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The Glass Harmonica
Louise Marley
Ace Books, 334 pages

Judy York
The Glass Harmonica
Louise Marley has been a classical concert and opera singer for 15 years. She sings with the Seattle Symphony, has concertized in Russia and Italy, and is alto soloist at St. James Cathedral in Seattle. She holds a Master's Degree in Voice. Her novels include the trilogy The Singers of Nevya and most recently, The Terrorists of Irustan.

Louise Marley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Terrorists of Irustan
Glass Music

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The glass harmonica -- whose eerie, chiming, strangely penetrating sound, once heard, is not easily forgotten -- was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, and briefly became popular as a concert instrument in England and Europe. Its otherworldly tones also inspired more peculiar uses -- Franz Mesmer, the early pioneer of hypnotism, made its music part of his magnetic therapy sessions -- and gave rise to rumors that listening to or playing the harmonica was damaging to the health, due to excessive stimulation of the nerves. It was even banned, by police order, in some parts of Germany. Louise Marley uses that odd element of the harmonica's history as the jumping-off point for her new novel, The Glass Harmonica.

The book tells two stories, widely separated chronologically but linked by music. Eilish Eam is an orphan in eighteenth century London who earns a meager living on the street, playing tunes on a set of water-filled wine glasses. One day she's discovered by Ben Franklin, who is in the process of developing the glass harmonica and needs someone to play it. Franklin takes Eilish into his home; there she experiences security and happiness for the first time, as well as the joy of fulfilling her musical gift. Sometimes, as she plays, she's visited by a fey sense of presence, as if a young girl like herself were standing at her shoulder.

In a near-future Seattle, Erin Rushton is the world's foremost virtuosa of the glass harmonica. Her playing, together with the ambitious musical compositions of her wheelchair-bound twin brother Charlie, have helped revive the popularity of this ancient instrument. Erin has begun having strange, ghostly visions of a girl in old-fashioned clothing, which come to her only while she plays. Though she doesn't believe in the so-called curse of the glass harmonica, she can't help wondering if these visions have something to do with the music -- if indeed her instrument is deranging her nerves and driving her mad. But Charlie thinks otherwise, as does Gene Berrick, the doctor whose experimental music-based therapy may help Charlie walk again. They believe Erin shouldn't reject her visions, but follow them, and see where they lead her.

Louise Marley, whose last book was the darkly dystopian The Terrorists of Irustan, turns her hand to something very different here, blending history, fantasy, and science fiction into a dreamy tale of self-discovery and fulfillment. The two storylines are relatively simple, propelled more by mood and their sympathetic, appealing characters than by plot. In fact there's a distinctly young adult feel to this novel. Erin, who is twenty-two, doesn't seem much older than Eilish, who is fourteen. And the eighteenth century sections, with their somewhat self-conscious inclusion of various historical figures and conscientiously present-day-correct treatment of the issue of slavery, read more like something I'd expect to find published by Greenwillow than by Ace.

Marley handles the time-shifting deftly, moving fluidly between past and future, and her sensitive depiction of Eilish's and Erin's shared passion for the glass harmonica makes a connection between their stories that goes beyond the obvious device of their visions of one another. Setting is also well-realized, especially in the twenty-first century sections, which provide intriguing details of a future where cities have been sanitized by herding the poor and homeless into giant tent encampments, located well out of sight of the restored, retro-themed neighborhoods. And the musical details, which possess the authority of Marley's own musical experience, add interest. Readers expecting the complexity of Marley's last outing may be disappointed by The Glass Harmonica, but those looking for a light, easy fantasy-cum-history will enjoy what they find here.

Copyright © 2001 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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