Review: Wild Things, Prodigal Troll, Iron Tree, and According to Crow, by Sean Melican

Review: Wild Things, Prodigal Troll, Iron Tree, and According to Crow, by Sean Melican

Wild Things, Charles Coleman Finlay, Subterranean Press, October 2005, 1596060301
The Prodigal Troll, Charles Coleman Finlay, Pyr, June 2005, 1-59102-313-0
The Iron Tree, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Tor, April 2005, 0-765-31205-0
According to Crow, E. Sedia, Five Star, May 2005, 1-59414-308-0

First: Many thanks to Charlie Finlay for answering a number of questions about his work. While not all the answers he provided are below, they gave me a good sense of how he thinks about his work, and gave me cause to probe deeper into my thoughts on his stories.

I’m reading a book on the building of wooden boats. Not surprisingly, most of the people interviewed bemoan the loss of craftsmanship and durability of wooden boats. Each piece of wood in a wooden boat is not straight; it’s curved specifically for that boat. Even if the boat were to be duplicated, the same piece would be shaped and fitted slightly differently. But wooden boats are made to endure. They can, with proper care, last decades, even centuries. The people who build them put that much thought and effort into building them.

Charles Coleman Finlay’s stories remind me of such boats. There is a sense that each story is built, hammered into shape, any excess is trimmed, and the rest fitted to match a narrative blueprint. It seems each sentence is shaped to his will. He says this isn’t so; he says he writes like pretty much everyone else, feeling his way through, but every story feels so terribly structured. (In a good way.)

And like those wooden boats, there is a sense of durability in Mr. Finlay’s stories. When I went to see how many he’d published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction last year, I was surprised to see he was not the most frequent, or even second or third most, contributor. But unlike those other stories, which I’d mostly forgotten, Mr. Finlay’s stuck with me and became amplified over time, so that I felt as if every other issue had one of his stories. I suspect that Mr. Finlay’s stories will endure.

This is, I think, because Mr. Finlay is old-fashioned in the most positive sense. There’s neither substantial genre-bending, nor the sense that he’s hijacked genre for political purposes. It’s quite easy to label most of his stories as science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so forth. He does have important, extrapolative, moral stories–“Pervert” and “Her Life Sentence”–but he’s also quite good at good, old-fashioned entertainment.

Which explains his popularity. He is, in a sense, a throwback to the golden age, whether you consider that a time in the distant past, or David Hartwell’s definition.

But all this makes it sound as if Mr. Finlay’s stories are out of date when, in fact, they are nearly timeless because, while his work is categorical, he’s a very gifted writer whose sentences, imagery, symbolism, and (when he uses genre for such purposes) politics are very much the sensibilities of the new century.

Take, for example, the opening of “Wild Thing”:

“He was the sort of boy who always had a stick in his hand unless he chanced to have a stone.”

In one sentence, we have an image, a character, and some lovely poetry to boot.

Still my favorite story (and about as perfect a story as can be written), “Wild Thing” not only explains the origins of Percival’s traits, but treats us to a wholly different, and less romanticized, version of Arthur’s reign. The confrontation between the queen and Percival is heartbreaking.

“The Frontier Archipelago,” is an asteroid-mining story. You’ve read something like the first few paragraphs before. (Again, easy to label his work, and in a sense, easy to dismiss except:) My heart broke when Broadnax pressed his faceplate to McAfee’s. You haven’t read moments like this. At least, not often. And the last sentence of “The Frontier Archipelago” is a wonderful example of the kind of compassion that Mr. Finlay possesses in spades.

“Still Life with Action Figure” is the best title in the collection. There’s nothing genre about this story; it’s pure mainstream except it has genre sensibilities. The value of art versus comics, action figures, sex, girlfriends and fathers mingle in an extraordinary story of redemption. While I found the reconciliation a little too easy, this story forgoes overt magic for the sake of narrative magic.

“Pervert” is Mr. Finlay’s most political of stories, reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone stories. (Though he says he wrote it to generate a strong emotional reaction.) In this case, Mr. Finlay imagines a world in which heterosexuality is a perversion. I don’t find it terribly shocking, although it is excellent writing, largely because I lean far, far to the left, though I know that at least one reader actually tore the story out of his copy of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

“Lucy, in Her Splendor,” is a terrific story, exploring the consequences of unrestrained sexuality of a different kind than “Pervert” through the lens of vampirism.

