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Corradi: The Ghiling Blade (Jan./Feb. 2011)

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  • Started 8 years ago by geoffhart1962

  1. geoffhart1962
    Member

    Dah’nok is a fisherman of the Selestrii, a poor people in socioeconomic thralldom to the Dinisistrii—free, not slaves, but forced by economics and a rigid caste system to live near the docks by the sea, paying tribute (“quotas”) for the privilege of living by the harbor. The Dinisistrii live atop the cliffs above the harbor, where giant sea spiders use their webs to draw cargos to the top of the cliffs—just the first hint that we’re in for a treat. The town is wraith-haunted, with the wraiths taking both physical form (e.g., the “sharp-toothed guard wraiths” used by the Dinisistrii) and not completely metaphysical form (e.g., describing Dah’nok’s sometimes sharp-tongued wife Suriah as having a wraith wrapped around her heart). The phrase "wraith-haunted world" kept coming to mind, but I couldn’t pin down its source; the wraiths also reminded me strikingly of the “elementals” in Zelazny’s “Lord of Light” because of their ability to take over a human mind and body.

    The Selestrii, who are born to serve and labor and endure, are very different from the Dinisistrii, who are born to rule. It’s not clear whether the people of this story are human, but if not, they’re our cousins under the skin, right down to Corradi’s description of how Dah’nok’s frustration over his lot in life turns to anger, which in turn leads to defiance, an argument with his wife, and flight to the comforts of a harborside tavern and the sympathy of strangers. Dah’nok is an intensely sympathetic character, mostly resigned to his lot but in no way happy with it, and although his wife is very clearly a supporting character, she’s equally sympathetic and believable. Some of Dah’nok’s most human moments come while he teaches his son the ways of the Selestrii, and particularly the management of one’s “ghili”. Ghili is an odd blend of telepathic awareness, spiritual strength, and magic, including the ability to control certain aspects of the world if one possesses ghili related to that aspect. Dah’nok’s ghili, for instance, is related to bone, and when he fishes, he can feel the bones of the fish swimming beneath him.

    The plot gets rolling when Dah’nok discovers that his ghiling blade, formerly hung in his shop window until neighborhood disapproval forced him to hide it beneath the floor of his workshop, has gone missing. The blade’s meaning is not initially clear, though because its name contains the root word “ghili”, it clearly has spiritual or magical importance. Fortunately (or not) for Dah’nok, there’s a place where lost things inevitably end up: the Temple of the Obixx. So to find his blade, Dah’nok climbs rickety stairs up the cliffs (stairs only the Selestrii use) to seek his blade amidst myriad lost things, ranging from the concrete (heaps of jewels) to the intriguingly metaphysical (laughter, virginity). The temple is pre-human and otherworldly, with insect-bodied but human-headed statues, floating obelisks, and a sky that is purple rather than the familiar blue seen from the harbor. Its geometry is a blend of an Escher blueprint and the Tardis, and the Obixx is a powerful and sinister nonhuman being with four arms, a snake’s neck, and the hint that it’s being carried about on a cart suspended by one or more legged beings—possibly damned souls.

    [Spoilers] As Dah’nok wanders the temple, he encounters increasing strangeness, ending in the room of Lost Stories. As he experiences them, he finds himself particularly attracted to “The Journey of the Bone Masters Twenty”, who traveled the world mastering their ghili and eventually becoming powerful enough to defeat the ancient Seelee, whose cities now lie drowned offshore from Dah’nok’s village. He’s nearly lost for good in these stories, until he’s rescued by a small memento his wife foresightfully gave him, an onik shell that contains echoes of her voice and that of their son, “repeating the captured sounds for those who cared to hear them”. In the temple, we learn that Dah’nok’s neglect of the blade let it be lost, and thus ended up in the temple. But Dah’nok is too late, for the Obixx has already sold it to traders from another dimension who passed through a Portal between worlds. The Obixx offers Dah’nok power in the form of ghili, reminding him of his ties to the bone masters of the lost tale, but Dah’nok is wise enough to know there will be a price he’s unwilling to pay. Recognizing the value of what he already has, he flees the temple and returns to his life.

    One of Dah’nok’s lessons to his son is that ghili is a limited resource, and that the Selestrii strive to develop internal strength so they can cope and endure even when ghili fails. Dah’nok tells a clearly autobiographical story about a young Selestrii who tried to earn a place as an apprentice ship-builder, though his ghili wasn’t up to the task and other Selestrii who built ships were far more skilled. He only finds a place because he works cheaply in exchange for the chance at a better future. Yet Dah’nok has freedom, while his co-workers are indentured, and they resent him for it. During his apprenticeshiup, he creates the eponymous ghili blade, endowing it with much of his ghili, dreaming perhaps of the adventures of the Bone Masters and a greater destiny. After a time, he feels he’s being stalked by a Seelee wraith that is sabotaging his work, and when he turns on it with his ghili blade, he finds himself attacking his master. He’s beaten bloody in punishment, and though his fellow Selestrii mocked his hubris, in the end they feel enough solidarity to rescue him from death.

    Dah’nok returns home to the docks, where his own people despise his former arrogance and his pretension that he’s somehow better than they are. Despite this, he finds a companion “not of simple bone but of flesh and blood and complex emotion, one to accompany him not on a journey to the edge of the world, but on an adventure to the end of life”. It’s a lovely and heartfelt description of his wife Suriah and of the real treasures of life, and an unexpectedly happy denouement after his former hubris. We learn that Dah’nok’s wraith has been a part of him for at least as long as Suriah has known him, and that it comes and goes in tune with his fatigue and frustration and pride—yet she loves him enough to bear it and tolerate his flaws because of that love. This is both emblematic of the Selestrii skill at endurance, and a recognition that when you love someone, you forgive them their inevitable imperfections and focus on the things you do love about them. But Dah’nok is shamed by the revelation he was oblivious to his wraith—doubly so because of his criticism of other Selestrii for being blind to their wraiths.

