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Musing on Books
Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett, HarperCollins, 2007, $16.99.
The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde, Viking Penguin, 2007, $24.95.
The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner, Bantam Spectra, 2007, $14.
TERRY Prachett gets me every time.
I approach each of his novels as if it were, in and of itself, a trusted friend, which is why I often save them for times when you need one—like, at four A.M. when your real friends might justifiably consider homicide if you phoned them. But as with all good friendships, the dialogue never moves just one way; you put something into the reading, and it marks you; you take it away with you and it sits inside your head. Well, mine at any rate.
In his third venture into the world of young witch-in-the-making Tiffany Aching, he opens with the end, and then starts at the beginning. This gives you the added pleasure of rereading the beginning later on.
Tiffany Aching is a witch of the Chalk, the land of her people, a village in the middle of nowhere that's never had much use for witches, and wouldn't hold with having one if Tiffany weren't the daughter of Granny Aching, the old woman of the hills who kept the hills safe.
Her ties to the land are stronger than those of any other witch that she knows, and stronger than she herself has ever fully realized, and her ties to the seasons are strong because of it. She accidentally happens to blunder into the dark silence of the Other Morris Dance because, well, her feet just pick up the beat, and anyway, Morris Dances are for dancing.
But in Pratchett's universe, the Other Morris Dance is danced in the darkest of Winter nights, and the bells are utterly silent. It is not a festive dance. It is, however, a dance that is not meant for Tiffany Aching, nor any other young girl.
Joining it was not well thought out on her part. Any other young girl might be forgiven this, but Tiffany is a witch of the Disc, and all her actions have consequences. In this case, it's an adolescent boy crush. Unfortunately, the adolescent boy is the embodiment of Winter, and he's set his sights on Tiffany. And Tiffany is not entirely unhappy about it to start with—because really, the life of a witch is all about not using magic, about not doing things the easy way; it's work and drudgery, and this is a little…cool.
Unfortunately, it gets very cold, and if Tiffany—who has her hands full with a new village witch who needs a lot of help, but is almost too proud to ask for it, and certainly too proud in general—can't somehow bring out the end of the natural story of the seasons themselves, Winter will never end.
I have an artificial divide in my own mind between poetry and prose. Poetry is meant to evoke in people the familiarity of something that's already been experienced—the aha that you feel when someone has described, in an exact way, something that you've experienced yourself and recognize. Prose is meant to take people on the entire narrative journey; the story evokes emotion because you've traveled the road.
There are moments in this novel in which Pratchett is a poet; you can see the way he observes people, can feel what he doesn't squeeze into the words. When Tiffany's father says "I haven't mentioned this to your mother yet" in his very quiet, calm voice—it cuts. I don't know if the young adults at whom this book is ostensibly aimed will even understand how much pain the man is in and how he masks it, how much of a nightmare it is to ask your only daughter to risk her life to do what you can't do and would literally give your life to achieve. But there it is, in Chapter One: and it's so understated. It made me cry.
The nac mac feegle always make me laugh; the observations about people and the frailty of their very silly hopes and the strength of their even sillier superstitions make me laugh. The idea that the Wintersmith might try to become human is open for comic possibility—but also the poignancy of dreams that cannot be realized. And the core definition of what makes a man (or human being)…I think it's at the heart of the way Pratchett handles his universe, and that's why the Disc, in all its larger than life characters, is like a second home to me now; a place I return to time and again, a place I never tire of. It's not for the new and the dazzlingly original that I crave Pratchett—it's for the humanity of his humor, the sharp and yet at the same time gentle sting of his observations. He sees people clearly as they are, foibles and nastiness notwithstanding, and he still cares for them.
After the end of Hat Full of Sky, I was sure Pratchett was taking Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany in a certain direction—and after this book, I'm not so sure. And I'm happy to wait for him to surprise me. But I'm not waiting patiently.
Jasper Fforde hit the ground running with his stories of Thursday Next, a detective in an alternate universe in which literary crimes (fake Samuel Clemens counterfeits, for example) are crimes. He then turned his hand to Jack Spratt and Mary Mary of the NCD—the Nursery Crimes Division. It's called the Nursery Crimes Division because in the universe of Jack Spratt, fairy tale characters are flesh and blood, and living among us. It takes a special kind of person to deal with the three bad wolves, talking eggs, ambulatory and intelligent pieces of cutlery—and Jack Spratt privately thinks that in this case, special equals not-quite-sane.
