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"O'Leary's voice rarely wavers as he again displays his mastery of fantasy and social motifs, weaving familiar themes into a heartwarming, enchanting story."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A complex and moving meditation on the nature of storytelling. . . . Utterly unlike Door Number Three in style and substance, the new book acheives the same high level of accomplishment. It is beautifully written, elegantly structured, and highly perceptive in its observations about the importance of imagination."--San Francisco Chronicle
"O'leary has his own gift with prose: teh words flow with the natural lilt and lift of a storyteller's voice of old, of true tales told around a camfire, or in a great hall at the end of the evening, when the feasting is done....The Gift turns out to be just as wonderful a reading experience as was the author's first novel."—The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
This is a story about monsters.
The real ones. Not the ones we tell children about.
The Captain at the helm and the little Teller in the bow watched the sailors one by one leave their hammocks below, and admitting the impossibility of sleep, make their groggy way up to the deck where they stood restlessly together in groups of two or three, looking warily out over the sheer water as smooth as any mirror and as black as the pitch that sealed their hull. The full moon cast the only light in that windless night, a comfortless light that made the shadows darker and all their faces white as the body they had pulled up in their nets that afternoon.
No one spoke of it then or now. She was beautiful, or had been. Beautiful and blonde and not a stitch on her. No blood either. No marks or cuts or clues. That would have been enough -- more than enough, even if her sagging belly hadn't born the purple stripes of a recent child.
Once they had untangled her from their nets, everyone stood around the body waiting for someone to suggest what to do. Strangely, none of the sailors asked where she had come from. In fact, they acted as if none of them had ever seen a woman before. Some would not look at her. Some could not look away. Some thought of their wives. Some thought of their daughters. Some, of their mothers.
Finally, the Captain, a tall hard man with a white beard and one hand, instructed them to tie something to its feet and toss it back. There was a prolonged search for something expendable and weighty enough to do the deed. Theirs was a modest vessel, sparsely supplied and fit only for small trips to stock the fishmarkets on the rocky coast; a three-day journey out and back, barring storms, was the usual. In truth, there wasn't really much debris, or comfort for that matter, to be found onboard. But eventually one mate discovered in a forward hold an old anchor net of rocks that had rotted out of use. Reluctantly they lashed it to her ankles and dragged her to the edge. Her hair left a wet mop smear on the scale-laden boards of the deck and it was still there, twelve hours later, splitting their boat in two with a black stream that reflected the stars. The men stepped over it.
There was no more fishing that day. No one felt like talking or eating. And they had all retired early, leaving only the Captain on watch and the Teller in the bow of the boat to continue their silent feud. Anyone who spent any time on deck knew there was something of a grudge between the little man in the bow and the old man at the helm. They never showed each other their backs. They regarded the opposite across the wooden planks and double holds as if at any time the other might produce a knife and throw it. None could say what this unspoken spite was about, unless of course they were family -- which, frankly, did not seem likely. They might have been playing the childhood game of shadow, daring each other to be the first to move, to blink, to buckle. What were they on about anyway?
As far as they could tell, the Teller had been decent enough company. Though, it was true, judging by his silence over the last two days you'd be hard pressed to find any evidence of his calling. He'd staked out his place there up front when they'd taken him on in Sotton's Bay and he rarely strayed from it. A little bald man with a scarred mouth who wrapped his body in a thick gray cloak that piled about him as he squatted in the bow, so that it seemed to those who glanced his way that he consisted entirely of a head resting on a small mountain of cloth, like a white cherry on a pudding. Yet, occasionally a pale hand crept out of the folds of the gray mountain to pull it tauter; then, on his pinky finger they'd see the silver ring the King had gifted him, which granted him free lodging anywhere and free passage on any boat he chose. And perhaps explained the Captain's begrudging. He was not, in their experience, a generous man. So who could blame him if he felt he was being freeloaded? After all, the custom was that every night the Teller would tell a story. Though not strictly required, it was considered a courtesy that most Tellers were obliged to perform. Two nights and not a peep out of him. Some thought: A Teller who doesn't tell is hiding something -- a guilty secret perhaps?
But no one had asked for a story that night, not after her.
Then as they settled in their hammocks and blew out their oil wicks, the songs began. Oh, such songs. Most sailors have been told the tale, but few have actually heard the music of the Mer: the ladies who lived beneath the waves, who sang keening wordless melodies that echoed off the hull. Only a dead man could have slept through that sound. And the only silence and refuge was above decks, above the water, above that hideous wail. So they stood on the main deck looking out at the flat salt sea (they did not know it was an ocean then), waiting for it to stop.
Their silent vigil was broken by a ruckus on the stairs. Nib, the Go-Boy, burst through the hatch, tripped, and landed on his face. "What is it? What is it?" he cried.
The Captain's laughter gave the crew a much needed excuse to jest.
One cracked, "It's your momma calling you home, lad!"
Another shouted, "It's a she-demon calling us all!"
Then it became a sport.
"It's a dead whore's song!"
"It's a dragon giving birth!"
"It's the hungry beast of dark water and she likes boys best!"
They all chuckled as the boy's head swiveled to and fro, fearing and believing each revelation more than the last.