“The Seal Hunter” is another story in which sexuality plays a key role. It begins on a terribly ominous note– an older, married man taking a much younger woman out in a shuttle for all the obvious reasons–but turns away from the obvious ending to explore other, more complex issues. Mr. Finlay writes about male sexual feelings with considerable candor and depth, from the types of physical contact that cause a sexual thrill, to the emotional conflicts brought about by such thrills when the woman is too young, too innocent. Broadnax is a good man in “The Frontier Archipelago,” but becomes someone deeper, more flawed, more human in “The Seal Hunter.”

“The Political Officer” is an excellent (again, old-fashioned) thriller based, as far as I can tell, on the structures of the Soviet Union. It feels claustrophobic, much like the Soviet submarines on which the ship is modeled, and Byzantine, like the politics of the Soviet Union. Such stories of historical extrapolation are where Mr. Finlay excels. “The Political Officer” is complex and exciting, difficult to read because of the volume of characters and layered politics, but handled with such authorial dexterity that the reader never feels completely at sea. (To mix metaphors, sort of.)

Likewise, “We Come Not to Praise Washington” is an alternate history in which Mr. Finlay’s breadth and depth of knowledge is evident, though never to the point of swamping the story in excruciating detail. The story is seen through the eyes of a distant spectator, Gabriel, but Gabriel’s interests (slavery and freedom) are too far removed from the immediate causes and effects of what he witnesses (Aaron Burr’s political machinations) for me to feel that the story quite worked. It was a finalist for the Sidewise award, and the textual density is substantial, each scene a shining example of character and loaded with inferences, that there is a great deal of pleasure in merely reading the story. This is, I’m afraid, a rather uncommon occurrence. And for history buffs, I’m told there are numerous references to tease out. (I’m terrible at those kinds of games.)

In his “Afterword”, Mr. Finlay says, “I wrote all of those early stories trying to learn some specific skill – pacing, setting, dialogue, something.” (Italics his.) Some of these stories feel that way, less as if there was strong emotional need to write them. But to his credit, even the lesser stories are worth reading.

“The Smackdown Outside Dedham” and “Fading Quayle, Dancing Quayle” are, at this point, the almost obligatory Lovecraft and zombie stories, respectively. The former is a fun pastiche of “The Colour out of Space”, though mocking poor white trash and fake wrestling seems too easy; the latter feels much too much like an assignment: Write a zombie story from the viewpoint of a zombie.

“The Factwhore Proposition” is a lightweight romance; “A Game of Chicken” is, Mr. Finlay admits, a bit rough, but still an amusing and amusingly disgusting extrapolation; “Footnotes” is an intriguing anti-story that puts a new spin on those old biological catastrophe stories.

“After the Gaud Chrysalis” is the sole Kuikin and Vertir story. The two are, well, after the chrysalis of a gaud which could substantially alter the political landscape, as well as cause a lot of people to get eaten. They convince Elizeh, now Sister Renn, to accompany them, since she’s traveled into the deep, dark jungle and lived to tell the tale. The story is sheer entertainment, but entertainment of the best kind, with comic moments (the scene in which Kuikin and Vertir try to buy a boat is fantastic) and harder, more human moments, such as Vertir’s response to Elizeh, now Sister Renn:

“‘My ranger knife would serve better,’ Renn said.

‘Sure, if you hadn’t lost it.'”

The kind of thing said in the heat of the moment, forgiven and forgotten nearly the instant it’s said. Mr. Finlay’s heroes are not above cruelty or weakness, and in those moments, his heroes are people we admire precisely because they are as petty as ourselves. (Ask yourself how many times you wanted to smack that all-knowing, never-wrong Gandalf upside the head.) The only problem I find in the story is the deus ex machina of the bee people, who, while mentioned numerous times before they arrive onstage, nevertheless feel as if they exist solely to save our heroes from their folly. But this flaw is minor, especially compared to the sacrifices of Sister Renn.

Last is a story available only in the limited edition: “Her Life Sentence.” In this world, Roe v. Wade has been countered with a Supreme Court case that finds that a miscarriage is a crime, as every mother should know how to take care of herself and her fetus properly. Negligent homicide. Cassie is a young woman who’s just suffered her third miscarriage (and suffer is the right word, for anyone who has ever had a miscarriage or witnessed one) and thus is a third-time offender. Rather than face the consequences, she goes on the lam, where she finds solace but then is raped. This is arguably one of the strongest rape scenes I’ve ever read, the entire thing taking only a paragraph, but what a paragraph. On the run again, she encounters some nice people who nevertheless are the enemy. (They just don’t know it, yet.) The ending is poignant, and intriguing, shifting to the future tense in an oddly affecting manner.

