Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Steven Savile's "The Black Chalice"

I have a theory that all fiction is pastiche. However, sometimes pastiche is the intended goal rather than the psychological underpinning of a writer's choice of subject matter. In that regard, intentional pastiche, as genre, is a literary work that imitates a renowned artist's oeuvre and includes a number of motifs copied from the original work in such a way as to give the impression of being a newly discovered original by that artist.

With that definition firmly in mind, Steven Savile's new novel for Abaddon Books, The Black Chalice, is most definitely pastiche. In fact the entire new series, Malory's Knights of Albion, purports to be the lost work of Sir Thomas Malory, the second volume as it were, and thereby gains its impetus and energy from the idea of pastiche. In this case, the pastiche is not satire (as many are) but a device to honor Malory and to create a modern version of Malory's themes in the secular age through the use of horror and fantasy memes. In other words, although the novel maintains a unified tone and fidelity to the Arthurian romance it imitates, it does so, while utilizing anachronisms of modernism. What this means is that, although the novel appears to be a rendering of the Arthurian romance, it is really a very modern horror tale. However, if we move away from the literary concept of pastiche, which is interesting in itself, the real question is: does the novel work as an independent work, irrespective of its connection to the original text; the answer, in this case, is a resounding yes. Savile has once against proven his ability to write a psychologically sound horror tale that operates successfully on all levels: he maintains a unity of tone throughout; he uses a single point of view, which adds suspense to the novel (did these fantastic things really happen to Alymere or were they the result of a diseased mind); the pacing is precise; and the unique elements of horror logically flow from the factual context of the novel and the age in which it is set.

The novel begins with an introduction that states that this manuscript was found in a Church vestry in 2006 and that it appears to be Malory's The Second Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. The Black Chalice, the first story of the text to be modernized, concerns a young man named, Alymere, who like many characters in Malory, is on his way to Camelot to pledge his loyalty to the King. We soon discover that Alymere is angry at his uncle who he believes usurped his father's lands and, in effect, disinherited him. Along the road, Alymere meets Sir Bors de Ganis, one of the first of Alymere's "father" figures, who escorts the young man to Camelot. Once there Alymere meets Arthur who fails to embrace him instantly; maturation, training, and discipline come first. What becomes apparent early in the novel is that, because this is a third-person limited point of view, we see only Alymere's impressions and hear only his explanations. It becomes quite obvious that he is not entirely reliable and at the time morally challenged. Arthur sends Alymere home under the charge of his uncle Sir Lowick, who agrees to oversee his training. Two years later, reivers from the North attack, seeking the Black Chalice, and Alymere and his uncle sally off to engage them in combat. At this point, Alymere leaves the road and discovers the world of faerie where he foolishly pledges loyalty to the crow maiden.

Many times throughout the novel Alymere is required to choose and each time he chooses the wrong path(or, at least, that is what popular mores would say); however, his choices lead him ultimately to his fate and the salvation of the kingdom and the king. This formula is very close to that used by Malory and furthers the successful completion of the pastiche.

The Black Chalice is a finely-wrought Gothic novel that adheres to the standards of Malory's tales, while at the same time satisfying a modern reader's expectations and sensibilities. I whole-heartedly recommend it. And if you are interested in pastiche as a rhetorical device, I refer you to my review of Andy Remic's Kell's Legend http://redrookreview.blogspot.com/2009/11/andy-remics-of-pastiche-in-kells-legend.html.

Finally, I want to once again throw out a plug for Abaddon Books. They are tremendously hard for me to find in Dallas and I have had to resort to Amazon. But each one I've read has been well-written, well-edited, and beautifully designed. Pye Parr drew the evocative cover of The Black Chalice, as well as one of my favorite covers from last year: The Black Hand Gang. For more on Abaddon see my reviews of novels by Rebecca Levine and Pat Kelleher.

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