The Indigo Pheasant by Daniel A. Rabuzzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Indigo Pheasant is the second and final volume of the visionary fantasy Longing for Yount sequence. It’s a very different book than the preceding volume, mostly because it much more an alternate or ‘hidden’ history novel than the relatively straight forward portal fantasy of The Choir Boats. The book takes place in the London of 1817, and concerns the aftermath of the trip to the otherworldly Yount. The main narrative thrust concerns the building of a new ‘choir boat,’ the titular Indigo Pheasant.
It’s a whirling kaleidoscopic narrative, that includes excerpts of letters and other documents, in addition to more traditional third-person exposition. In this way, the work alludes to 18-Century narrative tropes. First, the bad news: it doesn’t always come together and there are significant pacing issues. Several subplots pop up that are given the short shift. It’s a mash-up of several types of fiction at once. Romantic melodrama, financial woes, and metaphysical dark fantasy all vie for attention. It’s overstuffed, multilayered and confusing. Mood whiplash abounds, as it moves from a romantically tragic, Thomas Hardy-like subplot (think Tess of the D’ubervilles) to a postcolonial revisionist treatise on the treatment of women and minorities (think A.S. Byatt or John Fowles) to a pseudo-religious allegory, a la C.S. Lewis. It’s an ambitious, high-wire act of a novel.
The ex-charwoman Maggie is the novel’s focal point; she’s an African-American mathematical genius who finds her way in the fold of the McDoon family, the stars of the previous novel. She is, in fact, a distant relative. Maggie is a headstrong woman who faces her problems head-on, whether they be racism, sexism or facing the Big Bad—the fallen angel Strix. Whenever Maggie is ‘onscreen,’ the novel comes alive. The same goes for the appearance of Strix, who shape-changes into a demonic owl. The fallen angel, in the way of most incarnations of the Devil, gets the best lines. At one point, he says to Maggie:
“No one has heard of you, except in a backhanded way; they view you (to the extent they see you at all) as a freak, a ‘Calibanna’ who has learned a few tricks for the parlour.”
Unfortunately, the adventures of the rest of the McDoon, particularly the heroine Sally, tend to be overshadowed. Sally, who was stronger in The Choir Boats, becomes mired in tragedy, and becomes a second fiddle to Maggie, as do the rest of the rather large cast.
Rabuzzi’s language is evocative, but at times, overwhelms with its erudition and gives way to full-on purple passages:
“Luminescent shadows piled—oozed—into Sally’s attic-room. Grey dimmed to rust- and umber-mottled colors of the cricket’s carapace, with an under-tint of jade, forming and reforming in the corners of the chamber.”
This kind of exalted, high style language works during the scenes of sorcery, which are chilling. Elsewhere, it is overly fussy and stalls the narrative pace. This is a book for word-lovers; Rabuzzi seasons his sentences with swarms of underused and obscure words. But to other readers, the word choice becomes confusing and over-decorous.
At its best, The Indigo Pheasant and the Longing for Yount sequence is one of the most original fantasies in recent years. The magic system–based on mathematics and music theory, is a marvel of an invention. The feminist subtext is infused throughout, from the ‘real’ world scenes to the trippy Gnostic/ Blakean cosmology that under grids the narrative.