It is harder to accept the extrapolative circumstances in this story than in “Pervert”, since parthenogenesis is a commonly accepted trope, while “Her Life Sentence” demands that we accept a world in which miscarriage is, in some states, a capital crime. Then again, it doesn’t seem such a stretch when reading the paper with my morning coffee.

It is this reluctance to accept the possibility, I think, that lends the story its emotional core.

(More difficult to accept, but less of an issue, is a future in which cars can be set to autodrive, but in which it’s still possible, and relatively easy, to forge a new identity.)

———•———

In at least two interviews, Mr. Finlay says one of the seeds of his first novel is the fact that fantasy relies so heavily on the ‘lost heir’ plot device: the young man (rarely a woman) who is merely a peasant discovers that he (or she) is the last scion of the royal family, and because of this, he is the only one who can defeat whatever evil drives the plot engine; and of course this means that he possesses all the right qualities to be king: courage, modesty, compassion, mercy, justice. (Never, never is the lost heir seduced by the power.) But why such a common device, asks Mr. Finlay, when we live in a democracy?

The Prodigal Troll is Mr. Finlay’s answer. I’ve read comparisons to the Tarzan series, but I felt more of a kinship to The Jungle Book, at least the Disney version. (I’ve read it to my son umpteen times in the last few months.)

What you must understand is that the book is so structured. There’s very little extraneous material, though it feels like it at times. The first section is a common enough trope: survivors of a bloody coup take an infant away from those who would kill him, to find someplace safe to raise him, perhaps free of the knowledge of his royal heritage. But the plot takes an unusual twist. (If you’ve read the cover blurb or any of the novel sections to appear in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Black Gate you won’t be terribly surprised.)

The infant Claye is saved by trolls, a species which Mr. Finlay develops physically and socially with a precision and an economy of words. Claye is renamed Maggot. (Claye’s name is no accident. In a neat scene, a comparison is drawn between Claye and the First Man.) Trolls are extremely democratic. When two children are in danger, they vote whether to save them, then vote how to save them, then vote who should save them. Democracy becomes a paralyzing social structure.

You may remember that Disney’s version of The Jungle Book leaves off with Mowgli entering the man village, attracted by the sound of a girl’s singing. (I’ve no idea what the book is like.) The assumption is that since he is with his own kind, everything’s right in the end.

When Maggot leaves the trolls to find a mate, he discovers that he knows nothing of man- and woman-kind, that they are not like trolls at all. His efforts to impress a particular woman are wildly comical. He joins the Wyndan, an analogue of Native American tribes, and makes war on the (superficially) more traditional medieval version of people. The war scenes are necessarily long, but what is refreshing is that the reactions of Maggot and others to bloodshed are not heroic, but entirely human. There is as much cowardice, fear and repulsion as there is courage.

Mr. Finlay builds a different world than might be expected. There are three gods among the medieval peoples, and three is both good and bad. They’ll repeat a phrase, and say that they say it three times, but not actually do so, for to repeat a phrase three times is to draw the eyes of the jealous god. Further, there is a wonderful myth about Parmantha, which, unlike so many that simply copy the Greek pantheism, is more original. Likewise the myth of the First Man, which although it bears similarities to Adam, is clearly not the same myth with different names.

There are a few jaw-dropping coincidences with respect to Bran, a knight who at times is hardly your usual version of a knight, more concerned with appearance than anything else. With the help of his new friend Bran, Maggot enters the medieval society that, much to Mr. Finlay’s credit, is not quite what you’d expect. While men rule and fight, women hold the rights to land and so forth. Men only own what they can carry on a hunt or take to war. A man can become politically and economically powerful only if he becomes a eunuch. Curiously, no one seems to flinch at this idea. (I did.) The men we see perceive emasculation as an acceptable alternative to poverty and servitude. I loved this inversion, although I cringed, and the consequences that Mr. Finlay envisions.

But the best inversion of genre tropes is saved for the end of the book. It isn’t terribly surprising– there’s more than enough clues–but it’s logical, and ends the book well.

One last note: The ending is actually right at the beginning, so that five or six times I went back to reread the first three pages, and by the end, the placement of those pages makes an awful lot of sense, and neatly wraps the end of the book back to the beginning.

