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Books
by Robert K. J. Killheffer

The Hallowed Hunt, by Lois McMaster Bujold, Eos, 2005, $24.95.

Mélusine, by Sarah Monette, Ace, 2005, $24.95.

Firethorn, by Sarah Micklem, Bantam Spectra, 2005, $14.

IN THE summer of 1972, Ursula K. Le Guin gave a talk to the Science Fiction Writers Workshop at the University of Washington on the the writing of fantasy fiction. Published as a chapbook a year later, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" became a landmark critical essay, one of the pieces that made Le Guin's reputation as a critic of the field as well as one of its most admired practitioners, and it remains a touchstone for writers of fantasy today.

At least it should remain a touchstone, because in its 5,000-odd words it contains some of the most percipient advice and analysis ever offered. Le Guin argues for the central importance of style in fantasy, a style that creates a sense of otherworldliness, a clear departure from the familiar everyday world. "The point about Elfland," she says, using her shorthand for any imagined fantasy world, "is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different." It's not enough to rely on trappings—dragons, wizards, magical amulets, and so on. An inappropriate style clashes with those elements and bleeds them of their potential power.

When she speaks of style, Le Guin does not mean just the language, the flavor of the prose, though of course that's a big part of it. Style encompasses all the devices writers choose for their tellings, from point of view to selection of detail to the rhythms of dialogue and even the choice of which events to dramatize, which to leave "off-stage," and in what order. "The style," she says, "is the book…. If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot."

Style in this sense is the vital heart of any work of literature, but it's even more crucial in fantasy (and science fiction), because here the world of the text has no existence beyond it—the fantasy writer has no "comfortable matrix of the commonplace" to fall back on, to let her reader fill in the blanks, "to disguise flaws and failures of creation." Without the proper style, fantasy is (to paraphrase Le Guin once more) like a visit to Yosemite in a fully loaded RV, with television and cell phone, DVD player and running-water hookup. It's not the real thing.

Le Guin's essay appeared more than thirty years ago and the field of fantasy has grown and changed immensely in that time. But the passage of years has, if anything, made Le Guin's critique all the more urgent, for those years have seen the progressive domestication of fantasy, the breeding of a whole industry of risk-free weekend tours of the Elfland theme park, located just a mile off Exit 12 on the Poughkeepsie Turnpike. It's time to dust off Le Guin's yardstick and seek out fantasies that measure up, that open doorways into genuinely strange and different places, that employ a style suitable to the task at hand.

*     *     *

The Hallowed Hunt is the third in Lois McMaster Bujold's "Chalion" series which, unlike most of today's fantasy series, consists of novels set in the same world but not otherwise closely linked. Each volume stands alone and complete in itself, and that's something to recommend them right off. Bujold begins her world-building with the standard template—political and cultural structures drawn mainly from medieval European models—but she avoids the tired dark-force-threatens-the-world plot in favor of a story steeped in political intrigue.

Bujold grabs our attention at once with a dramatic scenario layered with complications. Lady Ijada dy Castos, a minor noblewoman, has killed Prince Boleso kin Stagthorne, second in line to the Hallowed Kingship of the Weald. She claims he was attempting to rape her, and, worse, that he did so as part of a forbidden act of old Wealding ritual magic. Lord Ingrey kin Wolfcliff, young and not especially high-ranking himself, comes to Boleso's castle to fetch the body back for funeral, and Ijada for trial. Meanwhile the current King nears death, and the Weald's powerful clans weave a thicket of politics around the royal seat at Easthome, all of which could play a part in determining Ijada's fate.

Ingrey soons learns through experience that he's a pawn in these games, with a secret sorcerous compulsion to murder Ijada whenever his guard drops. Ingrey also carries an animal spirit, a wolf bound to him by the same sort of magic Boleso had attempted. Only by special dispensation from the Temple divines has Ingrey escaped execution for his contaminated state—and that exemption might be withdrawn at any time. As he guides Ijada back to Easthome, he learns that she also bears a spirit—a leopard, set upon her by Boleso's abortive spell. So she faces two sorts of jeopardy, should the divines discover her condition, and all of this is further complicated by the attraction that draws Ingrey and Ijada together during their journey.

