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Ferney
James Long
Bantam Books, 339 pages

Ferney
James Long
James Long is the author of 4 acclaimed thrillers in England, including his latest Sixth Column and Game Ten. He is a former BBC correspondent currently living in England. Ferney is his first title to see publication in the United States.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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Ferney is a unabashedly romantic novel, but before all you male readers tear off to a review of the latest Starship Troopers clone, consider Mike's problem. He has a pretty new wife, Gally, whose mental state is fragile due to a childhood trauma. She then meets a rural octogenarian, Ferney, with whom she claims she's had a passionate 1300-year romance and whom she is destined to love through future incarnations. Mike's an understanding guy, and the old man has one foot in the grave, but he has just a bit of trouble with the whole concept. If this still doesn't turn your crank, well... there are episodes of graphic violence, torture, and murder.

Ok, now, for you ladies out there: this isn't your typical Harlequin Romance, and don't worry, most of the time the violence only brings the lovers closer together. This is the story of two passionate souls attuned to one another, with a true love which transcends even death. In some incarnations they may be separated geographically, or, as in the current incarnation, by age, but the fact that they maintain memories of past incarnations allows them to search each other out, maintaining the link of love forged in brutal death at the foot of an ancient standing stone some 1300 years before.

Ferney is a book with many strengths. The first strength is of course the passionate love that transcends time. This is a love so deep that it breaks conventions; it is one that doesn't become a convenient habit after a few years. I had a great-aunt who had this sort of passion, lived with and loved a man for close to 40 years against all the conventions of the society of her time and largely ostracized by her family. When my fiancee and I visited the octogenarian couple many years ago, one could still see that indefinable glow of the active love they still maintained for each other. This is the sort of "one in a million" love that exists between Gally and Ferney. However, while a deeply romantic story, it isn't marred with the saccharine sentimentality common to this sort of literature.

A second strength is the realism in the portrayal of the characters. Just because Ferney and Gally have an extraordinary ability to reincarnate, they don't come off as some sort of dangerous Slan-like supermen, dooming standard humanity to a quick disappearance. They are very much humans placed in a difficult position, one where they cannot always simply follow convention, where they often just want to be together and avoid all the political or societal turmoil around them. They are prey, particularly in their early incarnations, to the dangers of war, famine and disease, just like everyone else. In some cases they must consider or actually break some of society's strongest taboos if they are to remain together, and at times they must live with the question of whether the ends justify the means.

Besides Long's rich, evocative prose, the culmination of Ferney's current incarnation and Gally's associated moral dilemma draws one right through the last paragraphs. There are numerous sub-plots that add depth to the characters and storyline. Mike, Gally's "temporary" husband-lover, is a well-balanced character who gets angry and walks out on Gally at one time, yet actually suggests bringing the dying Ferney into their home at another time -- a basically good guy stuck in a situation that leaves him largely powerless.

A third strength is in the historical elements woven into Gally's flashbacks as she begins to remember events from her prior lives. These range from her first meeting with Ferney in pre-Arthurian times to her murder at the hands of a brutal man in post-WWII England. It is the similar span of years from ancient Egypt to colonial Africa that made the story of Kallikrates and Ayesha's undying romance in H. Rider Haggard's She books (1887-1922) so powerful. Ironically, Gally's husband is a historian and academic who has a great deal of trouble dealing with Ferney's interpretations of history, always assuming that Ferney's opinions are derived from some obscure bibliographic source, rather than admitting that a layman may be either more knowledgeable than he (something virtually impossible for an academic) or crazier still, that Ferney actually has first-hand experience of the periods he discusses.

Another strength is the portrayal of the beauty and mystery of the English countryside, something that has never really been translated into an American context. Perhaps the fact that the British countryside, compared to that of North America, has had so much longer a history of civilization (native Americans excepted), and literature surrounding it, gives the rural vistas we see in British productions like All Creatures Great and Small and the like, an aura of permanence and history. In Ferney we are presented with a land that is dotted with ruins, ancient mounds and standing stones, all within walking distance of Glastonbury. Ferney and Gally's lives are intimately tied to this land as they have lived through many of the events that have shaped it.

So if you are in love, remember being in love, or just need a book to placate that great lady friend you drove away by being a typically bone-headed male, this is one for you. Sometimes it is good to hear that love can conquer all the crap life throws at you, and that while there may be sacrifices necessary to sustain it, in the end there is much more to be had and enjoyed with it than without -- regardless of what those around you may think.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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