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Musing on Books
Maureen F. McHugh, Nekropolis, Eos, 257pp $25.00
I have always envied people who love the heat. My earliest summer memories are of sleepless nights in which I alternately crawled under the covers for protection against all things that haunt houses in a child's night and tossed those covers off the bed because the heat was almost suffocating.
It is hot as I write this. I installed an air conditioner in the computer room, but my oldest son hates the noise it makes, and turns it off at every opportunity, so I do much of my work a bit too late at night. And late at night is the time for . . . late-night books. I'm not a horror reader, so at these times I tend to choose books that will in the end be either cozy or uplifting. Those of you who have beat me to the punch and read at least one of these books will now be shaking your head or snickering at me.
At the heart of The Queen's Necklace are Wilrowan Blackguard, the Captain of the Queen's guard, and his wife, Lilliana Blackguard. Theirs is a complicated marriage of convenience—a marriage arranged deceptively by Lilliana's rather thick, social-climbing father. Her mother, who one would hope might have had more sense, has long since passed away, and her father, seeing an opportunity to marry his daughter to a significant family, failed to research his prospective son-in-law's suitability. But Lili and her husband Wil are both civil adults and they have both promised to be friends, to accept each other's habits and foibles, and to make do with the marriage they accepted.
Lili's cousin Nick, Wil's friends, Blaise, and even his grandmother are nonetheless unimpressed with the way Wil chooses to live his married life: He has a string of feminine friends in lower quarters with whom he chooses to dally, and taverns and gambling houses figure prominently in his after-hours life. It is during one of these outings that he feels it necessary to defend his wife's good name from the nefarious insults of a court fop, and that defense begins both the novel and Wilrowan's education into the nature of the Goblin Jewels upon which the fate of the dozens, possibly hundreds, of small human Kingdoms rests.
It is said that, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, the world was ruled by the Maglore Goblin race, a race of very beautiful and very sorcerous creatures who lived for hundreds of years, ruling an enslaved humanity through the auspices of their magic. All that remains of the Maglore are their artifacts: the major and minor jewels. The minor jewels exist as antiques, collectibles and rarities; the major, as centerpieces around which the Kingdoms function. These major jewels, attuned to the rulers of the kingdoms, regulate elements, granting structural stability to things like the complex mining tunnels of Mountfalcon.
But it's not just Mountfalcon that faces such troubles. The kingdom of Tarnburgh has complications of its own concerning a widowed king, a wayward philosopher, and questions of accession to the throne. These disparate threads are part of Edgerton's tapestry, and by book's end, she will weave them together seamlessly.
As in any high fantasy novel, legend has more than an element of truth about it; the Maglore did exist, the Jewels do in fact protect the Kingdoms.
And when those Jewels inexplicably disappear, disaster is mere months—or weeks—away.
It is into this uncertain future that Wilrowan is thrown, when, as an after-effect of his ill-advised duel, he is thrown in prison. Released, he is told that the King is furious, and he chooses discretion as the better part of valor, retreating to the countryside in which his wife resides.
Lilliana herself is involved as well, for she is secretly being trained in ancient ways by a group that has existed for as long as legend—as long as the human Kingdoms. She has no way of telling Wilrowan of this, of course, as such societies value secrecy, and her unexplained absences weigh heavily on Wil, who has never had the courage to tell her how he actually feels about her.
Yes, in fact, he does love her.
The romance between these two is thoroughly charming—and unusual; how many writers would take a husband and wife of many years as their romantic protagonists, and better, make it work? Edgerton's light touch, her seamless ability to create people that one really cares about, shine here.
But although the romance is certainly a part of the novel, Edgerton adds a breadth of detail to the world and its history, and her creations—the Goblin races, the wrynecks, the pads, the Maglore, the human kingdoms in turmoil, serve as much more than simple backdrop.
Welcome back to the must-read library, Ms. Edgerton. Write more, write quickly, and for mercy's sake, please please let us see more of Raith in the very near future!
Now, let me return to the paragraphs that prefaced this column.
You might wonder, if I was searching for light, charming adventure and romance, why I picked up a novel by Maureen McHugh. This is the woman who gave us political novels like China Mountain Zhang and Missionary Child that, while concerned with matters of love, are not especially romantic. I offer, in defense, a rather roundabout explanation.
When I was thirteen years old, I read romance novels, and I even enjoyed them. By the ate of fifteen, I realized that these books were unrealistic, and in bitter disappointment I stopped reading them and turned instead to the comforts of Le Guin, Russ, and later, Tepper and Sargent, among others.
But I have a sentimental streak that has, over the years, come into its strength, hampered but in no way destroyed by experience. Fantasy is full of mystery and very obvious magic, and, rationalist that I am, I don't believe in magic—but I have no problem at all reading fantasy. What I look for in fantasy are characters in whom I can believe; if the people are realistic or archetypal enough, I want to see how they use magic, how it affects them, and how they are changed by it. Romance novels often leave me cold because I don't believe in the people, but as evidenced by the previous review, if I care about the people, I do care about the relationships that involve them, relishing the tangle and the difficulty.
And Maureen McHugh understands people.
Nekropolis came with the following accolade: "With Nekropolis . . . McHugh has imagined a breathtaking story . . . in which two misfits defy rigid convention as they dare to do the impossible . . . fall in love."
What could be more perfect than a novel about two misfits falling in love, as written by one of the most observant writers working in sf today? There is no work at all involved in suspending disbelief while reading McHugh.
Okay, okay, laugh now.
