From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Before I take you gallivanting off to visit a trio of marvelously imagined otherworlds, let's drop in on a packed conference hall in Hamburg, Germany, in the 21st century. At a conference of writers, scholars, and lovers of the fantastic in the arts earlier this fall*, my colleague the novelist and critic Brian Stableford offered the term "heterocosmic creativity," as a big tent that might contain the wide-ranging topics that were on tap that day: Utopias, vampires, and alternate histories; Star Trek, Percy Jackson, Lord of the Rings; Paul Auster, Max Ernst, Lady Murasaki.
Where once this set of literary interests might have been the province of only a dedicated sub-group, connoisseurs of the unreal, it seems undeniable that the fantastic flourishes today as never before. The bestseller lists and the box-office receipts testify to the dominance and popularity of heterocosmic creativity in all its guises, the more fantastical the better. In fact, that type of heterocosmic literature known as science fiction, whose signature trick was always to blend naturalism with the speculatively outré, has declined in popularity over the years in the face of pure fantasy, which frequently turns its back completely on science, rationality, logic, and plausibility.
But despite the current outpouring of heterocosmic creativity -- or maybe because of it! -- fantastic literature, like any human endeavor, finds itself still manifesting Sturgeon's Law, which famously mandates that "Ninety percent of everything is crud." In a disposable welter of sexy werewolves, enigmatic elves, and juvenile wizards, the truly original and finely crafted work often gets lost.
Here, then, are three recent novels, embedded firmly in the mainstream of commercial fantasy, that nonetheless stand out above the flood.
Galen Beckett, author of the beguiling and charming The House on Durrow Street and its predecessor, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, is in reality a writer named Mark Anthony, with six prior books to his legal name. I must confess that my glancing encounters with his early work left me uninspired, as they seemed generic high fantasy. So the name change and relaunch -- often a strategy to deal with disappointing sales and unfair audience perceptions -- was probably a necessary and good thing, catching readers like myself with our prejudices down. But of course, the tactic would have been worthless without a substantial novel or three behind it, and those goods Beckett provides in spades.
The two books so far in this series (with a third, The Master of Heathcrest Hall, due to round out the sequence), fall squarely under the category of "fantasies of manners." This mode, emphasizing the loaded, coded behavior of exotic societies in the manner of a Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer novel, received its biggest boost a few years ago from Susanna Clarke's bestselling novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, although talented practitioners such as Caroline Stevermer had flourished earlier.
Beckett's winning conceit is that the demure politeness and witty banter and rigid matrix of social conventions prevalent in his pre-technological land of Altania really conceal a subterranean power struggle that is positively Lovecraftian. Beyond the frayed curtain of mundane existence, a race of hideous elder beings known as the Ashen are striving to return to the human world, aided by their mortal pawns. The only barrier to their triumph and the destruction of mankind are witches such as our heroine, Lady Ivy Quent, her bold and stalwart husband Alasdare, and good magicians such as Lord Rafferdy. But can Ivy Quent focus entirely on cosmic matters? Hardly, what with two younger sisters to marry off, a father in a madhouse, and a decrepit old domicile to rehab.
Success in such a mode of fantasy relies on walking a tightrope perfectly. On the one hand, the social interplay must ring true, and captivate the reader. On the other hand, the weird elements must exert their own attraction and potency. Too much cozy can spoil the grotesque, and vice versa. But Beckett maintains a perfect balance. The strivings and snubs and conquests of the parlor and tavern and palace -- love affairs, dinner parties, debts, games of status -- never overshadow the otherworldly perils -- the enigmatic figures in black, the looming new red star in the heavens, the titular house with its carved living eyes. Nor does the occult huggermugger detract from the quotidian. They supplement each other nicely: terror hidden beneath crinoline skirts.
Patricia McKillip is approaching the fortieth anniversary of her first novel, and she just keeps getting better and better. Little prone to repeating herself, she nevertheless has fashioned a body of work that exhibits an overarching consistency and uniformity of tone and approach. Her novels have the force of primal fairy tales akin to those collected by Grimm or Andersen, with a modern sensibility that never becomes intrusive. She exhibits the same delicacy and deftness and connectedness to the Ur-storytellers as did Lord Dunsany. To borrow Dunsany's famous phrase, she is joyfully at play "beyond the fields we know."
Curiously enough, as if casting a ruminative look backward at her own long career, McKillip's latest -- The Bards of Bone Plain -- deals explicitly with the storytelling urge, finding much to say about why and how we tell tales, and where they fit into any healthy culture. Yet there is no smidgen of preachiness or boasting at work in her lovely narrative.
Phelan Cle, about to graduate from his studies as a Master Bard, is unfortunately saddled with a drunken father, who is a starry-eyed antiquarian, and also with a bit of uncertainty about his career and future. Phelan finds all his problems assuming starker magnitude with the arrival of a mysterious foreign bard named Kelda, who seems determined to upset the calmness and hierarchy at Phelan's school.
