Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Several years ago, Terri Windling began to commission fantasy authors to re-examine some of the classic fairy tales and present them in a more modern setting. The resultant books have dealt with Jack and the Beanstalk (Charles de Lint, Jack, the Giant Killer, 1987), Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" (Kara Dalkey, The Nightingale, 1988), Sleeping Beauty (Jane Yolen, Briar Rose, 1992) and others. The first book in the sequence was Steven Brust's retelling of an Hungarian folk tale which is probably less well known than the later stories in the sequence, The Sun, the Moon and the Stars.
Brust's book is actually several works in one. The Hungarian folktale, a story of an artist collective who's narrator, Greg Kovaks mirrors the fairy tale's Csucskári, and Kovaks's philosophizing about art and the process of creation. As a whole, the novel is not a complete story, more a slice of life piece. Although the novel has a beginning, with Greg starting work on a new painting, none of the obstacles which spring up in his professional and personal life are really resolved, they are only surmounted.
What The Sun, the Moon and the Stars really seems to be is a character study of Greg Kovaks. The character comes across as someone who has pretensions and delusions that he is a better artist than he really is. He looks at the other artists in his studio and views them either as geniuses (Dan) or poseurs (Karen). When their visions of art differ from his own, he fails to try to understand what they are trying to do, instead attempting to bend their impressions into his own world view. He comes across more as a shallow person who is trying to do something he is only marginally good at, rather than an artist with any hope of succeeding.
The plot which Brust includes is a story about whether the five artists in the studio should put on a show or whether they should turn their backs on the work they've been doing for three years. Their relationships are breaking down and the desire to put on a show leads them into the need for cash. Kovaks seems to be at the center of all the disagreements which are erupting in the studio, whether it is because he views Karen's paintings as cliché, Dan's paintings as selling out to the establishment, or Robert's pen-and-inks as redundant.
When Brust as Kovaks lecture the reader on artistic technique, he comes across as having some knowledge of the topic, if not how to apply it when he is facing a canvas. He has a tendency to dismiss the work of artists he is not particularly fond of while praising the talents of artists he enjoys. Only on rare occasions does Kovaks admit that art can be worthwhile if it doesn't fit within his own narrow definitions. Art is oil and acrylic. Watercolors and pen-and-ink are merely vehicles which permit someone to eventually work their way up to real art.
Interwoven into the plot and the periodic lectures is the tale of Csucskári, an Hungarian taltos who promises the king that he will place the sun, the moon and the stars in the heavens so they will no longer live in darkness. His adventures seem fairly typical exaggerations and as he overcomes each opponent, he finds he faces another opponent. These obstacles that Csucskári faces while attempting to accomplish his task are mirrors of the problems Kovaks faces in his attempts to work through the problems of his studio and his painting, "The Death of Uranus."
While the plot is, at best, tenuous, The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, presents a strong, if unreliable, character as its narrator. Despite the questions about his artistic ability, or perhaps because of them, Kovaks spends much of the novel questioning his own creative urges and examining the creative process. The same process he looks at from an artistic point of view applies equally to any other creative endeavor and the reader can imagine Brust going through the same sort of creative angst when he examines his own writing or composing, which is the real strength of The Sun, the Moon and the Stars.