This is not the first time this conceit has been tried—the comic book series, Fables, deals with pretty much the same idea—but Fforde, of course, is vastly less serious. For one, his Nursery characters don't generally pretend to be mundane, and don't have to.
If his first book poked fun at the importance of good publicity, and the non-academic version of publish-or-perish, his second takes a few digs at the self-importance of the literary auteurs while along the way covering the Car that Dorian Gray Sold, the serial killing Gingerbread Man, and Goldilocks and the three bears. Well, sort of three; the title implies more.
The Gingerbread Man is in theory the responsibility of the NCD—but the glory of solving the Humpty Dumpty murder in the previous Spratt novel, The Big Over Easy, has faded, as all things do, and the ignominy of failing to save Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother, added to the questionable use of children as bait for the Scissor-Man who cuts off the thumbs of children who suck them, has once again landed Jack and the NCD at the top of the PR heap, and not in a good way.
Also, the small stress of the Red Riding Hood case has caused Spratt's immediate supervisor, Briggs, to suspend him pending the results of an independent psychiatric assessment, which a very harried Jack Spratt doesn't have time for. A new addition to NCD—a literal alien—and a new pet in the Spratt household add a few complications, but really, Jack barely notices them. He's got a probable murder on his hands, a definite murderer on the loose—one he's not actually allowed to pursue—and also the illegal distribution of porridge to bears, who are walking, talking NCD cases if ever there were one. Fforde is crazy; he's all over the place. He's aware of the conventions he's mocking, he mocks them openly, and he still has a really decent romp of a mystery novel on his hands.
Ellen Kushner's new novel—after too long an absence—is not the intentionally humorous work that either Prachett or Fforde offer. A direct sequel to the excellent Swordspoint, it's set many years later, when Richard St. Viers has left the Duke Tremontaine, and the city in which they made a name and a life for themselves by the simple expedient of not dying. Well, and by killing people who wanted to change that state.
Alec Campion has an estranged sister who is not doing well financially, and he ushers his niece, Katherine, into High Society in Riverside as the price for bailing his sister out of her debts. Katherine has been brought up well; she knows how to be the almost perfect country girl of good breeding. Nothing in her life has prepared her for life with Alec Campion, the Duke Tremontaine, a man who is known far and wide for his vices—and not, to her shock, without good reason.
Alec sends Katherine out to a summer house, where she meets a man who will train her in the art of swordplay, something she has no interest in at all. But the man—quiet, almost humble—is so passionate about the one thing he knows well that, in the isolation of a summer house, she is drawn into his world. She takes up the sword and learns to use it because there's not a lot else to do.
Unhappy to be parted from her swordmaster (especially as the method of her departure is almost a kidnapping), she is not prepared to wake in the vast halls of the Riverside manor the Duke Tremontaine calls home. Completely off her stride, she meets the young man who acts as valet and personal attendent to the Duke, one Marcus by name. And she tries more or less to land on her feet in the games that society plays—games which are not necessarily safer than the sword she's been learning to wield.
But the feet on which she lands aren't the delicate and daintily shoed feet of a Duke's niece—for the amusement of her cynical uncle, she's kitted out as a swordsman, and as a swordsman, she begins to meet society.
Because she's still a young lady of import to the Duke Tremontaine—who is, among other things, quite rich enough to survive his vices (his multiple lovers, and his odd household)—she meets various people, and one of these is the primping but perfect young lady, Artemisia, a girl with fashion sense and the honed romantic instincts of someone who is meant to make her future by marriage.
And because of events surrounding the naïve Artemisia, Katherine's natural sense of honor and outrage cause her to challenge a man with money, power, and the ability to destroy the lives of those around him. Life begins to unfold in a perilous sequence of events that will require Katherine to be the swordsman she's dressed as.
There is wit enough in this book to cut yourself on, and Alec Campion is no angel; he's a rather self-indulgent man who is bitterly, bitterly attached to the love of his life, and can't have him. Were it not for the household he has built for himself—the Ugly Girl, whose gifts are entirely intellectual, the damaged Marcus, the Black Rose—I would have desired greatly to kick his butt across the nearest river and tell him to stop feeling so damn sorry for himself. But even in the fog of self-pity that his life has mostly become, he sees some things clearly, and he guides his niece toward a coming-of-age that is both unique for her time and place, and utterly rewarding for the reader.
There's a lot in this book about the lives of women in a society that treats women as either chattel or, well, chattel, really—but Kushner never sermonizes; it's there, it's a fact of a life, and it's part and parcel of the narrative drive. It might give some people something to think about if they're not so engrossed in the what-happens-next that makes this book such a delight.
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