But this tale is not Phelan's alone, as McKillip populates her canvas with a host of engaging characters, with my favorite being Princess Beatrice, who, sharing the love of antiquity exhibited by Cle senior, has "spent her life in holes," being most at home after "fleeing out the nearest door of the castle after she had pulled on her dungarees and boots." If I tell you that Beatrice's mother is named, perfectly, "Queen Harriet," you will see the kind of expert characterization and off-kilter humor that McKillip delights in.
Every other chapter in the novel takes place in the deep past of Phelan's world, following the career of the seminal Bard named Nairn whose biographical details have been darkened for Phelan and his contemporaries by the passage of centuries. Eventually, in a surprising and clever move, the tail of the past is bitten by the jaws of the future, making a beautiful circle of events, thematically and plotwise.
McKillip knows and shows the rigors and challenges, traps and rewards of the creative life. By establishing a dialogue between the "purer" past of her world and its oh-so-slightly overcivilized present, McKillip speaks to our own era's ultra-commodification of storytelling, and, in one of the signature moves of good fantasy, highlights a path toward reinvigoration of that which has grown stale.
A tomboy princess, the tension between a storied past and a troubled present, and the angst that accompanies finding one's place in the world also crop up in Robin McKinley's new book, Pegasus, but in a fashion decidedly different from the same set of tropes in The Bards of Bone Plain. Whereas McKillip is writing sophisticated, modern-day kindermärchen, McKinley is turning out something much closer, at its core, to science fiction, the fantasy-tinged kind pioneered by Andre Norton in such classics as The Beast Master and Witch World. Despite its Neverland setting, McKinley's novel might well have been placed on a human-colonized alien planet, and in fact blends the world-building of Poul Anderson with the anthropological explorations of Michael Bishop in such works as "Death and Designation Among the Asadi," all under the capacious fantasy canopy. And of course, Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels will also come immediately to mind.
Princess Sylviianel -- Sylvi for short -- is the fourth child and only daughter of the rulers of a human kingdom whose aboriginal allies are pegasi: winged horses. But not the classic Greek icons. Here's a description of them:
Pegasi looked almost like four-legged birds, standing next to horses. Their necks were longer and their bodies shorter in comparison, their ribs tremendously widesprung for lung space and their shoulders broad for wing muscles, but tapering away behind to almost nothing; their bellies tucked up like sighthounds', although there were deep lines of muscles on their hindquarters. Their legs seemed as slender as grass stems, and the place where the head met the neck was so delicate a child's hands could ring it…
Definitely alien, a bit creepy, and almost insectile. Not your off-the-shelf wish-fulfillment cousins to unicorns. It's a tribute to McKinley's powers of depiction and characterization that she makes the reader experience Sylvi's unique bond with these exotic creatures. The girl -- twelve years old at story's start, sixteen later on -- is the first person to be able to converse via a fluid telepathy with these sentients, starting with her specially bonded partner, Ebon. (One gets the sense almost that Sylvi is a mutant, the first of her kind in eight centuries, another SF riff.) Sylvi's unprecedented connection with the pegasi leads to a paradigm shift in the culture, in which she assumes her true destiny.
McKinley is explicit that her tale is a parable of race relations. (Did I mention that Ebon is a rare black pegasus?) The magician Fthoom objects to Sylvi's powers: "'The two races are too dissimilar; any attempt to draw them together can only do injury -- the incomprehension between our two peoples is a warning we ignore at our peril.'" Unconventionally, however, McKinley portrays neither humans nor pegasi as oppressors or oppressed, but as equals in unfamiliarity and cloisteredness. No shame or guilt or anger encumbers their relationship, only ignorance and lack of outreach. It's a refreshing change from the imperialist Avatar template.
Another subtext that is acknowledged glancingly, but is just as vital, is that of Sylvi's adolescent sexual awakening -- and interracial sexual awakening at that. Substitute lovemaking terms for flying terms in the passage below, and the import is apparent.
Would it be so terrible if we were found out? If it was known that we went flying together? But she remained silent because she knew the answer: Yes, because it was forbidden. Yes because if they tried to claim that they had not been expressly forbidden to go flying together it would mean they were irresponsible children. And yes because everything about the unprecedented strangeness of their relationship was risky, because some people were frightened by strangeness.
Quite a weighty freight for what purports to be a simple YA fantasy. But illustrative of just how much real substance true heterocosmic creativity can contain, when cliché and imitation are left behind.
* The conference in question was the German Conference on the Fantastic, held in September of this year at the University of Hamburg and masterminded by Professor Lars Schmeink. It was the inaugural affair of the newly founded Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung, or GFF, and was inspired by the long-running International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.