Such teasing was not an infrequent occurrence. The sailors all were Mouthers: they couldn't read anything without pictures. Little wonder then that they resented the Go-Boy. "The Captain's Right Hand," they called him (out of his earshot, of course). The man was almost superstitious about his signature: he never put his name on paper, never signed for anything: inventory logs, port tallies, slip taxes, even their payroll -- once he learned the boy could scribble he had delegated all such tasks to Nib.
Perhaps they thought he was paid extra for these services. He was not.
The sailors' laughter snagged when a voice from the bow cut through the night, a small whisper of a voice with nothing like a joke in it, but with the power of a nightmare, a voice that'd make you sit bolt up in bed.
"It is the Song of Mother Death," the Teller said, only his white face visible in the shadow of the bow, like the face of the moon on the water. "Has no one told you the story?"
Sometimes, as the sailors looked at the Teller, they got the uneasy feeling that somehow he was inside of them, looking out through their eyes. The Teller stood then, and all the sailors watched as he motioned the Go-Boy, Nib, to his side.
"It is a fearful tale," he said solemnly. His eyes glided across the men until they rested on the Captain, who stood above them at the helm. "But I see you have a taste for such. It is a coward's appetite: to take pleasure in someone else's fear." His body indicated the Go-Boy without any gesture. "It's one of those dark gifts we learn as children. Many never outgrow it."
A snort came down from the Captain, and he stroked the yellow jewel lodged in his ear. "I have a crew of children," he said in that voice that made all the sailors still until he had finished. "They've never seen Leviathan."
After a moment the Teller retook his audience by saying, "Your captain knows a secret. But that does not mean he knows a truth. That's what Tellers are for."
Then he looked up at the moon and let his grey cloak fall to a black pool at his feet. It was the Telling Stance, which marked the Telling Time, and no one but a King dare interrupt. He was a slight man, no taller than a boy, whose body was marked by a tangle of white scars that clung to his hands, arms, legs, and face, as if once he had been wrapped in the web of a giant spider.
The wizard Tatoan was the last of the great race who fell out of the sky, he began. When Tatoan knew his time was dwindling and soon he would die, he flew to the White Moon Mountains, to the tunnels that twisted through them like a brood of sleeping serpents, to the home of the Watermen.
There he lay down for the last time: a thin white man floating in a shallow pool of green, surrounded by the creatures whom his brother wizards had spelled from simple frogs into something that could master chants and tongues and magic.
"My dear friends" he whispered hoarsely. "Do you recall what I have taught you? That every fire can light or burn? And any pool may quench or drown?"
The Watermen were silent. It was one of their first lessons.
"Everything must have a gift and a price. We wizards once were spirit. But we longed to be human. What was the price we paid?"
"Death," the Watermen replied.
"And the gift we gave?"
"Yes. You know it well. Now, listen. I have stepped Between and I have seen a dark time yet to be. A someday when a man may try to take death from this world. And he may succeed. If he does, everything will spoil. The water, the wind the earth -- everything.
"Should all this come to pass, a strange one will be born: a Guardian. The only one who can stop this spoiling. The only one who can bring back the gift of dying. The one you will call Mother Death.
"I have spelled it so. And it has taken all my power."
He closed his eyes, and the tiny creatures watched his eyeballs roaming under pale lids and heard his breath like a cloth being ripped inside his chest.
"Do you see, my friends, that there is no other way? Death is the price. Magic is the gift."
Silence in the caves of the Watermen.
"I have one last thing to teach you all. It is a song. You must sing it over and over until it has found a place in you. You must sing it every day. And you must teach it to every creature of the water, for it is their song, too. Will you do that for me?"
All the Watermen consented.
And as the wizard sang, a great wind filled their home. And in its arms it carried both the last breath of Tatoan and his last song. It echoed off the twisting cavern walls: a simple four-note melody that rose and fell, rose and fell, like breakers at the base of cliffs, waves looking for a rest they'd never find on any shore. A grieving song. The song of creatures who once had the gift of magic but have lost it forever. The Song of Mother Death.
For a time no one on the deck said anything. Then the Go-Boy, Nib, thinking there was something wrong, laid a hand upon the small man's arm and met him eye to eye. "Is that all, Teller?"
The man came out of his daze, looked at the boy and smiling sadly, said, "No. That's just a beginning."
And then, on that sleepless night under the moon, he told them the rest.
From the book THE GIFT. Copyright ©1997 by Patrick O'Leary. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission with Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
Posted June 17, 2013
Posted March 22, 2003
Posted December 13, 2002
I appsolutly loved this book. It is truly a gift to those people who really love it. The darkness in the stroy was really unique compared to books such as the "Lord of the Rings," and "Harry Potter," who are among my favorites. Also the way the author draws you in and makes you feel the pians of each charactor as if you were them or the person next to them. Tomen was an excellent charactor to this story. He seemes so mysterious and I was very anxious to learn about him as the story went on. But over all I highly reccomend this book to those who love an adventure in a fantisy world where darkness or evil try's to rule the world.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 28, 2000
The gift manifests all of the elements of a good book. O'Leary does a tremendous job of creating characters that you will love, and keeps the story rolling all through the end. Although its plot does not encompass a heart racing thrill, it is a richly weaved search for truth and magic. I would recommend this to anyone who seeks a clever and original tale about monsters. *wink*Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 21, 2009
No text was provided for this review.