Bujold rose to fame as a science fiction writer, with her tremendously popular, multiple Hugo Award-winning Miles Vorkosigan series and the standalone novel Falling Free (1988), which won her the Nebula Award. (The previous "Chalion" novel, Paladin of Souls [2003], netted Bujold another Hugo and another Nebula.) There are precious few writers who have demonstrated the ability to handle science fiction and fantasy with equal facility, so it may be no surprise that Bujold's hand is not always steady on the tiller. Some of the trouble in The Hallowed Hunt is structural—the first third, covering the trip to Easthome, often feels desultory and unfocused, despite the inherent drama of Lady Ijada's predicament, and as events unfold in Easthome, that predicament falls further into the background as the real center of the plot becomes clear. But this lack would have been less noticeable were Bujold's style more evocative and engrossing.

Bujold's stylistic weaknesses show most clearly in dialogue and in names. Too often she lets her characters slip into awkwardly mannered speech, like something out of a justly forgotten Edwardian play: "Oh, but look at you—here, you must sit down…I still remember how you and that dreadfully priggish divine used to argue theology over the meal trestles." Sometimes they speak in the stiff unlikely tones of the narrators of documentaries: "Angry, foolish men, an imprudent ride out to attempt reason at a time when tempers were running too high … I had only seen the lovely side of the marsh country, and the kindness of its people. But they were only people after all." (This is one character speaking to another, not Bujold's own narration.) Sometimes they sound uncomfortably like folks in our own world: "I have to throw up now." And now and then there's a painfully Poughkeepsian clash in Bujold's narrative voice as well: "…an enemy of great and secret power was going to be seriously upset when they both arrived at Easthome alive." Yeah, I'd hate to see a great and secret power when it's seriously upset.

But it's Bujold's character names that present the most pervasive style problems in The Hallowed Hunt. Le Guin doesn't discuss names in particular in "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," but for my money names are one of the most important elements in establishing a fantasy tone. They are a window into the culture and the language(s) of the fantasy world, which are otherwise often obscured by the need to render the narrative itself in English. It's not enough to devise merely pronounceable names, though that's usually a good idea. What matters most is that the names reflect the culture(s) of the imagined world, with internal consistency and interrelationships.

Bujold does a good job with place names—towns like Red Dike, Oxmeade, and Easthome are rooted in clear descriptive origins. The clan names follow a similar pattern, drawn from the natural world: Stagthorne, Wolfcliff, Badgerbank, Horseriver. But when it comes to first names, Bujold abandons any apparent pattern. We have Ijada, whose father was Chalionese and thus could bear an odd name with reason, but we also have Ingrey who serves the Sealmaster Hetwar, the divines Hallana and Lewko, Symark and Wencel and Gesca and Ulkra, and the three princes Byza, Biast, and Boleso. No apparent rhyme or reason, and it undermines the unified vision Bujold had built of the Weald through the clan and place names.

The Hallowed Hunt has some promising elements—the intriguing Temple religion, multi-layered intrigue, and some engaging supporting characters, such as the Viking-styled island prince Jokol and his pet ice bear Fafa. It's competently executed, the work of a practiced professional. It's not bad. But its stylistic shortcomings illustrate Le Guin's point only too well. Without a coherent vision of a unique Elfland, shaping prose and dialogue, names and other details, The Hallowed Hunt never draws us all the way in, never transports us out of awareness of the everyday, never removes us from the comforts of home.

