Laurie J. Marks
ISBN: 0-88677-578-7 Order from: Amazon.com
A remarkable novel of desolation and hope, from an unusual point of view in an original fantasy setting, told with somewhat too understated a passion.
Reviewed by David on February 27, 1999 (rev. 2)
Genre: Fantasy (Riverboats)
Synopsis: The country of Faerd has experienced bitterness in full measure. Seven years ago, King Anselm disappeared, amid suspicion of foul play. A year later, a plague swept the country and its neighbors, depopulating villages and towns, leaving them with listless survivors. Now, several bad winters have weakened the devastated people even further, and bad harvests and weather-disrupted commerce place Faerd on the brink of mass starvation.
On a farm in the north of the country, a lonely woman, known by her ancestral name of Ash, embarks on a painful journey to bring back the remains of her brother and his children, her last relatives, rumored dead in the plague. In the once hopeful city called Fortune, the city now filled with ghosts, plague survivors and despair, the stories of Ash, a traveling toymaker Macy, and a gifted river pilot Rys will tangle. This tangle may change the fate of Faerd, and tip the fragile balance of a handful of human lives further towards despair or back towards hope.
Full Review: Years ago, Rys knew Ash by another name, a name that was inspired fear and hope in two countries. But she knew Ash as much more than a figure of power, and lost Ash first to political struggle, and then to bloody repression. As Ash finds that Kaz, one of her nephews, may have survived, Rys faces the hope and fear that the love of her youth may still be alive. A significant point of the novel is the fear of hope: after being hurt so much, chosing joy is hard when the fear of new loss is so crippling.
Marks is remarkable in her use of desolation, reminiscent of Patricia McKillip's fantasy. The first part of the novel makes it almost palpable: the cold weather, the stunned apathy of the plague survivors amid the abandoned houses, the grim journey of Ash haunted by her memories. There is also the grief and guilt of a Queen facing the hunger of her people with the empty treasury and no food.
This is also a very feminist book, although skillfully avoiding stridency that makes the feminism of Tepper or Elgin so unattractive. Instead of bashing men, Marks instead concentrates on women. The men in the novel are either in supporting roles, or, in some cases, are less evil than inconvenient and ultimately irrelevant.
As in her other novels, Marks uses unconventional sexual patterns. However, instead of using humanoid aliens as in The Moonbane Mage, Dancing Jack uses normal people, the unusual mores both more accessible and more compelling. The world of Faerd and its neighbors routinely accepts homosexual and (small-scale) polyamorous families. The former, and possibly future love of Ash and Rys, is both touching and convincing.
It is quite refreshing to see a fantasy world that does not follow conventions. The world seems monarchist until one finds that Faerd has undergone a quiet revolution which resulted in a type of constitutional monarchy. The large, Mississippi-type river, that brings both the lifeblood of commerce and the peril of flooding, supports a thriving steam shipping industry.
There are also convential tropes of fantasy turned on their head: the rightful king, deprived of his position for years by dreadful sorcery; the friend of the crown, falsely accused so his property can be confiscated; the kind young man, in love and full of magic, struggling with his power and parental authority. Which of these is the hero? Marks manages reversals of conventional roles as smoothly and quietly as her feminist slant.
The magic plays a vital but understated role. It is also unusual and pleasant to see the world from the point of view of the mysterious witch(es) instead of the young, eager heroes. Ash and her companions are the ones with wisdom, and a young couple of interesting but secondary characters are full of passion and bewilderment. It is pleasant to share a point of view with the powerful, if emotionally scarred woman, who instead of receiving enigmatic advice or deadly curses, instead dispenses them. In fact, this clarity of thought, if not purpose, is what makes the viewpoint so satisfying.
This is a fantasy without conventional dark villains: every character, honorable and otherwise, has reasonable motivations, qualities and flaws. The struggle turns out less against evil forces than against the guilt and fear of loss that come with action.
The resolution overcomes the desolation of the beginning of the book. In fact, in a somewhat rare example, in a typically understated fashion it reveals the awesome power of Ash of Ashland, and uses the true attribute of fantasy—things can be better than in the real world, and rules can be broken.
The only flaw of this remarkable book is that it is too subtle in portraying emotion. While eschewing the much more common sin of purple prose, the plot instills a bit too little sense of wonder, fear, passion. Like the clockwork mechanism of eponymous toys, the plot weaves different threads together with admirable skill but perceptible lack of spontaneity.
Altogether, this is an excellent novel, full of shadow, courage and hope. Read it.
Overall: 6.5; Plot: 6; Characters: 6.5; Style: 6; World-building: 7; Originality: 7;
Copyright date 1993, Donald A. Wollheim (DAW), November 1993, Mass market paperback, 253 pages
ISBN: 0-88677-578-7 Order from: Amazon.com