———•———

“Tread softly for you tread on my dreams,” said Yeats. An appropriate reminder for reviewers, but doubly appropriate for Cecilia Dart-Thornton’s The Iron Tree, the first book in the Crowthistle Chronicles, for Yeats was as enthralled with the ancient mystical creatures of Celtic lore as Ms. Dart-Thornton is.

The world of Tia is full of seelie and unseelie creatures, the chief difference among these immortal creatures being their intentions towards humans. (If this is familiar to readers of the Bitterbynde trilogy, as certain notes seem to suggest, my apologies; I’ve not read them.) It is has druids–some of whom are charlatans, but some of whom appear to have true magical power, carlins (a type of witch, notably unlike the druids in that there are no charlatans among them), and has at least one sorcerer as well as magical items, spells, impenetrable fortresses, mystical bloodlines, and other assorted markers of fantasy.

But this is also a romance, evident from the cover which is reminiscent of countless romance novels; and while the novel lacks the explicit scenes of those novels, it employs the same mechanisms of love and lust: impassioned and sometimes melodramatic speeches, longing glances, thudding or aching hearts, and the like.

In essence, Jarred is a desert dweller who, after a few scenes to establish his life and friendships, embarks on a quest to see the world with his companions. Ah! you say, the usual launching point for fantasy novels, lacking only the usual signs of an impending dark lord. (Well, except for one: a huge crack in the earth which closes as if it had never occurred, but in the first novel, this appears to be nothing more than a remarkable incident.) But the novel thankfully veers from this course, and instead Jarred and his friends encounter the marsh-folk, people of water rather than people of sand. Jarred falls in love with Lilith, discovers that he has a terrible secret and thus they cannot be together, only he finds a solution that may not be a solution after all but, naturally, has its roots in his mysterious parentage. To say more would ruin the thrill of discovery at the heart of the novel.

I have a difficult time immersing myself in worlds in which the hero and heroine are beautiful beyond words as well as compassionate, altruistic, and almost without flaw, a too-common phenomenon in such novels that seems to suggest that the facade is an accurate predictor of the quality of a man’s or woman’s soul. People who are deformed in some way are carlins, and really witches by another name. Royalty is extravagant and dilettante in its excesses, capricious and usually cruel in its governance. The common folk, naturally, are good-hearted, patient and nearly always a wise and loyal people except for the necessary-to-the-plot, lone antagonist.

The story is rather monochromatic, despite the numerous descriptors, as every place from the desert to the marsh to the royal city share more or less the same customs and even the same speech (said so explicitly at one point). I find it too difficult to imagine a world in which there are so many differing and quite isolated communities that nevertheless do not have racial, religious, ideological, or class boundaries.

I also found it somewhat frustrating the excessive detail which Ms. Dart-Thornton lavishes on her places without really capturing a unique perspective. Treading quite heavily on her dream, I’d argue that a single unusual detail would add to the magical feel of the novel. They feel overly familiar, these dirty, narrow streets with their squalid hovels, and the clean, wide streets of the main thoroughfares, the ornately decorated palaces, the marsh and fens with their profusion of trees and flowers. However, one detail, in which the red dust of the royal city dirties the palace walls, is, while certainly heavy on the symbolism, also inspired.

However, Ms. Dart Thornton’s website (http://www.dartthornton.com or http://members.optushome.com.au/neptune7/) tells us that she is an environmentalist, and her love of the natural world, while at times cloying, is also loving in its excess. She doesn’t write to pad her novel, but in the same way that China Mieville uses the fantastic to promote an ideology, so does Ms. Dart-Thornton, though hers is a more compassionate, more human, more humane, ideology.

Despite the above, I found myself at times deeply enmeshed in the characters, the action, even the descriptions, most notably the moments of extreme tension, when danger is imminent, or escape improbable. It is when things settle down to the pastoral that I felt the novel slowed the most, and I read quickly, impatient to get to the follow the thread of the plotline.

It should also be noted that the novel is told explicitly from the point of view of a narrator who hasn’t witnessed the events, but pieces them together from others accounts. This, I think, justifies to some extent the indulgent description, but the end, which is genuinely surprising and causes me to be interested in the next book, doesn’t seem to add very much to the overall structure. Would the book have suffered without this bookend? Probably not.

