Monthly Archives: June 2016
It’s strange how sometimes, in your searches for some kind of information or another, you stumble on something else entirely, and make an amazing discovery.
I was looking for a quote from GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, one that I was trying to recall word for word, a quote about books and reading (for the record, it’s this one: A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one) but among the search results I also saw a link to a quote about fantasy, a fascinating insight into this writer’s mind.
It’s taken from THE FACES OF FANTASY, by Patti Perret, containing photos of more than a hundred speculative fiction writers, taken in moments of work or leisure. Each picture is accompanied by the thoughts of each portrayed person, a peek into the minds of authors like Neil Gaiman, Mercedes Lackey, Robert Jordan, Ursula Le Guin, and many others. Including George R.R. Martin – and here is what he wrote:
“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real… for a moment at least… that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.”
Dreaming does not mean escaping (to mis-quote another giant like JRR Tolkien), because dreaming means to open your mind and look beyond any barrier, mental or otherwise.
This is the kind of find that makes my day a little special…
It saddens me to acknowledge that this will quite likely be the last installment in Ms. Kowal’s Glamourists series: I have thoroughly enjoyed these books, that have kept improving both in storylines and characterization, and been delighted by this world that for me has always represented a restful break whenever I was in dire need of something that was both soothing and thoughtfully entertaining. On the one hand I understand the author’s need to… close the curtain while her readers are still engaged – far better to leave them wanting than to face “story fatigue” – but on the other I know I will miss these characters and their fascinating world. Hopefully, Ms. Kowal will present us soon with some new, intriguing story….
We left Jane and Vincent after the harrowing adventures in Venice and find them ensconced in Vienna with the rest of their family, enjoying a well-earned rest and some peace. Unfortunately that peace is broken by the announcement of Vincent’s father’s death and the need to travel to Antigua, where Lord Verbury had taken residence, to put the estate’s affairs in order. Given Lord Verbury’s quite unpleasant disposition (as we saw in Without a Summer) and the past physical and psychological abuse toward Vincent, due to lack of acceptance of the latter’s skills as a glamourist, this voyage is fraught with distress and the reappearance of too many old ghosts, to the point that Vincent and Jane plan on a very quick visit and an equally speedy return to a normal life. The couple’s arrival at the estate, however, puts them in contact with many unexpected problems (including a momentous revelation) that seem to conspire against their original plans, so the two are forced to deal with a situation that becomes increasingly difficult – both on the practical and on the emotional side.
What Jane and Vincent face, besides their personal problems, is a situation quite unfamiliar to people living in England: in Antigua slavery is the accepted norm, so they find themselves dealing with a reality for which they are not prepared. Here is where Ms. Kowal’s narrative skills come to the fore, because it would have been all too easy to fall into preaching mode and denounce the evils of slavery from the “podium” offered by the story: instead she presents the facts in their stark reality, leaving any comment to the reader’s sensibilities. And to Jane and Vincent’s sensibilities, as well, even though these are far from perfect: confronted with the injustice of it all, they are of course appalled at experiencing firsthand some situations they were only intellectually aware of, and still they fall prey to some faux pas stemming not from callousness but from their own times’ mental makeup. For example, while they are horrified at the treatment received by the slaves, still they struggle to think about them as equals: when Jane starts collecting data for a comparative book on glamour and enrolls the skilled Nkiruka to help her, she’s baffled at first when the older woman expresses resentment at not receiving credit (or compensation) for her shared knowledge. A true daughter of her times, Jane needs to witness Nkiruka’s anger to realize that “nowhere in the structure of her book had she allotted space to acknowledge that half the ideas were not hers”.
After all, this is the same Jane who did not look favorably on her sister’s suitor for the simple reason that this earnest and noble-hearted young man was an Irish Catholic, and therefore the object of the era’s generalized suspicion and scorn. These lapses serve both as a commentary on the period’s mores and as a humanizing factor for our main characters: if they had simply been depicted as the “good guys” landing in the midst of injustice and striving to erase it, they would have been more caricatures than anything else, while their honest mistakes and the changes operated through trial and error, or the frustration Jane and Vincent suffer when they can’t act as freely as they would like, give this whole sub-plot a patina of reality that would have otherwise been absent. What’s more important is that while their presence manages to effect some changes, we are not shown a total upheaval of the general situation and are made aware that the road is still a long and difficult one: again, baby steps are far more credible than a giant leap.
Another important facet of this story is the almost scientific approach to glamour, the magic permeating the alternate-Regency era in which the novels are set: until now, all that we knew was that gifted individuals are able to reach into a different dimension (here called “ether”) to grasp magic and shape it into optical illusions. Here we learn that there are many different ways to reach into the ether and to work it, and that it’s not just a matter of terminology – as Jane discovers in her dealings with Nkiruka, through the difficulties in finding a common lexicon – but also of point of view and culture. The British way of working glamour suffers somehow from a more rigid mindset, a strict adherence to rules that appears to stifle a glamourist’s creativity, while the Antiguan way (derived from the various African cultures from which the slaves originate) is far more carefree and therefore appears more effective and far-reaching. I like to believe there is a sort of unspoken commentary here…
This would not be a complete review if I did not mention Jane and Vincent’s continuing journey as a married couple, of course: once more their relationship is put through a test of endurance, not through day-to-day hardships as it happened during their Venice adventure, but from Vincent’s confrontation with his old ghosts and the still-seething cauldron of emotions concerning his dealings with his father. Here we see the roots of Vincent’s brooding darkness, of the way his character was shaped by Lord Verbury’s viciousness and cruelty, and how the older man’s ruthless manipulation can be far-reaching, even beyond the confines of the grave. In the face of it all, Jane and Vincent’s bond shines in increased strength, the deep sense of trust they share and the mutual understanding that goes even beyond the need for words. All of the above is expressed without frills or overly romantic manifestations and for this reason it comes across as authentic and unaffected: here lies, in my opinion, the success of this series – the representation of a marriage that is also a partnership founded in shared work and shared emotions. Quite modern and at the same time firmly rooted in the chosen time period, with a successful, effortless blend that few can truly manage.
