Slipped, fell and ordered books over the internet again
, good lord, my sense of financial balance is as ungainly as the real one - elbows, knees, credit card, all bent, bont and splugged. However! New Robin McKinley, new Neil Gaiman, there went last night. Tepper 0, Potter 0, Literary Self-Indulgence 10. I'm unrepentant.
Robin McKinley is in some ways a guilty pleasure for me: some of her fairy-tale rewrites I find professionally interesting, but my response to her books is always a bit patchy. I will, for example, re-read Beauty
more or less annually, when tired or depressed, because it's lovely; Deerskin
is quite a challenging revision of a fundamentally dodgy fairy tale; and my devotion to Sunshine
is unending (intelligent vampire-dominated world-building! and a heroine who cooks). But The Blue Sword
, while compelling, is unashamed Mills&Boon, and her later work, including Spindle's End
and Rose Daughter
is starting to feel repetitive, a bit shapeless and not entirely successful.Chalice
, the new one, has a fascinating setting, a medieval society in which a feudal structure overlays a profound, magical connection to the land which expresses itself both through the bloodline of the landowner and through the circle of land-linked functionaries who support him. Mirasol, the new Chalice to a troubled demesne, is an extremely sympathetic character, pitchforked into vital and unfamiliar duties through tragedy and need; again professionally, I'm a sucker for magical land-connection as a metaphor for power and control. She's also a bee-keeper, and I loved the bee-keeping detail and the resonance between its logic and that of the land itself. But the weird land-owner himself is a bit too much, too alien and distant to be empathised with, and the story's conclusion somehow too pat. Worst of all, though, I wish
McKinley wouldn't descend into measured, formalised interchanges between her main characters, which lay out motivations and plot details in great, chunky, over-emotional paragraphs. I think she's going for a sort of archaic, heightened tone, but I really don't think it works. The Graveyard Book
, on the other hand, is unalloyed delight. Gaiman is a sneaky, sneaky man: here, as much as in Sandman
, American Gods
or Anansi Boys
his mythologies sidle up to you nonchalantly, ramifying casually off the edges of the text in a way that feels naturalised and inevitable. This works because they're powerful, coherent and understated, offering a slow pleasure in gradually apprehending the system in which his characters, alive and dead, function. His theme is death, naturally enough, but it's handled with particular power in the relocation of death's intrinsic concerns away from the actual dead: in the end, death is revealed in its stark truth as being about loss, separation and, in a strange way, maturity - simply coming to terms with life and living.
A lot has been made of the book's debt to Kipling's Jungle Book
, but I think it's an understated homage, mostly found in the idea of growing up as different and thus alone, however supportive the alien culture - animals, the dead - which sustains you. The book's episodic structure is effective, bound as it is by the solid integrity both of his mythology and of his narrative vision, and, as usual with Gaiman, is nicely balanced between the chilling, the amusing and the emotionally real. I love the mix of times and tones in the dead characters, and the apparently random and unexplained intrusions of mythological figures. Also, bonus points for a seriously threatening villain, etiquette details across about five centuries, and occasional nightgaunts. Every nice novel needs a nightgaunt. I've always thought they got unnecessarily bad press.
In other news, Vienna Teng
. Apart from the lovely voice and groovy piano, her name's fun to say.