    There’s no mundane way to remove Dah’nok’s wraith, and the mystical means are neither trivial nor free of consequences. So he sets himself to do what the Selestrii do best: endure. But because his wraith is ancient and powerful, endurance won’t be enough. Under the wraith’s influence, fights with Suriah escalate until, in a final fit of rage and despair, Dah’nok storms through her workshop, wrecking the place with fists and ghili and even striking Suriah for the first time. Horrified at what he’s become, he overcomes his pride and seeks aid, sailing across the sea to the island of Sulantis where a “water witch” lives; the witch is an ancient spirit, bound eternally to the heart of a wrecked warship, who trades magical favors for a chance to relive the dreams of those who aren’t bound to her island. But she can’t cure him: the wraith wrapped around his heart can only be killed by relinquishing his selfish dreams of a heroic future and focusing his heart on his family. To kill the wraith will require his ghili blade, which can restore the missing piece of his soul he stored in it long ago—while also coming to terms with the fact that the blade (and the adventures it promises) cannot rule his dreams any longer.

    Dah’nok leaves to find his ghili blade, ending in the merchant and portal city of Boroxis (a real “bonfire of the vanities”, to borrow a phrase). When he eventually learns of a Phalantian ship (essentially a giant sea-going snail) that may have taken his ghili blade from the Obixx, he pursues it until he can stow away and begin searching the ship for his blade. He succeeds, in part because his exhaustion has made his wraith is so overt he seems one of the crew; by this time he’s become almost more fish than man under the wraith’s influence. When pirates destroy the ship, he surrenders to despair, becoming a fish and losing himself in the sea. But in a nicely foreshadowed turn of events, once he becomes Lost, he’s inevitably found by the Obixx and returned to its temple. The Obixx has his ghili blade again, but also the onik shell that contains the voices of his wife and son, and dangles that shell before him so it can dash whatever remains of his hope. When Dah’nok reaches for the shell, the Obixx pins his hand to the floor with his own blade—but in so doing, restores Dah’nok’s stored ghili. His newfound strength lets him vanquish his wraith, but also leads him to attack the Obixx and wound (perhaps mortally) its own dark wraith. As the magic that holds the temple together fades under the Obixx’s anguish, Dah’nok flees, the temple collapsing around him and flinging him into the sea, where he’s rescued by the other Selestrii and taken home. When Dah’nok wakes, he is himself again, but Suriah sees that his wraith remains, and stabs him with his ghili blade to drive it forth; Dah’nok then (mostly) kills it. It’s no coincidence they do this together, when neither would have succeeded alone.

    There are a few small glitches in the story. First, the density of fascinating new things borders on too high. It’s not that Corradi overdoes it, but rather that the story would be a bit offputting to an inexperience SF reader; experienced readers will plow right through it, enjoying the rich texture and waiting for everything to fit together and become clear (which it does in a very satisfying way). Second, it’s not clear why Dah’nok feels the one Phalantian ship he comes across is the one that took his ghili blade. It seems unlikely there’d be only one trade ship, but more unlikely that Dah’nok would fail to sense the blade’s presence or absence with his ghili; like calls to like, and given that he can sense distant fish beneath the ocean’s surface, this seems an inconsistency. Third, it’s not clear how the water witch (previously described as irrevocably tied to her wrecked ship and unable to leave) could come to Suriah and the Selestrii and warn them that Dah’nok needs their help. (Here, I assume that the witch’s situation is not as simple as it might seem on the surface; there are clear hints that she’s a more benign spirit than her legend might suggest.) Lastly, the destruction of the Temple of the Obixx struck me as too Hollywood for the rest of the story, and not in keeping with the rest of the tone.

    Nitpicking aside, there are fascinating parallels between the Selestrii and life of the sea that provides their living. The sea shares the Selestrii nature of tireless endurance, wearing away even the hardest rock with its obdurate patience, not to mention Dah’nok’s restless nature. Yet despite his dreams of a greater destiny, Dah’nok is humbled by his experiences, and finds a way to abandon dreams of glory that his mediocre ghili can never sustain, and to content himself with the gifts he does have (his family foremost among them). While remaining a fisherman at the end, he devotes the rest of his life to hunting and killing the wraiths that periodically slip into his community. Though it seems all of his ghili has been returned to him, by implication leaving his sword a mundane blade, he still uses it to defeat other wraiths. It’s a telling point: the true magic of a hero lies within, not in the tools the hero uses to accomplish their ends; indeed, Corradi makes this explicit with the closing message, that you cannot choose the gifts nature has given you, but that you can choose how you use them.

    The language of the story is restrained but rich and heartfelt without ever being manipulative, with many striking images and a deep-felt sense of the importance of the human relationships at the heart of Dah’nok’s story. The Selestrii are fascinatingly human and three-dimensional; they possess many virtues, endurance being only one, but are no saints; they are prey to all the weaknesses of the human heart, and though downtrodden, they are not immune to human pettiness (e.g., adultery, spousal and child abuse, dreaming rather than working to secure their future). The world is equally rich, with portals between dimensions, ghostly wraiths, a caste system that may be based on genetics or something more interesting, the struggle to escape the destiny imposed by one’s caste, and the mystery of the Seelee. It’s the kind of world that could easily sustain a novel, not to mention a great many short stories, and I hope we’ll get to see both kinds of exploration of this world. One of the strongest and most memorable F&SF stories in recent memory.

    Posted 8 years ago #

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