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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen, Penguin Press, 2009, $27.95.

Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon, Greenwillow, 2009, $17.99.

Bones of Faerie, by Janni Lee Simner, Random House, 2009, $16.99.

Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente, Bantam, 2009, $14.

T. S. SPIVET is a twelve-year-old boy living in Divide, Montana, on the Coppertop Ranch. He is possessed of: a rancher father, a largely silent man who, in the eyes of his son, embodies the almost mythical Cowboy; a very focused entomologist mother, whom he refers to at all times as Dr. Clair; a very normal teenage sister, Gracie, who dreams of being an actress, or at least living somewhere with a normal family; and the strange and almost uncharted space left by Layton, his dead brother.

Very little in the life of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is left uncharted. In fact, the reason I picked up the book is because it is full of deliberate marginalia: maps, diagrams, and small side bars of rumination. Even the copyright page, that bastion of standard form, is annotated in brown. Every single annotation, there and elsewhere throughout the entire book, is done, with deliberation and intensity, by the curious hand of T. S. Spivet, because it's how he sees the world.

Or how he tries to wrestle with what he does see. He considers every diagram a map, and every action of any type worth mapping, and his rooms are covered with small, color-coded notebooks which denote the type of thing he's mapping; every map in the margins bears a number, indicating which of those three books it came from.

He is a peculiar viewpoint character with whom to enter a story, to say the least; he is a twelve-year-old boy with a profound understanding of the meaning of maps, and that understanding—of exploration, of entropy, and of the way maps constantly evolve is some of the most quietly moving writing I've read in a long time.

But that's T. S. Spivet, and not his story. His story, in short, in this: he has been entered, entirely without his knowledge, as a possible recipient for the Smithsonian's Baird Award, and at twelve years old, he has actually won it. The call does not come at an entirely convenient time, but in the end, he makes up his mind: He will travel from Montana to the halls of the Smithsonian itself to accept the award, give a speech, and devote his skills to Science.

Yes, he is alarmingly earnest. He's twelve; it's expected. He doesn't have the money for a plane flight, and he's not willing to ask for help, because doing so would sort of mean he'd have to tell his family. He almost wants to, but he can't quite; he even enters his mother's empty study—and takes one of her notebooks from the desk there. But he keeps his silence, packs his suitcase, dumps it on a toy wagon, and heads down to the UP train tracks, where he intends to travel like a hobo all the way to Washington D.C.

He even reaches Washington, more or less in one piece (well, slightly less), where he finds the idealism with which he has previously viewed the Smithsonian, and the people to whom he is now introduced, don't mesh.

While this synopsis is accurate, it fails to describe the book in any meaningful way. It takes T.S. almost twenty-five pages to answer the phone call that's the opening line of the book. It takes him over seventy-five pages to actually leave the house. If this is the type of thing that makes you impatient, you will throw this book across the room before you hit page fifty. Because while the book is, in its own odd way, a collection of maps about the things T. S sees on a daily basis, it is also a much less easily quantifiable map for the things that he can't see: emotions, love, and loss. To get through one, he wanders through the digressive internal thoughts of all the known things: things he's mapped, and things he understands. He can't cross a room without thinking about them, and he shares.

If you read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and you found Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse compelling, you will adore this book, because the youngest Spivet is very much like Waterhouse, except there's a whole novel's worth. If you spend half your time struck by oddities in conversation, and you find yourself following the internal line of questioning, rather than the external conversation that sparked it—to the point where you almost lose the conversation entirely—you will find Spivet compelling and oddly familiar.

And if you like a book that is both pointed in observation, but almost without judgment, that is quite understated, and in the end fundamentally about the way we interact with the people we love and the people who love us, this book is a small and perfect gift.

If The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is not Reif Larsen's first novel, I couldn't find, in brief online searches, any others. The reason the online search occurred is, of course, because I wanted there to be more. So now, like all readers who have discovered an unexpected and unexpectedly moving delight, I wait for a future with more Larsen to unfold.

