks thickened by dirt. Horns wide as a child’s head and long as a tusk, horns short and stumpy, horns like a hair, gray and white like his skin. Both brows grew into horns and his eyes had no pupils. Nose wide and flat with hair sticking out of the nostrils like bush. Thick lips as wide as the face and teeth like a dog’s. Scars all over his chest, maybe for all his kills. A belt holding up a loincloth on which hung child skulls.

“What kind of devil is this?” I asked.

Bibi crouched and turned its head. “Zogbanu. Trolls from the Blood Swamp. I saw many during the war. Your last King even used some as berserkers. Each one worse than the one before.”

The human personages he conjures into life operate under different mores and ethos than your typical Western heroes or civilians. If you subscribe to the current theory that our “victim culture” was once an “honor culture,” then these folks live in the latter.  Status is determined by vanquishing enemies nobly, dissing their corpses and boasting of your own prowess. Even between friends the taunts fly fast and furious. Here’s Tracker addressing Leopard: “Leave? You can’t even stand. Change form and a half-blind bowman could kill you.” If you open this book to a random page and jab your finger down haphazardly, chances are you’ll stab some such strutting, sass-mouthed dialogue.

Lastly, James’s word-drunk, dialect-rich prose provides a rollicking vehicle for the story.

We stood and looked at the forest. The Darklands was something mothers told children; a bush of ghosts and monsters, both lie and truth.  A day stood between us and Mitu. To go around the Darklands took three or four days and had its own dangers. The forest had something I could never describe, not to them about to go in. Woodpeckers tapped out a beat, telling birds far away that we approach. One tree pushed past the others as if to catch sun. It looked surrounded. Fewer leaves than other trees, exposing branches spread out wide like a fan, though the trunk was thin. The Darklands was already infecting me.

James’s griot powers remind me of an unlikely but, I believe accurate parallel volume for comparison: A.A. Attanasio’s Radix. Both novels are language-besotted works of cognitive estrangement that establish bold new visions at right angles to consensus fiction. Different hemispheres, allied voices, stimulating fun.


1001 Andalusian Nights

With a disarming and dexterous simplicity that conceals a subtler craft, G. Willow Wilson delivers to us a Moorish fable in The Bird King (Grove Press, hardcover, $26.00, 440 pages, ISBN 978-0802129031). It’s a stirring historical adventure laced with real magic that ultimately proves to be an examination of utopian urges and the heart’s desires.

The year is 1491, an evocative and symbolic date in the annals of exploration, given the Columbian fame of the successor year 1492. Our venue is the Alhambra, that legendary palace in Andalusia. Currently the palace is still inhabited by Sultan Abu Abdullah and his court. But it’s the last toehold of Islam in Spain, for Isabella and Ferdinand have led their reconquest of the territory right up to the besieged door of the fortress. Life in the wartime redoubt continues with all the formality and rituals of before, but it’s a sham, and one gust will blow the whole façade apart.

Resident here are our two main characters, “imaginary” ones among the historical figures. Fatima is a concubine, the favored of the harem. Incredibly gorgeous, she is capricious, vain, flighty, and superficial. And yet, at her core is some odd untapped element of feyness, destiny, and power. Her best friend is the royal mapmaker, Hassan. Young and handsome and gay, Hassan has magical talents: with a scribbled drawing he can conjure up portals from one place to another, and leading to strange places that maybe shouldn’t exist. As two misfits, he and Fatima love each other along every human dimension except the carnal. Their favorite shared delight is reading the epic tale of The Conference of Birds, which recounts the adventures of the Bird King on his mysterious island of Qaf.

One day a delegation arrives from the Christian conquerors. They are here to bargain for the peaceful surrender of the Moslems. But they also feature representatives of the Inquisition—namely a brutally seductive woman named Luz—and they want Hassan delivered to them as an unholy thing for punishment.

Learning of this, Fatima panics, then leaps into action to rescue her beloved, at mortal risk to herself. Using Hassan’s magic, they flee impulsively and ill-prepared, aided by Vikram, a friendly jinn who chooses to reveal himself at this moment of crisis. What ensues is, at first, a harrowing ordeal across the natural landscape of Spain, with moments of elation and despair, dangers to body and soul. Supernatural actions play a not-insignificant part, but it’s mostly a vividly mimetic chase narrative. Until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when Hassan’s magic opens up a path to the island of Qaf, where Fatima will finally confront the King of Birds.

As I mentioned at the outset, Wilson’s style is never ornate or flowery, but possesses gravitas and a kind of stark poetry. Her evocation of the era and its physical vicissitudes is rich and tangible. Her depiction of the ancillary characters is deep, from the Sultan’s mother, Aisha, to Inquisitor Luz, to the monk Gwennec who becomes pals with Fatima and Hassan after being kidnapped by them. But her real coup comes in the slow unfolding of Fatima’s life, her progression from the vulnerable, unself-aware creature of the harem to her majestic maturation. It’s a masterfully illustrated journey.

While there are some topical subtexts—at one point Fatima opines of the Christians, “Maybe they don’t hate us for our freedoms . . . . Maybe they hate us because we’ve been harrying their lands for decades.”—the truest theme of the book is a timeless concern with freedom, refuge, and the dream of some impossible Land of Cockaigne, beyond all civil strife. In this regard, Wilson’s book is cousin to Jo Walton’s recent Thessaly trilogy. But it’s more numinous, and I propose that one closer ancestor is the strange Robert Aickman tale, “The Wine-Dark Sea,” in which a castaway finds himself on an enigmatic Greek island ruled over by three goddesses. Wilson’s artistic heart is nicely suspended halfway between the fields we know and the realms that lie beyond.


Copyright © 2019 Paul Di Filippo

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