*     *     *

A glance at the first couple of pages of Sarah Monette's first novel, Mélusine, might give the impression that she's violating Le Guin's dicta in the most brazen fashion. Monette spins her tale out of two alternating first-person narratives, and the opening strand comes from Mildmay, known as "the Fox," a cat burglar in the eponymous wizard-ruled city, with the manners and perspective of the lower classes. His voice sounds something like that of a stool-pigeon in a 1940s crime movie: "The annemer promised to be the hocus's servant and do what they said and no backchat, neither…. And then there was a spell to stick it in place and make sure, you know, that nobody tried to back out after it was too late."

It's hard to get much further from your traditional fantasy tone. As I read these lines, an instinctive resistance rose up in me—what the heck is she doing, mingling fantasy phrases like "Four Great Septads ago" with slangy colloquialisms like "scared shitless" and "way better connected"? I felt the way I had when I first saw the trailers for the Heath Ledger movie A Knight's Tale, in which jousts take place to the music of Queen and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. No way could this work.

But then on a lark I actually saw the whole film, and I was shocked to find that it did indeed work. Somehow the tonal miscegenation didn't come off as sloppy or lazy or ignorant or pandering, as I had expected. In fact, the rock soundtrack and the interplay of pseudo-antiquated and contemporary colloquial dialogue actually formed something new, different, and genuine. The dissonant elements helped to free the material from the self-conscious weightiness (or simple drudging dullness) that often drags historical dramas down (see—or better, just read about—Troy and Kingdom of Heaven), and in doing so brought out elements of the medieval mood that rarely find a place on the screen—the boisterous humor, the carnival atmosphere of a tourney, the skepticism of the peasantry behind the backs of their betters. The movie didn't work despite the injection of "inappropriate" elements; it worked because of them.

Much the same can be said for Mélusine. Mildmay's voice has an inner coherence and natural rhythm that make it quickly infectious and convincing. The contrast with the voice of the other narrator, Felix Harrowgate, only adds to its effectiveness. Felix is a court wizard, hobnobbing with the city's upper crust, until his old master and mentor Malkar Gennadion uses him for a spell to sabotage the city's font of magical protection, the Virtu. The sorcery leaves Felix stripped of his position, imprisoned, and plagued by a creeping madness that eventually sees him committed to the horrific Hospice of St. Crellifer, a place as wretched as any madhouse Victorian England had to offer. Felix speaks in a self-consciously more formal style, free of Mildmay's slang. "I had been about to say 'okay,'" he realizes at one point, "that ubiquitous piece of Lower City idiom that Malkar had beaten out of me before I was fifteen."

These two complementary voices provide an excellent foundation of color and detail for Monette's imagined world. Mildmay's narrative in particular, coming as it does from outside the circles of power on which most fantasy novels focus, lends a dimension of immediacy and tactility with its street-level observations and imagery. "The Winter Fever—it always shows up in Mélusine along with the rains…and it was working its way through the Lower City with a butcher's knife and a nasty snigger," Mildmay tells us. And later, "…you could put the Yehergod militia in a string shopping bag and still have room for two heads of cabbage and a parsnip."

Monette uses every device at her disposal to scatter this sort of color and detail through her pages. The city of Mélusine comes vividly to life through an alchemy of names, built of French, English, Latin, and Monette's own invention. The months of Pluviôse, Vendémiaire, Messidor, Prairial; the neighborhoods of Pharaohlight, Spicewell, Engmond's Tor; Rue Celadon, the Road of Ivory, the Plaza del'Archimago, Persimmony Street. A cemetery called the Boneprince. The ancient tunnels beneath the city, called the Arcane from their full name, Les Catacombes des Arcanes. The names conjure images, moods, even sounds and smells. And this profligate cityscape is populated by characters—some met, some merely mentioned—with names equally evocative: Porphyria Levant, Estella Velvet, Brother Orphelin, Cerberus Cresset, Mavortian von Heber. It's a pleasure just to roll them around in the mind, or even speak them aloud, to savor their cadences and the personalities they suggest.