First, McHugh is exceptionally clear-eyed. There is so much wisdom in the deceptive simplicity of her prose that the book itself demands attention; I can point to a hundred sentences that made me pause to examine my own life and my life's experience as seen through the filter of her prose.
Written in first person, the book opens with Hariba, a young woman living in Nekropolis. Born there, among the graveyards, she is the oldest of four children. Her father died when she was young; Nabil, the family's baby, has no memories of him at all. Her mother was harsh, in Hariba's memories, and devoutly Muslim. As is Hariba.
Hariba is jessed. This is the term used for a process in which a person voluntarily indentures himself, by implant, with a false loyalty which is then purchased by an owner who holds their bond. It is something that she chooses to do to herself, as a way of finding a life beyond her mother's small house and small life, for she believes that she will never marry.
She serves as the head of the women in a rich man's house. And it is in that house, after several years of service, that the Mistress indulges herself with a harni, a manufactured person. The harni are abominations in the eyes of God, and certainly in the eyes of Hariba.
Akhmim is his name, and he seeks Hariba out. She avoids him as much as she can, but her Master, believing that the harni needs to be more acclimatized to people, asks her to take him out with her on her day off, and she can't refuse.
When Hariba angers the Mistress, the cold contempt she feels for this creature is slowly replaced by something greater, for he is the only one in the household who cares enough to offer comfort and companionship when she is confined to the essentials of bread and mint-tea in her rooms. She begins to realize that she does, in fact, feel very strongly for the harni; that she needs him; that he needs her.
At this point in the novel, I wondered if McHugh was going to write an update on the Tanith Lee's Silver Metal Lover; the opening sequence uses many of the same tropes. So far, so good. And, let me add, it is good.
But then the story shifts.
Abandoning the first-person viewpoint of Hariba, McHugh steps gracefully to the side, and into the viewpoint of the harni, Ahkmim. Seen from the inside, the relationship takes on barbs, thorns, and an entirely different perspective. Harni are created in crèches, and they live in almost perfect communion until they are differentiated and separated. Ahkmim, therefore, knows what it's like not to live alone.
He pities those who do—humans, people who have never known what it's like to belong, completely and utterly, with others. His attraction to Hariba is a part of his conditioning; he is created to be entirely a vessel of the needs of others, and her need is a vortex that fulfills the limitations he was created to serve.
When Hariba's contract is sold to a poorer Master, she leaves Ahkmim. She has no choice. But she does not do so willingly, and in the end, she chooses to run away, taking Ahkmim with her. She believes that she is following his desire; he believes that he is fulfilling hers. But jessing creates its own cage; the jessed suffer severe illness, and possibly death, when they default. Sick, pathetic, unable to care for herself, Hariba relies on Ahkmim.
Ahkmim relies on the harni he has met in the streets of the city, but in the end, when Hariba is emotionally distraught and completely fragile, he turns to the people she has reason to trust: her family, her best friend. The novel shifts again, into the viewpoint of Hariba's devout and dutiful mother. She is a mother burdened with the criminality of not one, but two, children; her oldest son, Fasshin, is in prison, and her oldest daughter has stolen the property of a rich man and gone into hiding. Her doubts, her memories, her losses, ring so true I read this section several times, smiling, frowning, laughing, or wincing.
When confronted with Hariba, her most difficult choice is whether to turn her daughter over to the authorities—but she can't. This is her first-born, her oldest, her very sick and needy child. For the sake of her daughter, she visits the oldest boy, the one she won't acknowledge; in perhaps the book's most telling scene, her youngest son chides her for her unfairness to his older brother—and it comes as a shock to her, and to the reader, for her own viewpoint is so clear, her own motivations so complete, that it never once occurs to her that she is being unfair.
The last new viewpoint to be introduced is in the fourth segment of the novel, when Ayesha, Hariba's childhood friend, is given voice. Ayesha also feels the constraints of duty and loyalty, of history and the bonds that history creates for all of us, when confronted with Hariba's needs. The choices that she makes, in frustrated love and sometimes resentful friendship, also ring completely true.
But in aiding Hariba, her life is shattered completely; the book returns in the end to the voice that guided it at the beginning: Hariba's voice. And it is entirely Hariba's voice; the same voice that chose to be jessed, thinking happiness came with not choosing, with the lack of responsibility.
Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the author, the narrator, and the novel. Hariba grew up in a repressive society with laws that allow what is essentially slavery to flourish; she grew up feeling unloved, unwanted, incapable. Had she grown up in the E.C.U., had she lived in a different part of the world, the effects of her choices would not have had the devastating impact they did on the lives of all those around her. Perhaps this is what McHugh is saying. It is, in the context of the novel itself, completely true.
But it is also almost entirely beside the point.
Is this book about falling in love unwisely? Yes. But this falling in love is painfully real; this narrator, consumed and driven by her own needs and by her own perceptions, narrow and self-indulgently chosen, cannot see the difference between need and love, and where there is need, all actions are excused. The most telling, and the most repulsive, line in the novel belongs to Hariba, and it clearly shows a deep lack of responsiblity. "I mean to send more. But everything is so expensive here. Akhmim and I have to have all new clothes. And school is expensive. It isn't like we didn't try, after all."
McHugh is brilliant. She never raises voice to preach; never sermonizes; never judges. But having presented the whole of the story, with its echoing tragedy, its completely human boundaries, she makes clear that she understands the voracious need to be loved, the need to be understood, the need to be special, to feel special, to be taken care of that precludes its inverse: the ability to love, to understand.
This is not the book I wanted, but I couldn't put it down, even after I had finished it the first time. It's still—if it's not obvious—chewing at me.
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Copyright © 1998–2019 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide