Review: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler

April 29, 2016

FledglingA young girl awakens in a cave, blind, aware only of pain and the need for fresh meat, fresh blood. As her sight returns and she begins to heal, she also begins to discover her own nature, that beneath the exterior of a prepubescent child lies a 53-year-old predator. In the absence of any memories of who she is, how her kind function, or what damaged her so badly and caused her amnesia, she has to begin to piece together a new identity and find her way back to her own kind.

I don’t usually enjoy amnesia plots very much. Going into Fledgling, I expected I’d be impatiently awaiting the resolution of the memory loss and the beginning of the ‘real’ story. It was to my surprise that Shori’s amnesia was actually my favourite part of the book. Butler does a really great job with the slow emergence of self from an animalistic state, the hints of recognition in the unfamiliar that never quite pay off, the discomfort of encountering people who knew and maybe loved who you were before and knowing that you have to disappoint them with your inability to be that person right now, and maybe ever again. I also appreciated the fact that she really committed to that aspect of the story and didn’t bring in some magical mojo to fix it, which is an unfortunate cliche that must surely be even more tempting in a story where the sort-of-supernatural could be used to explain things away.

Shori’s initial explorations of self take place within a relationship that is on some levels deeply repellant to read about, and it’s an interesting way to bring home the otherness of what she is. On the surface, you have a ‘child’ who looks to be about ten or eleven years of age entering into an intimate relationship with a grown man, which if the child were human would be a despicable thing. When the child is actually a decades-old blood-drinking inhuman in a childlike shell, actually older than the man she’s involved with, that changes the dynamic considerably… But then we find out that despite her age in human terms, Shori is a child by her people’s standards, and I’m back to feeling ambiguous and icked out by the whole thing.

It’s not the only way in which the book messes with issues of consent, either, and again, that’s one of its most interesting layers. Shori’s kind enter into symbiotic relationships with humans, rather than existing off of them solely as parasites, and the humans do get a really good deal out of it, including great health and incredible longevity. But it comes with a price, part of which is that the symbionts, once bonded, can never leave, and can never really disobey. It’s a compulsion built into the blood. When that relationship is entered into with informed consent on the symbiont’s side, maybe that’s fine and dandy — but when the vampire creating this relationship doesn’t remember that fact about herself until it’s almost too late, until the choice she’s offering you to flee is barely still a choice at all, it’s pretty damn awful, in my view. I think it’s some very good character work on Butler’s part that I went back and forth between being horrified by Wright, and horrified for him.

Shori’s narrative has a kind of formal and detached tone to it, which keeps the reader at arm’s length, but it worked for me because I dislike reading about vampires who all sound like disaffected 21st century hipsters. I enjoy vampire stories in which the vampires have, to some degree, an alien mindset, and one of the best ways to capture that feeling is with their use of language.

It was after the midway point where things started to fall apart. I was expecting it to remain more of a character study, but when the murder mystery takes centre stage, a lot of the good character work falls by the wayside. I was interested in delving deeper into what it was like for the symbionts who weren’t offered informed consent before entering into the symbiosis. I was interested in a deeper exploration of the racial component to the story, in Shori’s identity as a woman of colour since it was set up to play a pivotal role in why she and those around her were targeted, but that component ended up being very surface-level: It basically just amounts to ‘Yes, vampires can be racist too’. I wasn’t expecting social commentary on the level of Kindred, but when I know what Butler can do, it seemed like a wasted opportunity.

But we don’t get those things. Instead we get a vampiric episode of Law & Order, in which the proceedings are about as repetitious and dull as most courts where the defendants don’t have fangs. It seems an odd thing to say about a story whose issues include too much repetition, but I think it would have benefitted from being a longer book. The need for the court case to be the denouement, thereby forcing it to take the spotlight, would have been eliminated if we had gone beyond it to see Shori’s challenges in setting up a new community with no eldermothers to guide her path.

Perhaps another part of the issue is that the closure we get isn’t really for Shori or her story, it’s for the lives of people we never met and that the main character doesn’t remember. It’s hard to feel passionate about an aspect of the story in which the protagonist we’ve come to care for is sidelined by ghosts.