*     *     *

Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix is also a first novel, and it has pretty much nothing in common with Larsen's debut. In structure, it's a much more traditional fantasy novel, but its setting is not a generic Europe; instead, it's Asian. Pon's writing is graceful, clean, and assured; she opens with the slightly premature birth of a young boy. His mother is one of the Emperor's concubines; the boy, however, is clearly not the Emperor's son. In order to save the life of a child she will never see again, she sends him away.

Almost twenty years later, the book starts with the very different life of young Ai Ling, who has been dressed and made up as a suitable bride to meet a possible groom's family. It does not go well. Ai Ling is of marriageable age, but she is tall, and her father is not a wealthy man; he is a man who once served in the Imperial Court, and is now living well away from it. In Ai Ling's society, not surprisingly, it is the duty of a daughter to marry well, and while she doesn't actually want to be married, she feels that the rejection is a failure on her part.

Her father is called unexpectedly to Court, and in his long absence, he is accused of owing a monstrously self-indulgent man a great deal of money; the man is willing to forgo the debt in return for Ai Ling's hand. Ai Ling, who can read, and her mother, who can't, know that the merchant is lying—but they also know that in this patriarchal world, it's his word against theirs. So Ai Ling runs away from home in order to retrieve her missing father.

This is a lovely first novel, and the ending is left (I hope) open for more stories about Ai Ling and Chen Yong. I'm looking forward to them.

*     *     *

Bones of Faerie is post-apocalyptic fiction. Liza was born after the apocalypse in question, and the stunted, small-town world, with its fear of the unknown and its strict, deadly rules, are all she's ever known. Her father is the pillar of her community, a strict, dour man who believes in corporal punishment and no mercy whatsoever—because that's what was needed to keep the town of Franklin Falls alive just after the conflagration that consumed so much of the known world.

One of the tenets: Cast out the magic born among you.

Because in Liza's world, magic was the apocalypse. Magic destroyed the cities, destroyed the technology, and destroyed most of the human population. The practical application of this tenet, however, will have disastrous effects on Liza, because Liza's newborn baby sister has the mark of magic: the near-translucent hair of the faeries. Her father takes the child and exposes it on a hillside. Liza goes to find what's left.

Simner's writing is exceptionally spare. All of the horrors of her world, all of things that are taken for granted by Liza, are subtle. There's very little that's graphically described—but it's there. The crops resist the farmers. The plants can kill. The children who are born with unchecked or undetected magic? They can kill, too.

Magic, to Liza, is death. Sadly, magic, to Liza, is slowly becoming part of her life, and she is terrified. After the death of her baby sister, Liza's mother leaves the homestead and the town, and disappears. But Liza can see glimpses of her mother in still water and other reflective surfaces: a sure sign of magic. She is desperate to hide this magic, but in the end, partly to save her own life but largely to save the life of her people, she ends up fleeing to search for her mother.

However, she doesn't manage to get out of Franklin Falls on her own; she has both her cat and one of the boys who lives in town with her. Neither of them are willing to stay behind, and in the end, that's for the best—because Liza knows that no one survives in the dark of the wilds on their own.

When they're attacked by wild dogs—and wild trees—they're rescued by Karin, a woman who can talk to plants, calm them, and send them away, and she leads them to a different town, one protected by a hedge that she basically grew. Everything that Liza knows about magic, and everything that she knows about survival, is challenged by what she finds in that town, and it forces her to examine her own beliefs and certainties, even as she leaves to search, once again, for her mother, chased by a shadow that has followed her all the way from Franklin Falls.

This is a lovely, quiet, sombre book about fear, war, and the possibility of healing, and some of the magic in the book is not actually magic; it's in the glimpses of abandoned cars and distant, crumbling architecture, the ghosts of a past that are our present. Simner makes it strange, and real, with her economical, graceful prose and her understated world-building.

*     *     *

The last of the four books is Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente. Her previous two novels, which formed the whole of The Orphan's Tales, were frequently compared to the Arabian Nights, largely because of the structure of the tale-within-tale-within-tale. There is no similar work that leaps to mind when one considers Palimpsest. You can compare it to other Valente work, because there is a turn of phrase and a poetic vision that is at once both lucid and visceral; it cuts you, and the mental cuts take a while to heal.