As I said, I will miss it all….
I received this book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
Historical fantasy is quickly becoming one of my favorite genres: on one side, the mix between established history and fantastic elements creates a unique blend that enhances both components, while on the other, curiosity about any given time period compels me to search for further information and therefore to enrich my knowledge base. No one could ask more from a book, besides its intrinsic entertainment value…
Masks and Shadows focuses on the Hapsburg Empire at the end of the 18th Century, blending fictional characters with historical figures like Prince Nikolaus Ezsterhazy and Empress Marie Therese, and flowing into a lively, fast-paced narrative whose momentum is carried by continuous changes in point of view, handled with such dexterity that they are never confusing or distracting. Mirroring the operatic plays that figure quite extensively in the course of the story, this huge cast acts indeed like a well-rehearsed production, staging a sequence of conspiracies, revelations, plots-within-plots and romantic entanglements worth of the best composer – and it’s no coincidence that Franz Joseph Haydn figures prominently here as a sort of connecting link between all of these elements.
At Ezterhaza, Prince Nikolaus’ Versailles-like summer residence, the crowd of distinguished guests is joined by Carlo Morelli, Europe’s most famous castrato singer, by a renowned alchemist and a would-be writer suspected of being a spy: the stage is set from the very early pages for a story where mystery, magic and secrets abound, and where danger and conspiracies lurk under the gilded patina of wealth and power. At the palace another main character is already in residence: Charlotte von Steinbeck, widowed sister of Sophie, the Prince’s mistress.
No two people could be more different than these sisters: Sophie is quickly shown as an airhead who revels in her station as a powerful man’s mistress, a selfish and vain creature who doesn’t care about the people or sensibilities she tramples on, as long as she can keep enjoying her exalted status. Charlotte, on the other hand, is nothing but dutiful and obedient: just as she submitted to her marriage to an ailing man old enough to be her grandfather, so now she submits to her sister’s whims, even justifying them as her duty. She embodies all that is proper and respectable, and does not seem to struggle under the weight of so many obligations: at first I felt some irritation at her attitude, no matter how properly it fit the time’s mores, because Charlotte felt so totally passive. But little by little I started to understand how she had been molded into that shape by her enclosed – and enclosing – world: only by getting out of her secluded existence she starts to realize there is more to life, that the boundaries of her world need not be so constricting. It’s not a thunderclap revelation, since Charlotte comes into this new awareness in small increments, and still feeling guilty for what she perceives as stealing some space of her own, but she ultimately gets there, and following that progress is both enjoyable and satisfying.
One of the major contributions to Charlotte’s awakening is that of Carlo Morelli: since their first meeting it looks like a given that they will become close, but the author played this development with a light, almost shy hand, thus avoiding to make the relationship look like a tired trope. What drives them together, more than anything else, is the unexpressed feeling of being outsiders: Carlo because of his nature, one that makes him both a sought-after guest and a gossip-worthy freak (there is an enlightening conversation between Sophie and Charlotte, where the former wonders if they should really refer to the singer as a ‘he’, since he lacks the so-called manly attributes); and Charlotte because in such “exalted” company of jaded and spoiled aristocrats devoid of depth, her cultural sensibilities make her stand out like a sore thumb. Music – and there is a great deal of it, both played and discussed – is the vehicle through which Charlotte starts to feel and express her newfound need for freedom, and music is what brings her closer to Carlo.
What I most approved in Charlotte’s journey, and what I applaud the author for, is that the relationship with Carlo Morelli is only a means for the young widow’s breaking of her chains, but not the end. The moment when Charlotte understands she wants more is not tied to her feelings for the singer, but to a dramatic circumstance in which she realizes that life is far too short to be wasted, and that she has not lived enough, experienced enough. That she will choose to travel that path with him is a consequence of that understanding, but not the main reason – and this is surprisingly and delightfully modern. Carlo’s changes somewhat mirror Charlotte’s, since it’s from exposure to her plain demeanor that he understands how tired he is of the cruel hypocrisy of the aristocratic world: in a way they transform each other, again belying the one-way direction of such events that’s typical of less original writing.
The novel’s cast of secondary players is rich, embracing the whole spectrum of characters from good to bad, from exploiters to victims, with a few honorable mentions as Prince Nikolaus’ wife – forced to bear her husband’s blatant infidelity with all the grace and dignity of a true lady – or Anna, Charlotte’s maid who is fortuitously launched into a bright career as a singer; and yet there is another important character I want to spend a few words about, and it’s music: the descriptions of music – be it played with instruments or sung – is always quite inspired and contributes to create the rich tapestry of this story. As a lover of classical music, I was aware of Franz Joseph Haydn’s existence and yet never listened to any of his works, so that when I did, spurred by this novel, I discovered a great number of compositions that are both pleasant and uplifting, just like the personality of the man described in Masks and Shadows. As a tribute to him, I’m adding a link to one of his pieces, in the hope of sharing this discovery with everyone who will read this.
My only criticism toward Masks and Shadows comes from the feeling that this fascinating historical period is not explored enough: while I’m aware that the brief mentions contained in the story can compel readers to search for more information (as I did), still I feel that a few more details would have added depth to the background and that some of the characters and their motivations would have been clearer. The author probably wanted to avoid any danger of long exposition, and that’s to be commended, but I can’t shake the feeling she erred on the side of caution… This said, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and would love to read more along these same lines.