BOOK REVIEW: The Indigo Pheasant by Daniel A. Rabuzzi. Visionary feminist fantasy.

The Indigo Pheasant (Longing for Yount #2)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.

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REVIEW: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. Manifest Destiny as a literal demonic force.

The Half-Made WorldThe Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a famous painting by John Gast called American Progress in which a giant white woman garbed in gossamer leads American settlers Westward into an ominous, uncreated world. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilman didn’t have that very picture as a screensaver when he penned his New Weird Western novel, The Half-Made World. The ominous, bleak tone of this work also brings to my mind a song by the gothic/worldbeat Dead Can Dance, a song called “Frontier.” DCD’s female lead singer is known for her ideoglossia—Lisa Gerrard, like Elizabeth Fraser and Jonsi of Sigur Ros sing in private languages on the phoneme-level. On this song, however, she sings one recognizable phrase: “I see the bloodstains on the floor.” Or, I think that’s what she’s singing. I bring this up, because this novel is about the bloodstained mythic past.

The plot of the novel has been explained by others—or you can read the cover flap copy. The Half-Made World is chase and quest novel, complete with a MacGuffin. On this level, it is suspenseful and has the juggernaut-like pacing of both cinematic and literary Westerns. But it is the world-building and more importantly, the trope-twisting that is truly fascinating.

Gilman presents the West as a literally uncreated landscape, where creatures and plants are in their experimental or “beta” phase. Land and sea haven’t resolved themselves as separate entities. This part of world is stewarded by the First Folk, who may or may not be human or may or may not be immortal. They are described as long, pale black-maned people with red eyes and seem to live in a kind of amorphous Dreamtime existence. (The First Folk seem more modeled on Aborigines than on Native Americans—and even here, there is a interesting trope-twist). The settled West presided over by two rival faction demonic Spirits. Controlled by sentient Engines, The Line wants to colonize the West and turn it into a grim industrial land. (The current, real-world issue of fracking resonates here). The Gun is an anarchistic organization, who seem to worship chaos and destruction. They possess their Agents and almost become symbionts with them. (The spirit-symbionts live in their Agents’ supernaturally powered Guns; unhoused Gun spirits return to a Lodge—which reminds one of the creepy otherworld lodges referenced in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series).

In fact, the whole novel has the dark surreality of a Lynchian film. It puts the phantasmagoria into fantasy. It’s a rare novel that manages to be both high-low and pulpy at the same time.

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BOOK RECOMMENDATION: The Castings Trilogy by Pamela Freeman. Grim-Dark meets Social Justice Allegory

The Castings Trilogy (Castings, #1-3)The Castings Trilogy by Pamela Freeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this omnibus novel last week. The writing is at times lyrical and the characters are solid–I could see them outside of the plot. Many readers have complained about the shifting POVs–in addition to the three main characters, Freeman adds first person vignettes from superfluous characters. Frankly, I loved that about the book.
!.) It makes the 11 Domains seem like a real world because she focuses on really mundane characters;
2.) Those tales really do come together in the end, as a wondrous tapestry of pain and catharsis and story telling.

The Castings Trilogy subverts many fantasy tropes. The reluctant Chosen One doesn’t have a whole lot power or agency in her world–she’s not really magical. The Big Bad has a legitimate beef, mainly, the ethnic caste system in his world. And the male lead isn’t a hidden prince. The kingdom is a group of Balkanized nations rather than a united kingdom. And the history of ethnic cleansing and oppression isn’t clear-cut; its complicated.

The magic system has a sense of wonder–ghosts, elemental spirits, necromancy and fortune-telling–but it’s also organically built and consistent.

The Castings Trilogy is a unique take on the Grim-Dark epic fantasy that adds a dash of social justice as a subtext.

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The 2010 Carl Brandon Society Awards Announced

The Carl Brandon Society, an organization that seeks to increase ethnic and racial diversity in Speculative Fiction, announced the 2010 Awards.

Karen Lord won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award for an outstanding work of speculative fiction by a writer of color. Nnedi Okorafor won the Carl Brandon Kindred Award for an outstanding work of speculative fiction dealing with race and ethnicity.

I read both of them two years ago and loved them both, for very different reasons. Digging through my notes, I unearthed mini-reviews of both of them.

A charming retold Sengalese folktale, very lighthearted and magical.  A whiff of Tutu0la, a sprinkle of Okri, a dash of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, told in a witty, wise storytellers voice.  Tricksters and magic and morality tales abound in this colorful story.

I really wanted to enjoy this book–but I couldn’t. And perhaps that was the point. Okorafor uses the trappings of fantasy–a young sorceress, her training, a prophetic quest–to discuss dark subject matters, particularly, the matter of sub-Saharan Africa. So it’s an oddly compelling mash-up of Chinua Achebe and a J.K. Rowling coming of age novel. Issues, like weaponized rape, genocide, slavery, color-caste racism, genital mutilation, and sexism exist along side casual magic (shape-shifting, teleportation, and other dimensions). The characters do go through hell, but the author does manage to inject warmth and humor into the tale. While the first person narrative is engaging, the reader (or this reader) noticed that the text was in conversation with other texts, both literary and political. It made for a richer read, but I fear that other readers might miss the significance and be left in the dark. In short, this is not escapist fantasy literature, though the magic here will transport you to another world. Allegory enrobes this story.

Who Fears Death reminds one of The Unconquered Country, by Geoff Ryman and Ben Okri’s tales of Azarro the Spirit Child. This is a brave book, full of some horrific images.

Congratulations to both authors!

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