Atop all this, Monette tosses us tantalizing bits of historical and cultural detail, blended so seamlessly into the narrative that we can only wish we knew more about the world they hint at. "The hotel they chose was called the Chimera Among the Roses," says Felix, "a defiantly royalist sentiment that had probably gotten someone nearly hanged 150 years ago." It's a tease—we learn no more about Mélusine's past history of royalist strife. Mildmay overhears his two companions speaking in a language they don't know he understands, and he concludes, "they were half-brothers or stepbrothers or something. Norvenan don't distinguish so as you can tell." With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of such tidbits to chew on, Mélusine bids for a place alongside such classic fantasy cities as Gormenghast, Lankhmar, and Viriconium.

Mélusine is far from perfect. Sometimes Monette's ear for names fails her—the "Kekropian Empire," for instance, clangs like a trashcan lid amidst the rest of the nomenclature, and "St. Grandin Swamp" doesn't have the ring of the other regions in and around the city. Mildmay's sardonic asides (and his continuing invocation of the god/saint Kethe) become tiresome after a while, as does Felix's self-pity. But one of the benefits of such a convincing and engaging world is that complaints of this sort come to seem footnotes, unimportant in the larger scheme. We'll forgive a lot for a real trip to Elfland.

Monette leaves a dozen subplots hanging and as many major questions unanswered—fodder for future volumes, I'm sure—but there's enough closure to the main plotline (Felix's madness and the mystery that binds him and Mildmay) to provide a satisfactory finish. Mélusine is that most rara of aves, the first volume of a fantasy saga that genuinely left me wanting more.

*     *     *

I missed Firethorn, Sarah Micklem's remarkably accomplished debut novel, when it came out in hardcover in 2004. Its appearance in trade paperback gave me another chance to try it, and I'm very glad I did. Firethorn is raw, relentless, and emotionally searing in a way that's very unusual in fantasy, and it features one of the most meticulously imagined traditional fantasy settings I've encountered in years. It's another object lesson in the importance of style to the successful writing of fantasy fiction.

The girl called Luck (for her red hair) came to her village a foundling, but true to her name, she had the good fortune to be chosen as handmaid to the old Dame of the manor, who treated her kindly and taught her like a mother. But her mistress's death brings the Dame's nephew Sire Pava and his wife to rule instead, and the change upends Luck's world. Harsh treatment by Pava's steward and abuse by his ill-tempered bride chafe badly enough, but when Pava takes an interest in her—and, undeterred by her resistance, rapes her—Luck flees to the wilderness of the Kingswood, where she lives "like a beast…without fire or iron or the taste of meat," surviving as best she can on what she can gather. At one point, desperate and despairing, she eats the berries of the firethorn tree, knowing them for poison but beyond caring. She suffers a feverish collapse, but lives, and believing she's been spared by the gods, she takes the name of the tree as her own: Firethorn.

She returns to the village after a year in the forest, but her time in exile hasn't softened her resistance to the life the village offers. "The world had its order and I my place in it, but I could not whittle myself small enough to fit." So when she catches the eye of the high-placed Sire Galan, passing through to gather Pava and his men for the King's war on the kingdom of Incus across the sea, she agrees to accompany him as his "sheath"—a role that at best amounts to that of concubine, and at worst to whoredom, as many warriors share their sheaths around with their men. Galan, however, seems to have a more genuine interest in her—indeed, his determination to keep her sparks conflict between him and his lord, the First of his clan of Crux, who considers Galan's infatuation a foolish distraction, and also with his own men, most of all his "armiger" or second, Sire Rodela, whose resentment simmers and boils over as the army camps in the Marchfield, waiting for the proper time and omens to sail.