Palimpsest is the name of a city that can only be reached with the initial help of someone who has already been there. If you have never been, you're the blank slate; you're the stretched and uninked parchment upon which a destination can be written, and the destination can only be inscribed by the act of sexual intercourse.

Valente's sense of structure, her ability to create small stories-within-stories that are in no way digressions, but have some of that feel, is powerful; it links observations and metaphors that seem almost random, pulling them into the weave of her tale. She starts with four characters, two women and two men: Sei, who works as a ticket-seller for the shinkansen, November, who keeps bees and lists of nouns, Oleg, who is haunted by the ghost of a sister who died before he was born, and Ludovico, obsessed with St. Isidore and the binding of books of the fantastic, and whose only emotional ties beyond that are to his wife.

But all of these four live in their own worlds. They exist in states of isolation. They have no true connection to other people; even Ludo's love for his wife is seen, before the end, as an interpretational error. He is devoted to her without seeing the whole of her; she is some part of his internal obsession. They are lonely without ever stating that they are lonely; they are so alienated, it's their base state. So they stumble, in these odd states of isolation, into brief contact with Palimpsest. It is their first contact, and over the course of the book, they will become obsessed with a return to this otherworld, a dreaming world which becomes, in the end, far more real than a first glimpse might have implied.

Much of the sex in the book—which is billed as erotic—is not really very erotic; it's full of poetic moment, and frankly, when you're dealing with this much isolation, that sex feels almost sterile and cold—except for Oleg's first encounter, because in some ways, when he approaches the stranger to whom he's drawn, he wants to see her as she is; he has no other expectations or needs that she might fulfill. (He's accustomed to seeing a world that literally no one else can see—the ghost of New York City. The metropolis has been written about and celebrated in so many ways nothing of the original remains, just the images other people have left. There is no way to change that, not in New York…but Palimpsest implies that no one vision can publicize it, no one vision can capture it, and no one vision, spread however far or wide, can destroy what makes it vital and unique.)

Ludo goes to Palimpsest in search, initially, of his missing wife. Sei goes because she has always been obsessed with trains, and she can hear and speak to the hearts of the trains in the city—because they're alive, like wild creatures, and they bear passengers not by some tidy exchange of tickets, but rather by the cunning and determination of those who desire to be passengers. November is found by bees. Oleg? By the living form of his dead sister.

But the only way to return to the city, once they've seen it once, is to find other lovers who also bear the mark. The mark is a destination; the people who bear it—in many cases—are totally incidental. They seek each other out of need, out of addiction, and they barely see each other at all. There's only one way to reach Palimpsest, not as a tourist, but as a citizen.

And to gain that one small possible entrance, a war was fought in Palimpsest itself, and half the city has died. The war is not over, although people speak often as if it is; the war won't be over, until that final door is open. The door, of course, is the Quarto; the four pages (or eight pages) that are the building block of books. Sei, November, Oleg, and Ludo.

The only joy in the book is theirs, and it occurs late, and it occurs at cost and with pain, blood, sacrifice, a giving over of parts of self in service to making the dream their only reality.

I could not put this book down. When I start a Valente novel, I never can put down the book unfinished, because I find her voice and her words so strong, her metaphors so striking, they draw me in.

I'm left wondering—still, after days and days—how I feel about the book. Because in some ways, the four exist for each other until the moment they achieve their dreams—the dreams of a fickle city, a place in which the loneliness of a teenager justifies the war that killed and mutilated so very many of its citizens. If there is a tie between Ludo and November, it is the ambivalent tie of worshipper to god—and, you know, we crucify ours, more or less.

I can read about them, though; I can read about the alienation and the isolation and the loneliness of these characters—and it speaks to me while I read. But after? The novel seems to elevate all of these things; Palimpsest seems to imply that only by celebrating, by devoting oneself to alienation, isolation, and madness can one achieve that joyful entry into a very ambivalent paradise. And it must be ambivalent because desire and need drive the city, speaking to it, and those whose needs are loudest, like the squeaky wheel, get the grease. In the end, though, the city is a Palimpsest, and the desires of others will eventually overwrite yours if your needs are now met, obliterating your tale.

But…it makes me think, and it lingers in the mind where more pleasant tales drift away, unanchored.

*     *     *

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