From that midway point on the pacing just isn’t there, and it’s the main reason why, despite Butler’s lovely writing and the fascinating premise, I can only say that I liked it, not that I loved it.

3 stars

Review: The Complete Lyonesse, by Jack Vance

April 27, 2016

The Complete LyonesseThe Lyonesse trilogy shares a commonality with The Lord of the Rings in that it forms one novel which is commonly divided into three to its detriment. It’s a book that is much greater than the sum of its parts; when taken into consideration as a whole, its interweaving of Celtic-inspired legendry, Grimm- and Perrault-style didactic fairytales, and feudal politicking makes for a defining work of fantasy.

The story begins with Suldrun, the young daughter of King Casmir of Lyonesse and his Queen, Sollace. There is no love lost between Suldrun and her parents, who wished for a boy of more robust character, and as with so many young women of her time, to her family she is primarily of use to cement an alliance in marriage. She rejects her fate, though, and is sentenced to live out her days confined in her garden, a peaceful, neglected part of the castle grounds that leads down to the sea, until she comes to her senses. Or, as it happens, until the lost prince of an enemy nation washes up onto her garden’s lonely shore.

Suldrun’s story is a gentle first step into a wider world in which she ultimately plays little part, so although the star-crossed lovers plot is rather tedious, it paves the way. From there the narrative expands into three main layers. At its simplest, you have the adventures of one or two isolated characters, like the children Dhrun and Glyneth, or later Glyneth’s time in Tanjecterly; these stories feel the most traditionally fairytale-like, with the world itself the primary threat as each new hamlet or spot of wilderness unveils some new strangeness. The middle layer is the political, with the Elder Isles forming a large game of chess between Casmir and Aillas, and it’s here that Lyonesse feels most connected to the real world and the narrative to that of a typical epic fantasy. The final layer belongs to the wizards, who operate on a mythological scale, and the prohibition of their Merlin-like lead figure prevents the scale of their power from diminishing the importance of the other conflicts, while subtle breaches of that ban keep their machinations connected to the other threads of the story. And it’s on this layer that the trilogy derives its sense of the melancholy, because they serve as a reminder of the futility of these other struggles. Lyonesse will pass into legend, will eventually be remembered only as an echo in the stories of the Round Table or the sinking of Atlantis.

These are difficult characters to connect to at times, because they aren’t really creatures of multiple dimensions. They are very archetypal, relatable for what they represent rather than for who they are. Perhaps the most compelling as people are the wizards, for their fascinating practice of splitting aspects of their own personalities off into separate individuals, their scions, so that they might live and operate on multiple levels. I would have liked to spend more time exploring the relationship between some of the wizards and their scions, but it’s an understandable choice on the author’s part to avoid doing so, since it would likely have diminished the mystique of people whose narrative power is, after all, sometimes most effective by their absence.

If sometimes the one-note characters render the story a little flat, it’s easily compensated for by Vance’s droll humour, which is in fine form throughout. It’s not the kind of humour where I stop to read side-splitting passages aloud to my family, but rather the kind that so subtly permeates the page that it grows larger in hindsight. His language is arch and lovely, but I expect he remains undervalued as a comedian, certainly in this work.

Initially I was a little disappointed with the transition from The Green Pearl, the second part of the trilogy, to the third, Madouc, as the middle book is very political, whereas the setup of the third is so reminiscent of Suldrun’s Garden as to seem a step backwards. By the end of the book, I’d revised my estimation: While the pacing is frustrating to deal with, it’s an incredibly fitting full-circle ending, as Madouc gets to be what Suldrun never was: Capable of her own self-rescue. In that respect, it’s not a repetition, but an evolution.

I heartily recommend The Complete Lyonesse to fantasy lovers, with the caveat that reading the three volumes back to back is as essential for proper appreciation as it is with The Lord of the Rings. The black book all-in-one edition of the trilogy by Gollancz makes for a lovely way to appreciate this work, albeit a wrist-breakingly heavy one.

4 stars

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