Micklem studiously avoids any hint of contemporary flavor in Firethorn's voice (she narrates in first person), without falling back on stiff mannerism or archaism. Vibrant and earthy, passionate and sometimes poetic, Firethorn's voice is steeped in the worldview of her culture, and her narrative teems with vivid images. "The clans had come to these barren hills and planted a forest of tents leafed with gaudy canvas and leather and blooming with banners. The men were pent up so close in this false forest that they crawled upon each other like wasps." Firethorn's rustic knowledge of foraging and herb lore adds convincing depth and texture: "There was better food all around us in the woods and beside the road," she notes on the ride toward the Marchfield. "I found some tiny wild pears and put them in a sack I made by tying knots in Na's old dress. There were walnuts, too…and mouse ears for greens, gone to seed but good enough for stewing with a bit of bacon." This is a world in which people cook and eat and clean, and go hungry and walk barefoot and sew their own clothes.

It's also a world in which social class and gender entirely determine each person's lot in life. The nobility, Sire Pava and Sire Galan and the First of Crux, are the Blood, descended from the gods and born to power. Everyone else is "mudfolk," made of the same stuff but without that ennobling admixture of divinity. Of course, a variety of factors complicate matters: Some families are higher than others; some lead and others follow; the servant of a cataphract commands more authority than that of an armiger. But by far the most significant determinant of status outside of the mud-Blood divide is gender. At every level, men outrank women. And Firethorn belongs to the lowest category of all: unmarried mudborn female.

Firethorn is the story of its narrator's struggle to negotiate her rigidly stratified world without relinquishing her identity or her dignity. At times, it's reminiscent of a slave narrative, so intensely and unflinchingly does Micklem depict the plight of a person convinced of her own worth and rights trapped in a society that accords her little or none. Brought before the First after Sire Rodela, in his bitter fury, has attacked her and cut a bloody strip from her pubic patch, Firethorn wonders, "If Sire Rodela had treated a horse as he'd treated me, would they have brought it to the tent for show? Perhaps they meant to parade me up and down so they could calculate my worth against the damage done and set the fine Sire Rodela must pay. I guessed they'd rate me far below a warhorse and maybe somewhat above a palfrey."

Yet Micklem never lets her sharp critique wander into diatribe—as in the slave narratives that it recalls, the ambiguity and complexity of the human drama serve to underline the cruelty and injustice on display. Some masters (such as Firethorn's original Dame) are kinder than others. The powerless find a good deal of pleasure and delight despite their hard lives. At times they even collude in their own degradation. And the forces of inculturation weigh heavily on everyone, master and servant alike, making it difficult even for the most compassionate to question the ways of the world. Galan genuinely appears to love Firethorn. "I thought a tumble or two would suffice," he confesses, perplexed by his own feelings. "But the more I had, the more I wanted…. I asked myself why I should be so content to lie beside you while you slept…. what appetite grows the more it is fed, and finds no surfeit?" But his love—his very capacity for it—is circumscribed by the habits and expectations he's absorbed since birth. He struggles to understand Firethorn and her rebelliousness; the stubborn self-respect that attracts him leaves him often baffled as well. At one point he whips her along with the rest of his servants for their disobedience—but, when she's put to a trial by ordeal in order to test the truthfulness of her accusations against Rodela, Galan impulsively joins her in the war dog pen, and shares her peril as a true lover would, though it further strains his relations with the First of his clan.

Firethorn is a powerful meditation on the evils bred in a society so firmly defined by distinctions of class and gender—a society like most of those in human history, and indeed unfortunately still resonant with the one we live in today. But it could not have achieved such power without the foundation laid by Micklem's mastery of style: the voice of her narrator, the thousand minute details of her world, the richly conceived mythology of the clans, the discipline of her prose, which all together produce an entirely credible, fully engrossing otherworld. It seems strange to call it an Elfland, since the world of Firethorn features so little of magic, and nothing at all like an elf. But an Elfland, in Le Guin's terms, it surely is—an invented place with all the coherence and consistency of the reality we know. Firethorn proves that fantasy, done right, can address the most vital issues as effectively as any other form of literature. Even better, perhaps, for as Le Guin tells us, "when fantasy is the real thing, nothing, after all, is realer."

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