14 July 2005

Ms Wildthyme and Mr Carnelian (and others)

I've now finished both Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time and --by dint of dedication and extensive train commuting -- Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Dancers was exceedingly good. It pulls off the remarkably difficult trick, endemic to far-future narratives which take their futures seriously, of making the characters sympathetic and human whilst still showing them so changed by time that many aspects of their characters are alien to us. (Other books which manage it well are Brian Aldiss' Hothouse and Bruce Sterling's not-that-far-in-the-future-actually Schismatrix) There's much about the inhabitants of Moorcock's End of Time which is unfamiliar, from their easy and direct control over matter to their disturbing indifference in the face of oncoming catastrophe; and yet their naivete, their joie-de-vivre and their eclectic inventiveness makes them seem richly, warmly human -- particularly, of course, in the case of the protagonist, Jherek Carnelian.

Even more impressively, Moorcock uses this setting and protagonist as the basis for a love story which is both convincing and touching, with its own pains and setbacks and, eventually, joys -- despite the fact that one of the characters involved is a native of the End of Time and the other (the magnificently characterised Mrs Amelia Underwood) a strait-laced Victorian, two mindsets which are equally alien to his readers. (I suspect that this works in part because Jherek and Amelia represent two contrary sets of impulses, towards licentiousness and self-denial, which are implicit in various concentrations in everybody.)

My only reservation is that I rather wish I'd read the three volumes (An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs,) separately, rather than as a collected edition: the unvarying tone and relative lack of incident (until around the middle of the third volume, when the world ends suddenly) did start to get a little wearing after a while. It is, of course, a remarkable accomplishment to portray a decadent society motivated largely by ennui without provoking just such an emotion in the reader, but I don't think the single-volume publication serves the material well in that respect.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell I was less impressed by, overall. There were some lovely ideas in it, including interesting demonstrations of the methodology of magic, the underplayed alternative-history angle (whereby Northern England was ruled by a faerie-changeling king from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries) and (although the deployment of period language was a bit hit-and-miss) the rather well-done Regency setting.

The story itself, perhaps because of its conscious indebtedness to fairy-tale and folklore, was very simple, which makes it a slightly odd decision to have written the book at such considerable length -- it might have been better suited to the smaller size of (for instance) Neil Gaiman's Stardust than to its 782 pages. This makes the majority of the (actually very full) narrative seem like an accumulation of largely disconnected episodes, although the characters and places about which they cluster do come together rather perfunctorily towards the end.

The style, too, is simple, although with some gorgeous turns of phrase. I think I would have preferred a more consistent attempt to recreate the language of the era (Clarke largely confines herself to occasional orthographical oddities like "surprize" and "chuse"), but that's perhaps just me. It was a pretty good book, but I'm not sure it warrants the glowing praise it's been receiving.

Just after I disembarked from the train on which I'd finally finished Strange & Norrell, wondering what I should read next, I came home to find my copy of Mags L. Halliday's Warring States sitting on the floor by the letter-box. Just as excitingly, there are now reports of subscribers actually receiving Wildthyme on Top. Both of these (assuming Wildthyme gets to me soon) bump everything on this list from the next-reading spot.

So... just one chapter into Warring States so far, but the vivid description of an era and culture (1900s China) which is only nebulously familiar to me is already looking very good.

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