But still…

Beth Meacham (May 2005 LOCUS) says that readers of big fat fantasy trilogies read them to escape terribly dreary lives (which I suspect is true, since escapist novels and especially movies, no matter how awful, fare better financially than dramas); and if this is true, then Ms. Dart-Thornton’s book will serve them well. To be fair and tread softly, I don’t think Ms. Dart-Thornton’s intention is to challenge the concept of narrative or promote a daring ideology so much as it is to tell a gentle love story, in which she is quite successful, and share a universe of magic which is deliberately not terribly Tolkien-esque. (Thank God. I’d stopped reading fantasies for a long while when I came to realize how many were shallow imitations, little better than fan-fic, if I might be brutally honest.) Ms. Dart-Thornton knows her Celtic mythology, and uses it quite well. There are goblins, I should note, but in what I suspect is an homage to Tolkien, they are talked about only in song, never encountered in reality.

More importantly, the ending does leave me curious about the second book, which of necessity should feature an powerful emotional conflict between two major characters, as well as the certainty of a different narrative method.

———•———

E. Sedia’s According to Crow is a first novel, like Mr. Finlay’s, which attempts to tackle weighty issues through the use of fantasy, though there is nothing save the setting that would mark it as a fantasy novel. There’s no magic, no mythical beings made real, just a sharply divided world that might be more of an allegory than it at first appears.

Josiah is a young man who was conceived seventeen years prior, when his mother, Ruth, seduced the leader of an invasion force and subsequently killed him. The world is at peace for a moment, but not for long. Ruth is Siumi, a race of Caucasians. The Meran are a race of dark-skinned people, with some African characteristics, but not, it should be noted, portrayed at all as caricatures. Josiah grows up in Sium, but because of his skin color, and unlike Ms. Dart-Thornton’s handsome, popular protagonist, Josiah is an outcast.

Along comes the Archivist Crow and his handler Mereille. The Archivists are, essentially, living encyclopedias, since books are too fragile. This leads to my first problem with the novel, which argues that memory is more secure than the written word, but events in the book counter this argument rather definitively. The Archivists have handlers to tend to such everyday needs as food and housing, but these are not the nasty bodyguards they really need.

Enter Caleb, a Meran, who is, according to the novel, a literal living legend. He is almost a priest, almost a warrior, and maintains a mission on the river between Sium and Mer, where he tends the wounded of either race without bias. Josiah, Caleb, Crow, and Mereille find themselves on the run in short order, sometimes separating, sometimes joining, but always aware that war is about to erupt. The Archivists are in danger too, which may precipitate the war. Josiah spends a substantial portion of the novel crossing into Mer and getting to know his rather extended family. The Mer are vaguely reminiscent of both Spartans and Assyrians as their society revolves almost entirely around military duty, but to Ms. Sedia’s credit, they are not the stereotype of a bloodthirsty race, but have substantial and important reasons for being the way they are. They are, in fact, almost too idyllic in other respects, much like most of The Iron Tree, but there are deep differences between the two communities.

The race issue is the most important part of the novel. With few exceptions–Samuel R. Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin and a few others– race has never really been a central issue in speculative fiction. Ms. Sedia makes it an issue, but sometimes lets it become less critical than it might be. For example, there are no substantive epithets that the Sium use for the Meran, yet the Meran are a black-skinned people who regularly attack and conquer parts of Sium. (The Sium also tend to come off as rather shallow in comparison to the Mer, though to be fair, the novel spends a substantially greater portion discovering the society of the Mer.) Nor do the Mer make an issue of Josiah’s skin color, since he’s a half-blood, when he comes into the family.

Along the way, Josiah meets and begins to fall in love with the young and (of course) pretty Thuraya, a priestess and true seer. This blossoming relationship is a lovely counterpoint to the triangle between Caleb, Mereille, and Ruth. The most affecting scene is the ultimate fate of Thuraya, which is both ironic and visceral, and a powerful, emotional experience that, for me at least, inverted a number of expectations.

Notably, there is absolutely no magic. There are gods, but there is as much evidence that they affect the world as the gods do ours. The real strength of the novel is the development of the sometimes surprising relationships, and the conflicts that such relationships engender.

There are a few problems, such as the sudden appearance of Josiah’s extreme skill with a bow; an antagonistic relationship during Josiah’s training that ends too abruptly; an intimation that the traitor among the Archivists is not who everyone thinks it is, but which is never resolved. However, these problems might constitute first novel unevenness, and I hope to see more of Ms. Sedia’s work in the future.



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